Steps Towards Making Good Better

By Tom McDermott May 16, 2019


‘Develop yourself before developing others.’  Wayne Bennett


The Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer Academy (WONCO-A) has the opportunity to enhance its instructional techniques and develop psychological skills in trainees. Guidance from Forces Command (in the form of the recent Ryan Review) and tactical command of the WONCO-A has directed the need for development of heuristic training across the All Corps Soldier Training Continuum (ACSTC).


The implementation of a refined teaching methodology has great potential to enhance the learning experience of the soldiers being influenced and hones the techniques of experienced instructors.

Scope. This paper will briefly outline the science of how students of the profession of arms learn and teaching methods that will lead to a stronger level of retained knowledge and mental development post the WONCO-A experience.

Aim. The aim of this paper is to identify the benefits of enhancing instructional techniques in order to develop soldiers and achieve WONCO-A lines of operation.

The Science of Learning

The science of learning involves how the brain learns, how to teach and is enhanced by developed psychological skills. These are foundations for soldier development.

Learn how to learn. The brain learns by a process of absorbing information from stimulus and storing it in short-term memory. This information is then filtered and either discarded or committed to long-term memory (1). Committing information or new skills to long-term memory is essential for soldier development; however, the brain only processes so much information while still maintaining situational awareness to deal with potential threats. The retention of long-term memory is also influenced by the emotional or instructional experience. WONCO-A’s current methods of instruction can be optimised to stimulate greater retention of information to long-term memory.

Learn how to teach. Current instructor development programs have insufficient focus on adult learning or andragogy styles (2) and techniques to enhance training delivery. Understanding how the brain learns, how adults learn and, therefore, how an individual instructor learns, leads to greater development for instructors. Developing their own unique learning styles will support instructors developing more potent teaching methods.

Developing psychological skills. Surprisingly, 90% of successful performance is attributed to psychological skills compared to physical abilities or intelligence (3). Army allots time for psychological training in areas such as PTSD, but not in understanding the psychological impact on performance. A student or instructor with developed psychological skill will be able to learn or motivate themselves more effectively. Instructional techniques and training at the WONCO-A miss opportunities to develop these psychological skills. Understanding the science behind learning allows the foundations of soldier development to be built upon and, therefore, instructors to improve their instructional methods.

Different Instructional Methods

Modernising instruction by utilising techniques such as ‘primary-recency effect’, ‘purposeful practice’, ‘reality based training scenarios’ and ‘reflective debriefing’, fosters the development of the soldier and instructor.

Primacy-recency effect. The sequence of learning affects long-term memory retention. Primacy–recency effect is the observation that information at the beginning (primacy) and end (recency) of a learning episode is retained better than information presented in the middle (4). By commencing lessons with revision, references and historical quotes, the key components of the lesson are delivered when trainees are close to or already at the least effective time to retain information. At the end of the lesson information generally tapers off or instructors conduct an unfocused test of objectives. To maximise retention and implement principles of andragogy important information should be covered in the first 15-20 minutes, trainees then get up to move or stretch, and then less essential information or the “reason for learning” is reviewed in the middle. Important content should be reviewed in the last ten minutes to take advantage of the recency effect.

Purposeful practice. Purposeful practice is rehearsing with well-defined, specific goals, is focused and involves feedback (5). Importantly it involves embracing feedback to create positive emotions connected to effective rehearsals. Rehearsal by doing something repeatedly without purpose foregoes opportunity to transfer information to long-term memory and can leave trainees in a negative psychological mindset. A common example across the WONCO-A is when a trainee rehearses a drill lesson focussed only on repetition. Teaching trainees elements of purposeful practice can improve the acquisition of skills and increase their positive association with achieving summative assessments. As an example, the trainee breaks down the rehearsal into stages and sets goals. They then allocate peers specific areas to focus on and give feedback. This focuses the critique and identifies areas to be enhanced to achieve the set goals. As practice continues with purpose and goals are achieved a positive mindset develops.

Reality based training or testing. The competency-based system is used for most summative assessments. Trainees commonly do what they need to do to pass rather than develop the knowledge or skill to enable them physically or psychologically. All training and summative assessment should include emotional, psychological and physical dimensions (6). Connecting all of these dimensions with reality based training scenarios, such as Day in the Life of a Warrant Officer, can trigger greater memory connections that improve performance and resilience. Therefore a reality based system has greater potential to develop soldiers.

Debriefing. Reflective debriefing can be utilised to allow a trainee opportunities to transfer information to long-term memory and enhance their psychological skills through self-analysis. Debriefing with non-reflective questioning techniques such as ‘how did you go with that assessment?’ does not stimulate in-depth analysis. Reflective questions like ‘What was most challenging for you to overcome during preparation for this assessment?’ or ‘how much practice or time would it take you to master this subject?’ followed by ‘When will you commit to that practice?’ forces the mind to reflect back through the entire process and potentially set future development goals.

Modernising current instructional methods as outlined, will further enhance memory retention and soldier development.


The WONCO-A has areas to improve within a broader Army strategy. Maturing the foundations of soldier development through the knowledge of learning, instructional techniques and psychological skills will enhance the all corps soldier continuum. Put simply these are steps towards ‘making good better’.


In support of enhancing instructional techniques and soldier development within the WONCO-A recommendations are:

  • Utilise external trainer support to develop alternative instructional methods and psychological skills development in the training continuum.
  • Implement reality based training scenarios for summative assessments across the whole ACSTC, similar in design as Day in the Life of a Warrant Officer.
  • Design pre-course packages that develop learning and psychological skills.
  • Implement a WONCO-A reading list of reference materials that include different teaching methods and psychological development.


About the Author: WO2 Miller is an instructor at the Australian Army's Warrant Officer and NCO Academy.


1. Sousa, D.A., 2011. How the Brain Learns. Corwin Press.
2. Knowles, M.S., 1972. Innovations in teaching styles and approaches based upon adult learning. Journal of Education for Social Work, 8(2), pp.32-39.
3. Asken, M.J., Grossman, D. and Christensen, L.W., 2010. Warrior mindset: Mental toughness skills for a nation’s peacekeepers. Millstadt, IL: Warrior Science Group.
4. Sousa, D.A., 2011. How the brain learns. Corwin Press.
5. Ericsson, A. and Pool, R., 2016. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
6. Asken, Grossman and Christensen, 2010.


Asken, M.J., Grossman, D. and Christensen, L.W., 2010. Warrior mindset: Mental toughness skills for a nation’s peacekeepers. Millstadt, IL: Warrior Science Group.

Ericsson, A. and Pool, R., 2016. Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

MAJGEN Gilmore, P 2016, Commander Forces Command Guidance 2016, Department of Defence.

Knowles, M.S., 1972. Innovations in teaching styles and approaches based upon adult learning. Journal of Education for Social Work, 8(2), pp.32-39.

BRIG Ryan, M 2016 The Ryan Review: A study of Army’s Education, Training and Doctrine needs for the Future, Department of Defence.

LTCOL Scott, M 2016, Warrant Officer and Non-Commissioned Officer-Academy Operations Order training year 16/17, Department of Defence.

Sousa, D.A., 2011. How the Brain Learns. Corwin Press



Tom McDermott

Tom McDermott is a serving Australian Army Officer and a student of strategy and military ethics. You can follow him on Twitter via the handle @helmandproject.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.


Great article that needs to be not treated as a bumper sticker, but more importantly understood and applied.

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