3 Steps to Irresistible Safety Training

Happiness and high satisfaction ratings are not normally associated with lifeboat refresher training.

In 2018, Virtual Marine (#VirtualMarine), in collaboration with an international network of training providers, delivered refresher training to 1,000 lifeboat coxswains, who completed 6,500 practice scenarios and who registered a satisfaction rating of over 90%.

In many cases, the training was delivered automatically without the use of an instructor.

Our customers tell us that this is a dramatic improvement in satisfaction rates when compared with training delivered by launching lifeboats into harbours, ponds or swimming pools.

Undoubtedly, the use of simulation was a big part of the improvement. We were able to provide highly realistic training while completely eliminating the risk. No-one got hurt, and everyone came away from the experience with dramatically improved skills.

But the introduction of a new technology is not the whole story. A better tool helps, no question, but even more important is the way the tool is used. This is especially true in our case, since many of the practice scenarios were delivered at the worksite using automated simulators.

Virtual Marine has taken a page from the gaming industry's playbook by applying the science of 'happiness' and incorporating it into the training programs delivered using its simulators.

Our thoughts are influenced by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly. I highly recommend that you read his work Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

Many of us have experienced 'flow' first-hand when doing things that we find enjoyable, and have seen it in our children who become so absorbed in a video game that you have to chase them off to bed in the wee hours of the morning.

In our journey to pioneer the use of simulation and virtual environments into safety training for the maritime industry, we were struck by the tremendous opportunity to dramatically improve workforce engagement by redesigning training programs to induce states of 'flow'.

Here are the three steps we believe are critical to developing irresistible safety training programs using simulators.

Step 1: Provide clear goals and immediate feedback on performance. This is not only recommended by Csikszentmihalyi, but is also accepted as a key requirement in simulation training. It is surprising, however, how loosely defined the performance standards are for marine training. The competence statements published by the International Maritime Organization and industry organizations like OPITO are not nearly precise enough to encourage superior performance.

In our case, we did a deep dive into the research reports related to the operation of life saving equipment to precisely define what performance standards are required to operate a lifeboat in an emergency. For example, we replaced the general requirement to be able to 'release the hooks' with the requirement to be able to 'release the hooks within 3 seconds of entering the water' based on research done in Norway.

Once students know precisely what is required of them, and receive feedback on their ability to meet the performance standard, it is amazing how strongly it motivates them achieve the necessary skill levels.

Step 2: Carefully manage scenario difficulty. There is a lot of science behind inducing a state of 'flow' during simulation training. Csikszentmihalyi indicates that there is a sweet spot where tasks are the optimal level of difficulty. If they are outside the zone, then they are either 'boring' (too easy) or 'frustrating' (too hard). Like Goldilocks, we are seeking the point where task difficulty is 'just right'.

To get difficulty 'just right', we need to know the skill levels of the students entering the program; the objective performance standards against which the students are evaluated; the inherent degrees of difficulty associated with each of the tasks they are required to perform; as well as, the learning curves relevant to each of the tasks. With this information, we can create a learning progression which induces a state of 'flow' in the majority of the students taking our programs.

The bulk of the information we use to design our programs comes from controlled experiments and from observations of how students perform tasks during training programs. Armed with this data, we can estimate the likelihood that a student with a given skill background will be able to successfully complete a given training scenario.

More importantly, we can also estimate how much learning will be transferred from one scenario to the next enabling us to ensure that we sequence the scenarios so that they are increasing in difficulty at the same rate as skills are being acquired. Matching level of difficulty to student ability is a key element in keeping within 'flow zone'.

Step 3: Simulate the Simulations. As you can imagine, the calculations required to account for the learning effect of all the permutations of tasks and operating conditions within a training program would be overwhelming to do by hand. To help us get to the correct learning progression, we simulate the simulations.

Our algorithm determines the outcome of delivering a given program over the course of several years with several thousand students. We can estimate how many would stay within a state of 'flow' and how many would fall into the 'bored' category and how many would fall into the 'frustrated' category. By adjusting the parameters within the scenarios and/or the sequence of scenarios we can arrive at enjoyable, challenging, yet fully compliant training programs.

Getting the mix right can have dramatic impacts on training. Our initial programs, with scenario difficulty subjectively assessed by expert opinion, had high drop-out rates mid-way through the course. The scenarios had increased in complexity faster than the increase in the skill level of the students. The student became 'frustrated' and disengaged from the training.

Once we incorporated the science of 'happiness' and started using data to induce states of 'flow' we saw a dramatic improvement in training outcomes. Not only did students complete the course, but they tend to continue practicing using the simulator even though they have completed the training program.

A few final thoughts.

Our observation of over-training is related to our other observation that lifeboat coxswains genuinely want to be ready if the time comes where their co-workers are relying on them to evacuate to a place of safety. Their sense of responsibility and desire to do a good job, coupled with an enjoyable training program, pushes their competence well above what is accomplished with traditional compliance-based training programs.

Irresistible safety training is an elusive goal that everyone in the industry would like to achieve. Using solid science to create not only highly realistic simulations but also highly engaging and enjoyable training programs, Virtual Marine has made irresistible safety training a reality for lifeboat coxswains.

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