The Police Chief, the Professional Voice of Law Enforcement
Advanced Search
September 2016HomeSite MapContact UsFAQsSubscribe/Renew/UpdateIACP

Current Issue
Search Archives
Web-Only Articles
About Police Chief
Law Enforcement Jobs
buyers Your Oppinion

Back to Archives | Back to November 2009 Contents 

Adult Learning: Similarities in Training Methods and Recruits Learning Characteristics

By Dr. Eric P. Werth, Curriculum Program Coordinator, Idaho Peace Officer Standards and Training, Meridian, Idaho

nstigating change can be difficult, particularly in fields such as policing that are steeped in tradition and that possess a strong culture. Education is the key to the change process, and adult learning holds the potential to solve two problems—teaching the changing police duties to the changing characteristic of today’s police recruitment pool.

The challenges and responsibilities facing today’s police officers are serving and protecting an ever-changing society. Police agencies and their personnel must be able to assess community needs, recognize potential dangers, and respond both quickly and appropriately at all times. Training is indispensable.

The internal transformations the policing field is experiencing complicate working in this fluid environment. Community-focused policing; technology enhancements used by the police, citizens, and criminals; and the generational shift in police recruits promise a dramatic and long-lasting impact on the policing profession. These changes will present a problem for those who depend on only the traditional training methods to prepare officers for work in the field. However, adopting adult-learning principles into police training may answer these challenges.

The Future Training Paradigm

Much has been written regarding the police focus shift from reactive law enforcement to proactive problem solving and crime prevention. When done within a community-policing framework, problem solving requires police-citizen partnerships. Therefore, the key to community policing is building relationships between officers and citizens within the community.

In traditional training environments, the primary focus of instruction normally lies in teaching the mechanical aspects of police work. Instructors emphasize topics such as emergency driving, shooting, arrest techniques, and state and federal law. Often overlooked in traditional training environments are human relation, communication, conflict resolution, problem-solving approaches, and decision-making skills—the skills that are vital to officers working in community policing.1

This imbalance exists even though research has shown that most of an officer’s time is spent resolving personal and interpersonal conflict, not engaging in SWAT team maneuvers. The disconnect between police training and police officer duties highlights why training has not been able to keep pace with professional practice.2

The Next Generation of Officers

Although assigning generation labels to people based solely on their birth year is stereotypical, it can be a useful tool for making general statements about the likely characteristics that exist in a group of individuals. While different years are used in literature as the breakpoint between generations, there are three distinct generations currently employed within police departments—the Baby Boomers (born 1943–1960); the Generation Xers (born 1961–1981); and the Millennials—also known as Generation Y, Nexters, the Net Generation, and Gamers (born 1982–2002).3

Currently, those associated with Generation X make up the greatest number of officers employed by police agencies. Individuals who are part of the Millennial Generation, however, are entering the workforce in ever greater numbers and will be the majority of police recruits hired in the next decade.

Numerous articles have been written describing the differences between the Millennial generation and previous generations. Some of their common conclusions follow:

  • A casual attitude towards employers

  • A propensity to challenge rules

  • An expectation of instant gratification

  • The desire for a fun, flexible work environment where coworkers are friends4

Millennials have also been characterized as team-oriented, cooperative, and technology-savvy individuals who want a job with good benefits, a competitive salary, the opportunity to grow, and diversity in assigned projects.5 These differences have been described as a challenge to both police administrators and trainers.6

Common Source, Common Solution

At first glance community policing and the generational shift in police recruits seem unrelated—except for posing a challenge to police instructors. However, both transformations share a common source: societal change. This common origin provides a unique opportunity to address both challenges at the same time. Integrating tech-savvy community-policing strategies and the Millennials into the workforce requires a significant shift in the policing culture. This type of change requires training and education that resonate with the trainees and help them build the skills they need to succeed on the job. With adult-learning techniques in officer training programs, both can be achieved.

Many papers have been written advocating for implementing adult-learning principles (andragogy) in police training. 7 Training using andragological approaches helps students build the skills needed to succeed in community policing, such as problem solving, critical thinking, decision-making, interpersonal communication, and verbal de-escalation, which are often overlooked in traditional training methods.

Andragogy helps students become empowered, develop into self-directed learners, build collaboration skills, and use available resources to find solutions to real-world problems. These skills are the ones needed for officers working under a community-policing model, but are not often developed in training.8

The instructional methods used in adult learning stem from observations made by Malcolm Knowles who coined the term “andragogy” to differentiate adult learning from “pedagogy” (teaching children). He made five main assumptions about learners as they mature:

  1. They become increasingly more self-directed.

  2. They accumulate experience useful as a learning resource.

  3. Their motivation to learn becomes more job-oriented.

  4. They expect education material to have an immediate application.

  5. Their readiness to learn becomes oriented to the developmental tasks of their social roles.9

Those who train adults should make the learning climate one where adults feel at ease, allow the students to be involved in self-diagnosing their own learning needs, and involve the students in planning their learning activities. Knowles also states that adult educators should help students evaluate their learning by using the adult learners experience; emphasize the practical application of class material; have students participate in group work; and design curriculum organized by problem areas instead of subjects, since adults are more problem-centered.10

In practice, andragogy de-emphasizes lecture in favor of self-directed, student-centered, active learning where the instructor serves as a facilitator instead of a teacher. For example, students may be presented with a problem requiring them to gather resources, work together as a team in a small group, and use both experience and new knowledge during the problem-solving process. Such instructional methods have been advocated for preparing recruits for community-policing duties.11

The recent surge in literature related to teaching practices for Millennials may be because educators have come to recognize the challenges that arise in training environments where instructors come from one generation and students from another.12 This is often the case in police training where instructors are normally Baby Boomers or Generation Xers, while every year a greater percentage of students are Millennials.

While some instructors appear to believe that teachers can dictate how students learn, rather than changing their own method to meet learners’ needs,13 Millennials’ characteristics influence the way they learn and need to be addressed when training programs are designed.

Instructional Methodology Meeting Today’s Need

Today’s police recruits—the Millennials—have been described as having the following characteristics:

  • Being unresponsive to lecture

  • Expecting to control their own learning

  • Appreciating team work

  • Desiring experiential and engaging activities

  • Learning from a variety of sources

  • Not wanting to learn anything they don’t view as having immediate use14

Instructional techniques suggested for use with Millennial learners include the following:

  • Use active and engaging learning activities

  • Integrate everyday technology into the classroom

  • Minimize lecture

  • Encourage nonlinear thinking

  • Use mentorship as a way to bridge generation gaps

  • Use group discussions and collaborative groups

  • Show students the immediate application of skills

  • Use a variety of sources for building knowledge

  • Teach students how to reflect on their learning15

Training designed for the needs of Millennial learners is, in fact, adult learning. Teaching adults and teaching Millennials both call for using active and engaging learning activities rather than lecture, using small groups, and demonstrating how the material applies to real-world situations. It also fosters nonlinear thinking, using multiple sources to build knowledge and having students reflect on their own learning.

Police officers’ duties are more complicated today and will continue to be more complicated in the future than they have been at any point in the past. In addition to maintaining social order though law enforcement, officers today are expected to build community relationships, think proactively, work with the public to identify problems, and use available resources in a complex problem-solving process. The changing role of police organizations in society from agencies of law enforcement to community partners and advocates requires officers with new skills and the development of training programs to build these competencies.

Complicating this situation is the influx of recruits belonging to a different generation, one that has different skills, different expectations, and different needs than its predecessors.

Police agencies have begun to use adult-learning techniques as a way to develop officers equipped with both the physical and mental tools needed to succeed in policing today. Agencies adopting adult learning are also preparing their training programs for the wave of the next generation of recruits. ■


1Michael L. Birzer, “Police Training in the 21st Century,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin 68, no. 7 (July 1999): 16-19, (accessed October 9, 2009).
2David Bradford and Joan E. Pynes, “Police Academy Training: Why Hasn’t It Kept up with Practice?” Police Quarterly 2, no. 3 (1999): 283–301.
3James P. Henchey, “Ready or Not, Here They Come: The Millennial Generation Enters the Workforce,” The Police Chief 72, no. 9 (September 2005): 108–118, (accessed June 30, 2008).
4Susan Grant, “Babysitter or Employer? Hiring Generation Y and the New ‘Millennials,’” (2008), (accessed October 9, 2009).
5Francis L. McCafferty, “The Challenge of Selecting Tomorrow’s Police Officers from Generations X and Y,” The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law 31, no. 1 (2003): 78–88, (accessed October 9, 2009).
6Grant, “Babysitter or Employer?”; Henchey, “Ready or Not”; and McCafferty, “The Problems of Selecting Tomorrow’s Police Officers.”
7See for example, Steven Pitts, Ronald W. Glensor, and Kenneth J. Peak, “The Police Training Officer (PTO) Program: A Contemporary Approach to Postacademy Recruit Training,” The Police Chief 74, no. 8 (August 2009): 114–121, (accessed October 9, 2009); and Gerard Cleveland, “Using Problem-Based Learning in Police Training,” The Police Chief 73, no. 11 (November 2006): 29–37, (accessed October 9, 2008).
8Birzer, “Police Training in the 21st Century”; and Mark R. McCoy, “Teaching Style and the Application of Adult Learning Principles by Police Instructors,” Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies and Management 29, no. 1 (2006): 77–91.
9Malcolm S. Knowles, Elwood F. Holton III, and Richard A. Swanson, The Adult Learner: The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development, 5th ed. (Houston, Texas: Gulf Pub. Co., 1998), 3–5.
10Malcolm S. Knowles, The Modern Practice of Adult Education: From Pedagogy to Andragogy, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: Association Press 1980).
11See for example, Birzer, “Police Training in the 21st Century”; Bradford and Pynes, “Police Academy Training”; and McCoy, “Teaching Style and the Application of Adult Learning Principles.”
12Diane J. Skiba and Amy J. Barton, “Adapting Your Teaching to Accommodate the Net Generation of Learners,” The Online Journal of Issues in Nursing 11, no. 2 (May 31, 2006), (accessed October 9, 2009).
13Scott Carlson, “The Net Generation Goes to College,” The Chronicle of Higher Education 52, no. 7 (October 2005): 34–37.
15Ibid.; Angela P. McGlynn, Teaching Millennials, Our Newest Cultural Cohort,” The Education Digest 71, no. 4 (December 2005): 12-16; Joyce P. Murray, “Nursing: The Next Generation,” Nursing Education Perspectives 25, no. 3 (May 2004): 106; Skiba and Barton, “Adapting Your Teaching”; Diane Skiba, “The Millennials: Have They Arrived at Your School of Nursing?” Nursing Education Perspectives 25, no. 6 (November 2005): 370–371; and Don Tapscott, “Educating the Net Generation,” Education Leadership 56, no.5 (February 1999): 6–11.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXVI, no. 11, November 2009. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

The official publication of the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
The online version of the Police Chief Magazine is possible through a grant from the IACP Foundation. To learn more about the IACP Foundation, click here.

All contents Copyright © 2003 - International Association of Chiefs of Police. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright and Trademark Notice | Member and Non-Member Supplied Information | Links Policy

44 Canal Center Plaza, Suite 200, Alexandria, VA USA 22314 phone: 703.836.6767 or 1.800.THE IACP fax: 703.836.4543

Created by Matrix Group International, Inc.®