Truth About Familiarization and The Illusion of Learning in Firearms Training


More people are arming for self-defense these days. Part of that should be preparedness training at a gun range. iStock-488768604
Truth About Familiarization and The Illusion of Learning in Firearms Training iStock-488768604

Regardless if it relates to firearms training or not, it’s important to understand that much of what we’ve been led to believe is “learning” is, in reality, false.  More importantly, the methodologies by which students are “taught” and the manner in which skills and knowledge are assessed actually serve to reinforce a learning bias.

I’ve enjoyed reading the feedback from the previous two articles that I’ve submitted to Ammoland. Many of the comments have brought up excellent viewpoints, and others have brought up concepts that could be used as the basis for entire articles in the future.  Truthfully, I wish I had the time and the opportunity to respond to each and every comment that pertains to the topic, as it’s within such dialogue and exchange of ideas that true growth actually takes place.

In this article, I want to address a common denominator that seemed to resonate in the comments from the article titled “Understanding the Various Disciplines within the Firearms Training World.”

Among the comments were several references to both the terms “familiarization” and “learning.”  Moreover, it was apparent that these terms were being used interchangeably.  The usage of these terms in the comments aside, there are multiple instances where I see the word “familiarization” being used almost as a synonym for “learning.”  In the context of training and education, these terms do NOT mean the same thing.

The use of a firearm, in ANY context or capacity, involves a series of motor skills.  Very simply defined, motor skills are functions that involve specific movements of specific muscles to perform a specified task.  The use of a firearm will also often involve psychomotor skills.  Again, using a fairly simplified definition, a psychomotor skill is a function that involves movements of specific muscles to perform specified tasks guided by signals from the criterion environment.  To put this in even simpler terms, a psychomotor skill is a function that involves the coordination of physical movements (motor skills) with cognitive processes (decision-making and perception.)

The term “motor learning” invokes the process by which a student is introduced to and acquires a motor skill, and through a process of practice and assimilation, refines that skill to a state of automaticity.  Automaticity is the stage of motor learning that most people refer to as “muscle memory.”

Pedagogical (faculty-centered education, generally directed at young learners) and andragogical (student-centered education, generally directed at older and adult learners) models identify three very distinct stages of motor learning.

These stages, in order of most basic to most advanced, are:

When it comes to the acquisition and application of new motor skills, the Cognitive phase requires the participant to focus most, if not all, of their attention on the linear, step-by-step stages of the technique in order to ‘work through’ and properly execute the technique, and to maintain the order of the various stages of the desired techniques.

For instance, in teaching new shooters to draw from the holster, the various stages of the holster draw are presented in an extremely linear, step-by-step manner.  The student, with abundant overcorrection and poor, stiff, or rigid movement, literally formulates a mental checklist in order to attempt the proper execution of the technique in it’s entirety.  Think, “do this… then do this… then do this… then do this… and then finally do this.”  Each stage of the technique must be consciously recalled and thought out, at which time the participant attempts to recreate the technique in a manner as close to what they can recall as perfectly as possible.

In the first phase, the Cognitive phase, the rote repetitions focus on the raw mechanics of the technique with little to no variations and no additional cognitive loads (deliberately induced stressors such as timers, noise, environmental distractions, etc.)

The emphasis tends to be focused on generating a process of ‘learning through repetition,’ a process that is often erroneously framed as “practice makes perfect.”  (We say erroneously because practice doesn’t make perfect.  Practice makes permanent.  A skill or technique repeatedly practiced, if incorrect in its form or execution, will be perfected or committed to “muscle memory” incorrectly.  In other words, bad practice makes for – and ensures – bad performance.)

The second phase, or the Associative phase, comes as a result of repeatedly rehearsing or practicing the given technique.

After a number of repetitions, the participant will experience a level of performance that becomes reliable and efficient, while making small gains in accuracy and speed.  Moreover, the participant will begin to recognize that less and less cognitive focus needs to be placed on the execution of the technique.  In other words, the technique (and the various stages of motor function that make up that technique) are starting to display indications of autonomic execution.

The third phase (and arguably the most desired phase) is the Autonomous or Autonomic phase.

In this phase, the performance of the technique in its entirety is accurate, smooth, consistent, and extremely efficient, with practically no focus or thought given to the performance of the technique.  To put it simply, the participant can perform the technique without even thinking about it.  It should be noted that cognitive multitasking in humans is an impossibility.  Therefore, to gauge the degree to which certain motor skills have been practiced and rehearsed to the desired autonomic level, we will often ask students to engage in cognitively demanding tasks such as reciting numerical sequences backward or reciting certain laws or criminal codes from recalled memory.  If the student can adequately process the cognitive load task while performing the given motor skill, then the ‘test of automaticity’ is considered to have been successfully passed.

The main point here is that any motor skill that we experience actual “familiarization” with still requires an overwhelming amount of cognitive attention directed toward its execution. If the execution of the motor skill is not developed to a fully autonomic process, then a basic understanding of the “body alarm reaction” or “fight or flight” concept tells us that we are, for all intents and purposes, incapable of performing that motor skill to any degree of proficiency that would make it effective.  Motor skills that are NOT practiced or rehearsed to automaticity, and that require any level of cognitive focus will, under extreme pressure, be rendered largely ineffective.  Often, this is the genesis of the underacknowledged “freeze” consequence in the ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ equation.

The term “illusion of learning” is an educational sciences phrase that is used to describe the false belief that, because one is exposed (and thus familiarized) to a concept or technique, and can subsequently test out successfully to a minimum standard of adequacy, that the student has actually “learned” (developed to automaticity) that which was the subject of the lesson and the test.

To use a practical example, let’s look at a group of 9th-grade high school students who are studying the Civil War.  The students are exposed to (made familiar with) the dates, names, facts, and figures of the Civil War during a two-week lesson plan.  Immediately (or very shortly) after the conclusion of each individual lesson plan, the students are ‘quizzed’ on their knowledge of what was most recently presented.  Then, following the conclusion of the delivery of the two weeks’ worth of lesson plans, the students are ‘tested’ on their knowledge and comprehension of all the materials presented.

As is customary, at the end of the twenty-week semester, along comes the dreaded ‘mid-term exam’ or ‘final exam.’  The final exam is designed to test the student’s knowledge and comprehension of ALL materials presented within the confines of both twenty-week semesters.  And again, as is customary, students will generally spend the week prior to mid-terms and finals “cramming” in preparation for the big test.

This begs a basic question:  if the student actually learned the materials presented (committed the information to the brain’s long-term storage database for acquired ‘book’ knowledge through a process called “consolidation,” then why would the student need to “cram” in order to pass the mid-term or final?  Going even further, why would there be a need to secondarily test on materials that had already previously been quizzed upon and then tested upon, presumably successfully?

It’s because, throughout the process of your being exposed to the information, you became familiarized with that information, but that information never made it past the brain’s short-term memory system to be encoded into long-term memory.  Had actual learning taken place, there would be no need to cram.  Cramming or ‘studying’ is the process of taking forgotten information and reintroducing it onto the “mental desktop” that is the brain’s short-term memory system.

As an example, I’ll ask you a series of questions.  You’re not allowed to study for this quiz.  You must go only by ‘what you know.’

  1. Who sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two?
  2. Name five signers of the Declaration of Independence?
  3. Name the boat and the town that the Pilgrims sailed upon and landed in in 1620?

If you answered these four questions correctly (and without having to look the answers up) it is because due to repeated exposure, the information survived the time in your short-term memory and went on to be encoded in your brain’s long-term memory database known as “Semantic Declarative Memory.”  Simply put, you actually learned it.

Motor learning operates in much the same way.  Simply being exposed (or “familiarized”) to certain techniques or motor skills does not guarantee that the given motor skill will ever become part of the long-term procedural memory (“muscle memory”) that so many shooters strive to achieve.  And passing a test of ‘proficiency’ (such as a qualification) does little if anything to serve as proof that the participant has actually “learned” the technique, and could perform it correctly, adequately, or safely when that specific technique is needed the most.


About Keith Hanson

Keith Hanson is a seasoned law enforcement professional specializing in firearms instruction, tactical operations training, and counterterrorism tactics. With a strong background in neuroscience and psychology, Keith is a co-creator of the innovative NeuralTac™ system. This methodology combines neuroscience, combat psychology, neuropsychology, kinesiology, and educational sciences, drawing from the latest research in human performance, to produce advanced instructional programs for law enforcement agencies and private security firms. It also aims to develop and foster advanced-level master trainers within those organizations. Additionally, as a certified force science analyst, Keith serves as a court-recognized expert witness on use of force matters and provides consultation on legal strategies.

X (Twitter): @theguncoachKeith HansonKeith Hanson




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