By Colin Comer, Adjunct Lecturer, Columbia College, Columbia, Missouri
he purpose of training, especially as practiced in law enforcement, is to produce a desired change. Merely hoping for change produces dismal results; either it does not happen or the results are not desired. Problems include desired changes that are unclear, merely suggested, or superficial.
Many law enforcement professionals have been to classes after which they wondered what the point was or if the point is practically applicable. Equally problematic is that bits and pieces may be recalled and applied, but out of sequence or context; they are ineffective and the training is written off. Probably the worst case is that training is commonly tolerated only for the purpose of license or certification renewal, so agencies may waste money on training that is never utilized. If law enforcement does not train for effective change, then it is pointless. Changes range from the broadest scope at the academy level to fine tuning for high levels of expertise. The challenge is getting the training to stick, and that challenge frequently goes unaddressed.
A personally discouraging example involved meth lab response training. Two state grants allowed our training agency, the Law Enforcement Training Institute–University of Missouri, to conduct 15 two-day, basic-level meth lab response schools in Missouri over a two-year period. Classes were well attended and highly rated. A year later, an original mini-research project for a graduate-level course was used to follow up on the results of these classes. In surveying officers around the state at three levels of meth lab training, the findings were that the higher the level of training respondents had received, the fewer required precautions were taken when entering meth labs. In other words, training appeared to have produced an inverse response. Those with no training or the lowest level reported taking the most precautions, while those with the highest level usually reported taking no precautions at all, even though meth lab training is highly focused on changing beliefs and practices.
So what causes officers to fail to utilize good information and even strong warnings? There are a number of answers, but one—the focus here—is flawed training. Any academy instructor can relate that it is relatively easy to communicate the concepts in the classroom. Before too long the students can recite, recall, explain to some degree, and intelligently question the academic material. Then, they go to practical exercises and perform as if they had never heard of the concept, adding another step in the training process. The hardest part of training is getting it out of the head and putting it into practice.
The problem is not one of training but potentially one of testing to the necessary level to produce the desired change. Testing likely strikes fear into the hearts of most, but if agencies do not test in training, they will be tested in circumstances where failure may prove disastrous. Law enforcement trainers may make assumptions about achieving the necessary training level when they could easily improve accuracy and evaluations with the use of a simple tool.
Bloom’s Taxonomy is not commonly discussed among law enforcement trainers, but it is common to other professional educators and test writers. Information from reliable sources is readily available on the Internet, and, once an instructor digests the information, the adjustments needed for training and testing should become apparent. It is a fairly simple tool and concept, but it can be very revealing.
An Internet search will reveal not only Bloom’s Taxonomy but also the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy. The revision was made to put the levels of education into more active terms, which fits well with law enforcement training. The revised levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy follow.1
A quick look at the model indicates that instructors—and maybe administrators—need to determine at what level their training should be presented. Testing will be discussed later, as it naturally follows education. An important note at the outset is that the levels are shown as a pyramid, with one step building to the next because that is the way we learn. Skipping a level will normally produce failure at the next higher level. This means we must perform assessments of the target group, where this group should start, and where this group should finish.
Academy-level recruits realistically need to start at the remembering level. Some chiefs might recall those academy days and the overwhelming amount of material presented to them. At first, they probably tried to memorize things in exact terms, knowing little about what was meant. As the education continued, they began to understand. When they reached practical exercises, they were being asked to perform at the applying level, which is the major hurdle. At this point, students must put thoughts into effective action. This is a major step and where trainers might make a dangerous assumption.
Bloom’s Taxonomy can be the key to gearing classroom and hands-on instruction so that students are prepared to move to the next step. But, when it comes to the applying level, it is wise to expect that practice will be needed before proficiency will occur. This is the time for patience and individual assistance.
The first three levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy are self-explanatory. Few will graduate from the academy having gone beyond those. In fact, experience tells us they have not mastered the applying level because the first thing administrators do is put recruits into field training, where they receive handson instruction. Chiefs might recall those training days, when applying became their new normal and they then began analyzing. Some things fit well, but other things needed adjusting to fit their abilities. Maybe they received advanced education, or maybe they pioneered something, but, before they came up with something new, they had to do some evaluating.
When they were evaluating, these current chiefs likely took a critical look at what they had been taught, how well it worked for them, where flaws occurred, what needed to be changed, and to what degree change was needed. They may have thrown something out altogether—a quick example of which is the use of the uncuffed wall search.
Once evaluating is finished, these individuals have a road map for the highest level in Bloom’s Taxonomy, which is creating. Having built on all of the lower levels, qualified individuals develop new perspectives, philosophies, techniques, and tactics. In other words, they evolve and grow. Some argue that evaluating is the highest level, but it is safe to assume that even if one agrees that evaluating is properly placed in the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy, it is wise to evaluate again after creating.
The point of the foregoing is that training needs to address students at their present level and be focused on moving them to the next level. This is the key to lesson construction and ensuring trainers do not skip a level. The bottom three levels are elementary. The top three levels will require a higher level of expertise, which will likely have to come from experience. Train elementary level learners at the top three levels, and failure will follow application. Train those with expertise at the lower levels, and students may leave.
Trainers can gauge lessons to the level of the students, but unless trainers test students, the former still must make assumptions. If trainers do not test properly, they assume we (they) have hit the mark, but Bloom’s is once again the key. Test writing is an important and involved topic that cannot be fully addressed here, but Bloom’s Taxonomy can guide test writers to make sure that tests are constructed to evaluate student performance at the intended level of the training. For example, if trainers test the applying level, they will know if they trained well at the applying level.
There are specific words and phrases used to evaluate at the various levels in writing tests. Asking a student to recite fits at the remembering level. It does not indicate understanding. Asking a student to make a comparison requires analyzing and possibly evaluating—both of which are higher level skills. It becomes apparent that without the appropriate level of testing, trainers can only hope that they have achieved the level of training desired. They will not know if students can apply learned information for effective change until they try it in the real world.
Students generally hate tests, but those who succeed in a tested course tend to give high evaluations. More importantly, effective testing provides a more objective evaluation than do those written by students. If an effective test is constructed for the intended level of training, the test results may provide all of the evaluation that is needed. Poor results could be the result of several problems, but successful results tend to indicate that the training was well done.
Testing raises the specter of records and liability, but tests are not to be feared. Testing can be informal and intended to give instructors and students feedback. In most places there is no rule that all tests have to be recorded or in what method they should be recorded. Trainers may evaluate with a point scale, but the final recorded score may often be pass or fail. Trainers should decide if a particular test is designed to provide a formal record and then record all grades accordingly.
Failing scores can be overcome through another great benefit of testing. Bloom’s Taxonomy lays the foundation for a properly constructed training and also helps identify who needs extra training. If it is important for students to achieve a given level of training, it is a bad idea to give them unearned passing grades. The practice also provides a complete and accurate training record showing departmental responsibility and student progress.
Some training success is accomplished through instinct, trial and error, and luck, but Bloom’s Taxonomy provides an organized road map that will reduce—and possibly eliminate—training failures. Training becomes more effective, efficient, and economical. The better it is the first time, the less it will need to be repeated, and few agencies have the funds for extra expenditures of any kind today. Agencies also may find that training becomes something that its employees seek and value instead of something they suffer through and tolerate. ♦
1Richard C. Overbaugh and Lynn Schultz, “Bloom’s Taxonomy,” Old Dominion University, www.odu.edu/educ/roverbau/Bloom/blooms_taxonomy.htm (accessed November 19, 2012).
Please cite as:
Colin Comer, "Training for Change," The Police Chief 80 (January 2013): 3637.