Learning Preferences in Field Training

Not responding to training (NRT) is a red flag on a recruit evaluation. It is fair warning to the new officer that additional work is necessary. In extreme cases, it can be a factor in making the new officer to go defensive. That is to say, new officers stop exposing themselves to evaluation by doing only what they are told to do. In any case, it changes the relationship in the squad car.

One cause for an officer being rated NRT is that the information was presented in a manner that was comfortable for the FTO, but conflicted with the new officer’s preferred learning style. Learning preferences are so important; The U.S. Department of Justice recently recommended it be included in a major police agency’s FTO basic instruction.

We are all different in so many ways. One way is how our brains like to learn. Consider your brain to be the destination for new information. There are three ways to get that information in your head: through your eyes (visual learner), through your ears (auditory learner), and through your hands (kinesthetic/tactile learner).

Visual learners, about 65% of us, like to learn through our eyes. Visual learners read and watch to learn. They can have music playing while they read and their brain hardly hears it because there is inbound information coming through the eyes. You see, when there are multiple methods of input, the brain will defer to the learner’s preferred mode of learning.

Auditory learners, about 25% of us, are people who prefer to hear a lesson. If they read while listening to music, they will often get to a bottom of a page and ask themselves if they actually read it. They can tell you what song was playing, and they probably tapped their foot to the beat. They retained little in the reading because they were trying to force reading material into a brain that was engaged in its preferred mode of learning, through the ears.

Kinesthetic/tactile learners, about 10% of us, learn through hands-on practice. They don’t want to read about it. They don’t want to hear a lecture. They want to practice it. These are the people who have never read instructions for assembly at Christmas time. They tear open the parts package and dig in.

There are some big issues in field training on the topic of learning preferences. First, we like to teach in the style in which we like to learn. It has worked for us in the past, and that’s that will work in this training relationship. But what if your new officer prefers learning in a different way than you like teaching?

Here are some suggestions on how to cope:

  • Awareness is the first step. The conflict in teaching and learning is often reduced to a personality issue between the new officer and the FTO. Perhaps what you are seeing is a bad mix of learning preferences, which results in poor retention and demonstration of skill, hence, NRT.
  • Assessments for both FTOs and recruit. Give your FTOs and recruits a fast assessment that will show them their learning preference. There are plenty of them available on line.
  • Talk about it. The South San Francisco Police Department even requires FTOs and recruits to meet and discuss training methods that take into consideration the teaching style of the FTO and learning style of the recruit.
  • FTOs need to be able to offer a lesson in different learning preferences. It’s best if they know what their own preferences are, and the new officer’s as well. I like it when an FTO notes he or she successfully delivered instruction in a different learning style before lowering the NRT hammer.
  • Many recruits are unaware that learning preferences exist. Help them be more successful by identifying coping mechanisms that will help them learn.