Effective Practical Skill Training: What’s Needed?

by Christopher D. Smith

The use of Web-based training has increased in academia, private industry, and also the fire service. Various studies have compared Web-based training with traditional classroom instruction with mixed results.1 Preparing firefighters to make effective fireground decisions and perform practical tasks safely historically has been accomplished through traditional classroom and practical skill hands-on training. As the fire service begins to shift more and more of its training to Web-based delivery, it’s critical to determine if Web-based applications can effectively transfer the desired learning outcomes. The critical nature of fire suppression and its inherent dangers force us to ask, “Are Web-based courses effective in preparing firefighters for practical skills?”

Declarative and Procedural Knowledge

Training can encompass both declarative and procedural knowledge.2 Declarative knowledge is the memorization of facts, principles, and relations of knowledge elements and cognitive strategies for accessing and applying knowledge. Procedural knowledge is that which enables us to perform a task, including compilation steps, proper order, and optimization methods. It includes fireground practical decision making and task completion, important aspects of our job.

Web-Based vs. Hands-On Training

Current research pertaining to the comparison of the effectiveness of Web-based vs. traditional classroom has yielded conflicting results and no definitive conclusions. Six studies, for example, found no differences in student performance between Web-based and traditional classroom learning. (1) All of these studies revolved around Internet technology classes and declarative knowledge. One study determined that student satisfaction learning in terms of team building, critical thinking, oral and written communications, global perspective, and social interaction was higher in the traditional classroom.3 Teamwork, however, is a critical factor of fireground success, and team building, a component of procedural knowledge, is essential for this vital component of firefighting.

Three studies demonstrated that Web-based students experience higher learning performance than traditional classroom learners.4 The studies also looked at courses that were declarative in nature. All three of the studies demonstrated a marginal improvement in performance related to declarative learning by students in the Web-based learning environment.

Comparing the effectiveness of computer-based training vs. face-to-face or instructor-related training is said to be logically impossible, as no valid comparison groups exist5-hence, the inconsistency in the comparison studies. One researcher (Cook) explains: “…. The most carefully designed study cannot account for variances within and among interventions using different media. There are simply too many influential factors to allow the definition of an appropriate protocol intervention.” (5)

Variations in course design and delivery methods produce no universal or “catch all” study that can predict the success or failure of Web-based learning as it compares with the traditional classroom experience. The effectiveness of the two types of delivery can be measured only if each training program is studied from the perspectives of traditional classroom delivery effectiveness and its designed Web-based delivery effectiveness. Each program must be designed and delivered with the adult learner, the content, and the desired learning transfer in mind.

Teaching Practical Skills

To compare training as it relates to procedural skills, we can examine recommended instructional practices for practical or motor skills. Procedural skills are obtained or transferred through repetitive practice and the ability to integrate such in practical practice.6 Learners progress through cognitive, associate, and autonomous stages as they develop practical skills and learn to perform them independently.

  • Cognitive phase. Learners come to understand what needs to be done to demonstrate the skill. The focus is on performing the task accurately; the learner benefits the most from instructor feedback.
  • Associate phase. The learner adjusts how the skill is performed gradually until the movements become more consistent. The learner progresses into the autonomous phase through repetitive practice with instructor feedback.
  • Autonomous phase. The practical skill begins to become automatic such that the learner does not have to think about how each step should be carried out. With current technology, this instructional technique cannot be effectively developed through Web-based delivery content.

Stress and the Cortisol Response

We know that tactical decisions and resultant proper practical skill implementation occur on the fireground under extreme psychological stress to include hormonal changes demonstrated by increased cortisol plasma in the blood.7 This psychological stress dramatically influences decision making and physical skill abilities. The acute exposure to stress leads to metabolic reactions in the pre-frontal, limbic, basal ganglia, and other brain regions.8 High stress levels can cause decisions to be made before all of the alternatives concerning their potential outcome are evaluated; they enhance a preference for risky decisions. (8) Increased cortisol blood levels have also been shown to reversibly decrease specific elements of memory performance in otherwise healthy individuals and to make memory impairments more pronounced under higher levels of stress.9

Elevated cortisol levels block the retrieval of previously stored information, but they can also promote the acquisition of new information.10 New information gained during training while under high stress and subsequent high cortisol levels encodes information into long-term memory more effectively. Memory block and new memory encoding during severe stress response appear to be tied to instinctual survival mechanisms. During life-or-death encounters, our cortisol or stress hormones elevate severely, prioritizing the formation of new memories while inhibiting the recall of old information. Once the high stress event has passed and cortisol levels return to normal, the memory of the life-or-death events is enhanced. This process assists us in remembering how we escaped previous dangerous encounters and how to avoid future similar encounters to ensure survivability.

If the situation is experienced more than once, the cortisol response is almost halved the second time.11 The initial stress exposure produced the highest level of cortisol response in a situation in which four subsequent exposures to the same situation occurred in one study. The cortisol response was halved only for the second experience; it remained at this level for the subsequent encounters. This demonstrates that in-person training that exposes the fire department member to the stress during training should reduce the stress response when the member experiences the same scenario on the fire scene. Lowering the cortisol response through live stress exposure that simulates fireground stresses helps to improve the recall of past information, subsequently improving the learning transfer of the current practical training objectives. Duplicating the stress response of firefighters is not possible with current Web-based technology.

Fire Service Survey Web-Based Training Not Effective for Practical Skill Training

In a survey in which the participants were 65 fire department lieutenants with an average of 20 years of experience per officer, the firefighters stated that Web-based training was not meeting most training needs and that they did not feel comfortable implementing on the fireground a new skill or technique members learned through Web-based training. The survey was designed to determine if fire personnel considered Web-based training effective for preparing firefighters for on-scene practical decision making and hands-on tasks. Practical skills are procedural knowledge that includes compilation steps. Practical skills should be obtained through repetitive practice that takes the learners through the cognitive, associate, and autonomous stages as they implement and perform the skill independently. With current technologies, enabling hands-on task repetition is difficult, if not impossible, to ensure in Web-based training.

Survey respondents also stated that computer-based training was not effective in preparing individuals for scene decision making or practical skill tasks. Practical skill training requires that something in the computer-based technology or someone monitor the learner and adjust the learning experience as needed.

Stress Exposure During Training

The respondents strongly agreed that performing a practical skill under a stressful situation was most effective in their preparation for firefighting. Blood cortisol levels were not measured in this survey. The responses were based on the participants’ years in the fire service. High stress levels result in decisions being made before all alternatives are considered and weighed against the potential outcome. If firefighters are not adequately prepared through stress-induced live fire training, there would be poor decision making on the fireground. Examples of current questionable decisions made under high stress on the fireground are found in the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health Firefighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program (2015) line-of-duty death investigations. When you consider also that practical skill training under stress encodes the learning into long-term memory more effectively and that the cortisol response is cut in half when a stressor is experienced the second time, the need for high-stress practical fire skill training becomes even more evident.

Survey respondents provided a consistent and strong opinion: They prefer practical skill hands-on training over Web-based training in general and for decision making. They consistently preferred classroom and hands-on training. The survey also demonstrated that firefighters prefer high-stress live fire training to prepare them for emergency scene operations.

While the death and injury rates for firefighters continue, the fire service must constantly assess the current training practices and determine which delivery methods best prepare firefighters for the tasks at hand.


1. Friday, E; Friday-Stroud, SS; Green, AL; & Hill, AY (2006). “A multisemester comparison of student performance between multiple traditional and online sections of two management courses,” Journal of Behavioral & Applied Management: 8(1), 66-82.

2. Lam, M. (2009). “Effectiveness of Web-Based Courses on Technical Learning.” Journal of Education for Business: 84(6), 323-331.

3. Jones, KR; Moeeni, F; & Ruby, P. (2005). “Comparing Web-based content delivery and instructor-led learning in a telecommunications course,” Journal of Information Systems Education: 16, 265-271.

4. Piccoli, G; Ahmad, R; & Ives, B. (2001). “Web-based virtual learning environments: A research frame work and a preliminary assessment of effectiveness in basic skills training.” MIS Quarterly: 25, 401-426.

5. Cook, DM. (2005 June). “The Research We Still Are Not Doing: An Agenda for the Study of Computer-Based Learning,” Academic Medicine: 80(6), 541-548.

6. Oermann, MH; Kardong-Edgren, S; Odom-Maryon, T; Hallmark, BF; Hurd, D; Rogers, N; & Haus, C. (2011 September). “Deliberate Practice of Motor Skills in Nursing Education: CRPS AS EXEMPLAR,” Nursing Education Perspectives: 32(5), 311-315.

7. Del Sal, M; Barbieri, E; Garbrati, P; Sisti, D; Rocchi, M; & Stocchi, V. (2009 November). ”Physiologic Responses of Firefighter Recruits during Supervised Live-Fire Work Performance Test,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: 23(8).

8. Starcke, K and Brand, M. (2012 April). “Decision making under stress: A selective review,” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews: 36(4), 1228-1248.

9. Newcomer, J; Selke, G; Melson, A; Hershey, T; Craft, S; Richards, K; and Alderson, A. (1999 June). “Decreased Memory Performance in Healthy Humans Induced by Stress-Level Cortisol Treatment,” JAMA Psychiatry, 56(6).

10. Stauble, MR; Thompson, LA; & Morgan, G. (2013). “Increases in cortisol are positively associated with gains in encoding and maintenance working memory performance in young men,“ Stress: The International Journal on the Biology of Stress: 16(4), 402-410. doi:10.3109/10253890.2013.780236.

11. Kirschbaum, C; Prussner, J; Stone, A; Federenko, I; Gaab, J; Lintz, D; and Schommer, N. (1995). “Persistent High Cortisol Responses to Repeated Psychological Stress in a Subpopulation of Healthy Men,” Psychomatic Medicine: 57(5).

CHRISTOPHER D. SMITH is a lieutenant with Cobb County Fire & Emergency Services in Marietta, Georgia, where he has been a member for 19 years. He is a hazmat technician and a paramedic and is assigned to Cobb Station 10 on C shift as a fire lieutenant and tactical medic for the Medical Operations Team. He obtained a bachelor of public safety leadership and organizational management degree from Reinhardt University in Waleska, Georgia, in 2012, and is pursuing a master of adult education and training degree at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado.

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