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Idea Pitch – Fighting Power, Intellectual Mastery and the Challenge of Teaching (Part 2)

Tinkering with the brain? Can we learn and remember better?


My first blog explored the reasons why I think Army is not realising the full intellectual potential of the personnel in our force. I explained how I felt that Army does not deliver or teach knowledge from doctrine or on individual courses in a way that is conducive to attaining intellectual mastery. I believe that this is due to three things: the complex language used in doctrine (precluding the majority of the force from understanding it), the compressed learning schedules on courses, and the sporadic conduct of courses over an individual’s career. I also explained how I feel that Army does not understand how the personnel in our force learn.

Enhancing Mental Architecture to Enable Intellectual Mastery

This second piece looks to the possible solutions. My DEFx Idea Pitch will include a proposed learning methodology for Army to adopt, and a baseline education package for all of our personnel on how to study, learn and remember more effectively and efficiently.

An Army Methodology for Effective Learning?

I think that Army needs to select an underlying methodology for effective learning and study. This then needs to be implemented and integrated into all training and education. Such a methodology would enable the delivery of content that is attractive, interesting and meaningful to personnel of all different learning styles. It would not seek to replace the Systems Approach to Defence Learning (SADL), but would provide a complementary framework for how course schedules and course content are developed within the SADL.

The methodology would consist of two elements; a set of ‘Principles of Learning and Remembering’ and a ‘Study System’.

Principles of Learning and Remembering [1]

These principles could be used to align the way course content is structured and delivered to maximise the benefits to the learner, and their ability to learn the material. If course content is aligned to meet the majority of these principles, I believe it is more likely that trainees would genuinely, and deeply, learn the content. The implementation of these principles would require a significant amount of current course content to be tweaked or changed to present the information in a more effective way.

The 'Principles of Learning and Remembering'
The ‘Principles of Learning and Remembering’

Study System [2]

A ‘study system’ is a process that is used to study a particular subject. The study system that is currently written in the Royal Military College – Duntroon (RMC-D) Learning Management Package (LMP) is called ‘SQ3R’. This has proven very effective for learning across tertiary institutions. My assessment, however, is that the majority of personnel within Army start and finish their study of a given topic at the third step of SQ3R (‘read’), which only engages six of the ‘Principles of Learning and Remembering’.

The SQ3R Study System
The SQ3R Study System

This can be effective for short term knowledge retention and to help you pass an exam at the end of a theory module. This type of learning, however, typically results in memories not being effectively created or reinforced through the ‘recite’ and ‘review’ steps, resulting in the inability to recall information at a later date.

As argued in my first blog, I believe this is the reason why it appears to trainees that our current courses are structured to re-teach information that has already been presented. To get past this issue, we need to invest in the other elements of the SQ3R system:

Survey/Question. Including these first two steps of SQ3R enables personnel to identify the topics that will be learnt, link this topic to others that have previously been learnt to increase interest and association, and identify which questions need to be answered while doing the reading. These steps engage six of the ‘Principles of Learning and Remembering’: organisation, attention, meaningfulness, interest, association and context. The knowledge from these steps, when coupled with the six principles they engage, provides the cognitive framework to enable the ‘read’ step to be more effective.

Recite/Review. Including these last two steps of SQ3R enable personnel to rehearse and confirm that they have created a ‘memory’ with the required information, and that they can recall it with increasing efficiency if they continue the reviews at an increasing interval. These steps engage all ten of the ‘Principles of Learning and Remembering’. At its height, it allows you to ‘over-learn’ a topic, which enables you to recall information at very quick speeds. This ability is well-suited to military roles, especially when decision-making in high-pressure situations needs to occur.

Baseline Education for All Personnel on How to Study, Learn and Remember

I believe there is an incorrect assumption, conscious or not, that everyone has at some point been taught how to study, learn and remember. The reason for this is that Army recruits personnel who have very divergent pathways for their formal education throughout their life. Regardless of how someone enters service with the Army, I believe that there is a great benefit in applying a level of standardisation by teaching everyone what the memory is, how it works, a set of ‘Principles of Learning and Remembering’, some basic strategies to improve study habits, and a study system they can follow.

This package would need to be delivered in two mediums:

Face-to-Face. All ab-initio trainees should receive this training before they start learning significant amounts of theory.

Online. I think this same package should also be available as an online course that would enable individuals to refresh themselves on this training. This could then be a pre-requisite for any individual courses, ideally to be completed before the pre-course learning package.

There would be a requirement for a subject-matter expert (SME), such as a cognitive psychologist, to be involved in the development of teaching material for both mediums. This SME could also be used to run a ‘train-the-trainer’ course for instructors and training designers to help lesson content and delivery align to the methodology.

Simple, Useable Doctrine?

I believe that our written doctrine should be presented in alternate methods, in addition to the current style, to enable and encourage personnel to learn it. The alternate methods described below will enable doctrine to be effectively and efficiently studied, learnt and remembered within my proposed learning methodology for Army. Also, the current style of doctrine should have minimum readability standards imposed so that it can be easily read and understood by all personnel in the Army.

I have personally found it very effective for doctrine to be presented in an interactive mind-map format. This alternate way of presenting the information immediately makes it more interesting, and assists in understanding the way that the pieces of information fit together. You can see a short demonstration video below in a mind map made from LWD 1 Fundamentals of Land Power.

The other presentation method that could support the teaching of doctrine is a program called Anki. This is a free tool that produces flash cards, and is currently the most effective solution on the market for the conduct of ‘spaced review’. Cards can be formatted with text, video, audio and numerous other options. You can see a short demonstration of the program and some military flash cards below.

Anki would be able to be installed on personal devices and the DRN, enabling the study of unclassified doctrine at home or at work, and the study of classified doctrine on a compatible system at work.

To complement the use of Anki in ‘spaced review’, and to engage the feedback principle of learning and remembering, quizzes could be provided to trainees throughout any course. These can be printed off or incorporated into online courses on platforms like Moodle.


The Army is not currently realising the full intellectual potential of the personnel in our force. I believe that with a few simple changes to the methodology used to develop and deliver individual and collective training we can realise this potential.


What are the likely implementation issues that we would see if Army adopted the methodology I have suggested?

Are my ideas appropriate for a potential new methodology? If not, what else could/should be included?

Do you think the suggested baseline education package would help you learn more effectively or efficiently? If not, what would?

What other presentation styles would you find effective for learning doctrine?

Would you find the flash-card style learning effective? If each piece of doctrine came with a deck of flash-cards would it help you learn?

About the author:

Steve Cotterill is an officer in the Royal Australian Armoured Corps. He is passionate about developing ways to help others be more efficient and effective in their learning. In 2017 he will commence studying an Executive MBA at Melbourne Business School.


Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.

End notes:

[1] Higbee, Kenneth. Your memory: how it works and how to improve it. New York: Marlowe and Company, 2001. pp 45-73.
[2] Higbee, Kenneth. Your memory: how it works and how to improve it. New York: Marlowe and Company, 2001. pp 85-91.

One thought on “Idea Pitch – Fighting Power, Intellectual Mastery and the Challenge of Teaching (Part 2)

  1. Train the trainer with a cognitive expert is a great idea. Often there are inefficient and non intelligects training people. We are discussing powering up the cognitive function of the learning capacity and capability of the trainee, hence an equal or higher equal in the cognitive realm must be at the helm to lead ans train the trainees.

    I believe a study portal. Whether it be The Cove or another study portal, should be opened up on the free knowledge market so civilians / future army, can learn and study army knowledge to power up the in the army cognitive battle space.

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