What The TV Show "Cops" Can Teach Us About Designing Addictive Training Experiences

Training Design: Get Inspired By The TV Show "Cops"
Summary: Did you know that the TV show "Cops" always includes a chase scene before the first commercial break? Have you ever tried to change the channel while watching an episode? You can't! You need to see what happens next. As it is one of the longest-running shows on TV, there is a lot we can learn from their success.

Why I'm Relating "Cops" To Training Design

Okay, let me start by admitting that I haven’t done an exhaustive analysis of the exact formula of the show. However, I’ve recently started listening to the podcast "Headlong: Running from Cops" and it’s fascinating! In the podcast, we learn that part of the show’s formula is to include a chase scene before the first commercial break. This strategy reminded me of how, to grab a learner’s attention, I try to include a "hook" at the start of my courses. And it got me thinking about the success and longevity of "Cops," and what other psychological practices we can learn from the show and apply to courseware design.

As a quick caveat, this article is not about addressing controversies associated with the show, of which there are many. If that interests you, check out the podcast "Headlong: Running from Cops."

Okay, for those of you that only want the headline listicles, here you go:

  1. Don’t just lecture, find ways to entertain
  2. Tell relevant, exciting, and, if possible, emotionally-charged stories
  3. Lead with a "hook" to start building learner interest and motivation
  4. Utilize cliffhangers as a plot device for your stories
  5. Manage the cognitive load by designing smaller segments

For more information, references, and a relatable anecdote, read on.

Don’t Just Lecture, Find Ways To Entertain

It could be argued that the primary formula of "Cops" was to entertain as well as inform. Though not all training curriculums endeavor to teach moral education, including an element of entertainment into your training is a well known and effective strategy. In fact, there’s a name for it, "edutainment." The premise of educational-entertainment is to educate while being entertained. Edusys says, "[edutainment has] a positive and appealing impact on drawing in the interest of students toward education." ETEC510 says, "[edutaiment] may also result in increased motivation and thinking skills."

Although edutainment does have its critics, in my experience, striking the right balance between education and entertainment improves your chances of increasing learner interest and motivation. As humans, we’ve been "edutaining" for thousands of years. Even before we could write, we used songs, poetry, and dance as a means to tell stories in order to explain natural phenomena and myths of the gods, and similarly, "Cops" used this as a method to teach us ethics, values, and culture. For eLearning, some of the most common edutainment devices are simulations, virtual worlds, animations, and gaming; however, my personal favorite—and often most affordable option—is storytelling.

Years ago, I was developing an eLearning course to train flight crews on the benefits of Safety Management Systems (SMS). The objective of the course was to increase safety awareness, improve safety culture, and ultimately promote SMS participation across the aviation industry. Previous attempts to meet these objectives had minimal impact and a lackluster reception from the learners, so, this time, the stakes and expectations to "fix" this problem were even greater.

After completing the first draft of the script, though the content was complete and technically accurate, I knew something wasn’t working. I had utilized all sorts of instructional methods to make the content engaging—the script was written in a conversational tone, the content was appropriately chunked, and the information hierarchy was sound—but despite all of this, the course was, well, horribly boring. I needed to make a big change; otherwise, this course, like its predecessor, was bound to fail.

Tell Relevant, Exciting, And, If Possible, Emotionally-Charged Stories

Recent studies have shown that utilizing emotion as an instructional condition within the learning material can evoke positive emotions in learners that in turn facilitate the learning process (Heidig et al., 2012). Though the results of their study were ascribed more toward the positive and negative associations with multimedia—aesthetic design, load time—they determined that a learner’s emotional state had a larger impact on their intrinsic motivation, including the motivation to continue working with the material. They're not alone with this conclusion.

A thorough article written about the influences of emotion on learning and memory concluded that "substantial evidence has established that emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately, and for longer periods of time than neutral events." However, there’s an art in designing meaningful and impactful stories into your training. Too often, the stories are not realistic, not relevant or come across as tacky, especially the ones that attempt to induce emotions.

Without going into too much detail about designing storytelling into training—eLearning Industry already has a lot of good articles on that subject—here are some simple tips you can use right away: keep your stories short, relevant, and realistic. If possible, whether they are positively or negatively changed, find a way to elicit emotions from your learners.

Interviewing Prospective Learners

Although, as someone new to the subject, I did understand what we were trying to teach, I didn’t really "get it." I lacked the context of applying the teachings to make learning meaningful and memorable. I started interviewing staff at all levels of a flight department: maintenance technicians, flight attendants, pilots, ramp workers, anyone that was willing to talk to me. These conversations turned out to be incredibly valuable.

Everyone had a fascinating story to tell about how safety and risks impacted their job. From something as simple as an extension cord laid across a doorway (tripping hazard) and a leaky hangar roof (slipping hazard) to the multitude of the risks and hazards that accompany complex aviation systems, processes, and infrastructures. Their stories helped me understand the true value of the SMS and the need for everyone's participation. I knew that in order to motivate learners to engage with training, these stories needed to be included in the course.

Lead With A "Hook" To Start Building Learner Interest And Motivation

As the podcast highlights, part of the "Cops" formula included showing a chase before the first commercial break. The chase, usually one of the more exciting ingredients of the show, is an effective way to pull in the viewers. As part of the moral education of the show, the viewer wants to see how the scene will play out. Will the suspect be captured? Does the city remain safe? When designing your training, ask yourself, what’s your "chase scene"? What element of your content could you use to elicit excitement about the subject?

For example, for compliance training, tell a story about a time when failure to comply resulted in an arrest, prosecution, punitive charges, or termination. Alternatively, tell a story that highlights a big win for your company, industry, or an individual—improved sales, increased safety, etc. Either way, find a story with an exciting outcome that truly hits home the meaning and relevance of training.

Utilize Cliffhangers As A Plot Device For Your Stories

Bonus points: don’t tell the entire story upfront. Leave them with a cliffhanger, where the story unfolds along with the progress of the course. "Cops" utilizes this device in every episode, each one showing 3-4 different segments, jumping back and forth between them. The only way to see how each story turns out is to stay "tuned in."

Case-Based Interactive Challenge

At the start of the SMS eLearning course, I used one of the stories that I learned from the frontline employees to create a case-based interactive challenge. The learner was immediately emersed into a real-life scenario—through the lens of a maintenance technician, they had to help troubleshoot an in-flight cargo aircraft experiencing an emergency—and at strategic points, the story paused to allow them a chance to answer questions and influence how the story would unfold.

Using this approach provided 3 immediate benefits:

  1. Increasing learner motivation and interest through the experience of a relevant and tense story
  2. Activating prior knowledge by giving the learner some agency over the outcome
  3. Demonstrating the value of an SMS and why this training is important

Manage The Cognitive Load By Designing Smaller Segments

Have you ever designed your training around a single story? If done properly, this approach can be very powerful taking the students through the full arc of a learning journey. However, this approach can also be very difficult and time-consuming. Trying to find a single story that can address the complexities of some subjects may be hard to find or just too convoluted. In just 22 minutes, "Cops" takes us through the arc of 3-4 short, overlapping, and emotionally-charged stories.

As "Cops" does, make sure that your content is appropriately chunked. Chunking is an approach to training design where information is divided into smaller, more easily digestible pieces and arranged into meaningful groups. Ultimately, it’s an instructional strategy that considers our brain’s limited capacity to process new information and, eventually, work it into long-term memory.

Have you designed edutainment into your training? Please share your experience and strategies with us!