Context Dependent Learning

Context Dependent Learning

As public safety providers, we could make a fundamental improvement in developing situational awareness by looking at how we train. There are some valuable lessons from brain science that can help improve the design of our training programs. One such lesson is “context dependent learning.”  It has been validated through numerous studies. If you are a training officer, this article may cause you to rethink how to train fellow police officers.

The concept of context dependent learning is fundamentally simple, yet often overlooked in the training of police officers. Essentially, it means if we train police officers in the same environment in which they are going to perform their work they are far more likely to recall their lessons when put back into the same environment on the job.

I remember I had this experience once in the gym I work out at.  I remember we were training for an event call “Murphy”. It’s a very grueling workout that begins with a one mile run, then proceeds with 100 pullups, 200 pushups, 300 air squats, and finishes off with another one mile run. This is all done while wearing a 20 pound weighted vest. We would do this at the gym every Memorial Day.

I can recall doing this workout several times and I practiced and trained for it at Yorfit in Ramsey, Minnesota.  I used the same weighted vest, the same pull up bar, and I ran the same route around the building every time.  My times reflected this and I got my personal best time while training at my gym and doing the Murphy on Memorial Day.

Fast forward a few months and I did the same workout, only I went to a different gym.  I wasn’t used to their pull up bar and I didn’t know the exact route I was going to run. The lack of familiarity had a huge impact on my times.  I had never trained in this environment before and my results showed it.

A more formal research study involved two groups of SCUBA divers. One was the test group and one was the control group. The researchers put the test group in ten feet of water and gave them some information to memorize. They did the same thing with the control group, except the control group was on land. Then the researchers tested the participants by putting both groups in ten feet of water and asked them to answer questions about what they had learned. The group that learned the information while in the water had a remarkably better recall than the group that learned the information while standing on dry land.

This is an example of context dependent learning. It can work while wearing SCUBA gear in ten feet of water, and it can work in police training. If we train police officers how to perform hands-on tasks while in a classroom, they are likely to recall less of what they learned when they are in the field.  We need to do more realistic, context-dependent, hands-on scenario-training that involves stress.

Drew Moldenhauer’s advice

Train police officers in the environment in which they will be performing their tasks. It may seem trivial, but science suggests the brain ties the lessons to the environment. The more the learning environment mimics the working environment, the stronger the lessons are encoded into memory.

I recall learning many of my active shooter lessons in a classroom. It wasn’t very realistic. To improve recall, put police officers in their natural working environment and teach them how to handle realistic situations. The lessons will be more readily recalled when needed most.

Action Items

  1. When you were trained in your basic police skills, did your learning environment always mimic the real-world environment you would operate in?
  2. Provide some examples where instructors taught basic skills in a context dependent environment that you would consider unique.
  3. Share some ideas for how your training programs could be improved by using context dependent learning.


Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].