Posted on Jan. 30, 2024 by Lon Bartel

Law enforcement staffing issues are problematic across the nation (McMahon, 2022). This creates not only a vacuum for appropriate community services but puts a challenge on completing vital quality training for the officers. Without this quality training, it will be hard to meet the expectations of the community for high levels of performance. Vital training, such the use of force, de-escalation, and mental illness, is necessary to ensure the best outcomes possible. Agencies already fighting to get appropriate training time will have to ensure not only the appropriateness of the topics but also the methods. Using scientifically-backed methodologies such as spacing effect and deliberate practice can ensure that the training sticks and that training time are beneficial and maximized.

The spacing effect is a well-known phenomenon that describes the benefits of distributing practice sessions over time. According to this effect, learning is more effective when practice sessions are spaced out rather than massed together. This effect has been demonstrated across various skill domains, including sports, music, and language learning. What is the spacing effect, and how does it relate to deliberate practice? How does the spacing effect influence learning outcomes in skills training and deliberate practice?

Overview of the Spacing Effect in Skills Training

The spacing effect refers to the finding that distributing practice sessions over time leads to better retention and transfer of learning than massing practice sessions together (Cepeda et al., 2006). In other words, learning is more effective when practice is spaced out over time rather than massed together in one session. Engaging in four sessions that are 50 minutes long can have a much larger influence on performance that one training session that is 4 hours long.  The spacing effect is based on the idea that forgetting occurs over time, learning can be layered on top of learning once it is consolidated, and that spaced practice helps to counteract forgetting and promote the retention of information (Dempster, 1988).

Research on the spacing effect has demonstrated that spacing practice sessions lead to better long-term retention of learning, even when the total amount of practice is constant (Cepeda et al., 2006). The effect is most potent when the spacing intervals are optimized for the individual and the task being learned (Kang et al., 2014). The spacing effect has been observed in various skill domains, including sports, music, and language learning.

One study by Spruit et al. (2015) examined the effect of spaced versus massed practice on the learning of laparoscopy skills. The study found that spaced practice was more effective than massed practice. This learning can be enhanced and more pronounced when participants engage in deliberate practice. Specifically, the authors found that the spacing effect is more substantial for participants who engaged in deliberate practice as opposed to those who practiced without a specific goal or structure. This finding suggests that deliberate practice may enhance the benefits of spaced practice, as individuals who engage in the deliberate practice are more likely to optimize the spacing intervals and use feedback to guide their learning.

Spacing of training is facilitated when the training platform is easily accessible. Quick use of the training venue could facilitate an extended briefing style training of 15-45 minutes, or where micro-training sessions can occur in 10-15 minutes (Wang et al., 2020), with little or no impact on staffing or overtime. Not every agency has easy access to a firearms range, force-on-force facility, or role-players. That is where comprehensive tools like the VirTra simulator and the integration of the NCP-certified V-VICTA® curriculum can come in. The power of a tool like the V-ST PRO® or the V-300® is that it can facilitate this extended briefing training or micro-learning opportunities. Maintaining a training system in the briefing room eliminates travel time; using the V-marksmanship and the “Red Dot Optic” program eliminates range setup time and then weapon and range cleanup time. With live weapons being secured for this type of training, it can also be a time for weapon inspections as well as mandatory downloads or system uploads for other technologies.

Overview of Deliberate Practice

Deliberate practice is a training method emphasizing the importance of effortful practice, feedback, and deliberate effort to improve performance (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993). According to the deliberate practice approach, individuals can improve their performance in any skill domain through a focused and structured practice designed to challenge their existing abilities and provide feedback on their progress (Ericsson, 2006).

Research on deliberate practice has demonstrated that this approach leads to better performance outcomes in a variety of skill domains, including music (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Römer, 1993), sports (Baker & Horton, 2004), and chess (Charness, 1981). Deliberate practice emphasizes the importance of quality over quantity of practice and requires individuals to engage in a purposeful practice designed to challenge their existing abilities and promote growth (Ericsson, 2006).

Once again, systems like the VirTra V-300 facilitate deliberate practice. Effortful practice is more than just rout practice. Deliberate practice is difficult and focused and requires buy-in from the participant. The feedback component for deliberate practice is enhanced with the use of the TMaR system. This video and audio playback system allows the coach (instructor) the ability to dive into the detail of the participant’s performance without the risk of missing important details. The playback can also be used to force the participant to evaluate and then diagnose their own faults and understand them at a deeper level. This provides a vital opportunity for the participant and can enhance learning.

In summary, the spacing effect and deliberate practice can work together to optimize learning outcomes in skills training. Deliberate practice can provide a structured approach to learning and optimize the spacing intervals, while spaced practice can enhance long-term retention and transfer of learning. These factors can help individuals achieve their learning goals and improve their performance in various skill domains (Roediger & Butler, 2011). Law enforcement cannot afford to engage in empty training that lacks any true transformation. Understanding and then applying the science of learning a skill to a high level of performance is what must be done.


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