Training for non-normal: varied versus specific practice

photo: google images

Training for non-normal and training for failure is a model of safety training that works from the premise that training under ‘normal’ conditions in no way prepares one to respond in non-normal conditions. In other words, training how to do it right does not prepare you for when things go wrong. Intuitively, this makes good sense, and research and practice backs this up. Our typical outdoor and adventure guide training, however, usually ignores this premise.

One of the areas of research which has informed this model has been around since the late 1970’s: variable practice versus specific (or massed) practice. Counter intuitively, when two groups using different training are compared, a group that practices a skill under varied conditions outperforms a group that trains specifically for the tested skill. 

Kerr and Booth (1978) started with by testing kids for a bean bag toss: one group ‘trained’ for the test specifically i.e. tossed from the test line, while another group practiced by tossing from any and all distances except the test line. On test day, the variable group outperformed the specific group, even though they had not actually practiced that specific throw. This test has been repeated extensively – check out the links below – basketball, baseball, soccer etc.

Variable practice works for a variety of reasons: 
  • our brain turns off doing the same thing over and over; variation keeps the brain actively tuned in and learning the whole time
  • by responding to variation, we build schema and experience recognizing a wide range of cues; in effect our experience base grows
  • the context of the training, beyond the specific skill, get ‘learned’ as well and filed for later reference (Wright & Shea, 1991, 1994).

For training adventure guides, this means that safety training needs to present the trainee a variety of circumstances from which they need to respond. In other words, they need to see the various aspects of what can go wrong, in order to build schema and recognize the cues that come with those situations. The expectation is that these guides would be better at recognizing and anticipating non-normal situations, as they have seen variations of such in the past. On the other hand, by training ‘how to do it right’ without ever seeing how it can go wrong, the guide has no basis upon which to recognize or respond to non-normal.

Guiding and the outdoors in general requires ‘varied’ performance. No two days are ever the same. Research point to varied training as better.

See Kerr and Booth, (1978) bean bag toss study
Hall et al. (1994) baseball batting (I like this one)