In our present culture we run constantly short of time, which dissuades us from attempting to learn new things and/ or impedes our own personal study. This is a big problem in professional (fire service) and industrial rescue because personnel are expected to know many different kinds of rescue. It can feel like there is not enough time to learn it all among job duties, recertification, and attempting to keep up with the latest developments in rescue.

This document presents examples of study techniques that can be utilized by training officers (fire service or in industry) to help their students learn a diversity of material in short periods of time. It is important to note that there are decades of data on how learning occurs, so by adopting practices that facilitate learning more effectively, training and study time can be maximized for greatest retention.

For the sake of this discussion use rope rescue material (because the nonprofit SAR3 exists to help rope users), but the same methods can be utilized for teaching any material (for example, confined space, hazmat, etc.).

Important Concepts

The research concerning effective learning (study habits) has found there are two practices that consistently yield the greatest learning gains across student types (adult vs. youth, novice vs. expert, etc.) and with limited study time.

1. Time on Task: As the amount of time a student spends learning material increases, the greater the learning and long-term retention. For example, a student who spends four hours studying is expected to learn more and remember more over a long period of time than someone who studies for only an hour.

2. Distributed Study/Practice: By spreading out study time more equally over time, students learn more and retain information longer. For example, a student who studies seven hours on Sunday before a test on Monday will know less and retain it for a shorter time than the student who studies for an hour each day for a week before the test (also seven hours of study time).

Because professional and industrial rescuers are short on training time it is difficult to increase the amount of time a student studies. Consequently, the most efficient way of improving student learning is to provide frequent opportunities for short, distributed study and practice. This guide provides a few short techniques that trainers can utilize to improve their students’ learning and long term retention. The methods are all short, only a couple of minutes in duration, so they can be implemented frequently throughout a day, or week, as a part of regular duties or training. Not each method will be suitable for each workplace, so use the techniques that are most appropriate for teaching and learning conditions.


1. (~2 minutes) Perform a kinetic skill at the start of any meeting. For example, put out short lengths of rope (enough for each attendee). Have everyone sit down and tie a knot, safety check it, then have a peer safety check it (Figure 1). The directions can be written on the board and the equipment provided on tables. Those who arrive early can do it before the meeting starts. This should only take a couple of minutes, with no debriefing required after checking that the skills are performed correctly Address any deficiencies briefly at a later time. By practicing (just demonstrating a skill) prior to each meeting, attendees will learn the practice and meeting format, expect to practice at the start of a meeting, and will instinctively enter the room, perform the skill, and get ready for the meeting. Explain that the expectation is to perform the skill quickly, without extra talk, and the activity really will take only a couple of minutes. This format makes for short, frequent, and efficient skills practice. This method helps students remember isolated skills (jogging memory), build system components, and stimulate thought about how the components fit into larger systems. Distributed practice helps students remember parts of systems so when they are called upon to build full systems later, constructing each piece should be easier. Further examples include: build only part of a rescue system (e.g., fixed break lower, a deviation, an anchor, etc.), or build an entire system if the team is fast (e.g., build a 3:1 haul system, a piggyback 4:1 haul system, etc.). Consider timing your students (without telling them), and see if they get faster at skills through time.

2. (5 minutes) Diagram a rescue system or scenario on a small whiteboard (Figure 2), chalkboard, or piece of paper at the beginning of a meeting, training, or as a person comes in for a shift. The trainer can check the white boards any time during the shift. By writing the directions somewhere (whiteboard, message board, etc.), students can identify the tasks desired without a trainer present, perform the task, turn in their answers. The trainer can check answers at any time during the shift and address any deficiencies observed in student work. This method gets students to generate information for themselves, self-identify weaknesses, and forces students to think through an entire system from start to finish. Just thinking through a system helps students remember all components for longer, thus improving later hands-on training and practical exercises. Having a record of student performance that is public so others can see stimulates improved performance because students do not want to look bad to their peers. Incidentally, a similar psychology underlies a lot of the social networking apps for fitness or food tracking.

3. (2 minutes) Provide flash cards on meeting room or break room tables with the desired content on them (Figure 3). Encourage students to flip through cards individually, or in pairs when they sit down at the table in the few minutes before meetings start. This can be before meetings, during breaks, before shifts start, or any other scheduled function. Sometimes students become competitive, thus yielding improved learning and a culture of continued study and practice that is self-motivated. For rope rescue, a quick way to make flash cards is to purchase small field guides, cut out the pages, and use the relevant pages as flash cards. They could be laminated for added longevity. Alternatively, students can develop a flash card at the beginning of every meeting for a few months until they have a pack handy for continued practice. One way to generate many cards quickly is to sit down with a rescue team, have them all make a set of flashcards (which is a study technique in its own right!), and keep the student-created cards around for use during break times.

4. (10 minutes) Have students pair up. One student talks/ explains while the other draws or builds something. This method can be implemented rapidly by providing either whiteboards/pen/ paper or system building materials. Have one student talk through a rescue system without telling the partner what the rescue system is, while their partner either draws or builds the system (Figure 4), precisely as they describe. This can be implemented rapidly as the students learn how this exercise is done, then perform it frequently throughout the training day or once a week/month. For example, before a trench rescue class, have students talk through a fixed break lower system. This gets students to think through a full system rapidly, build or draw it, then do something entirely different. This is an excellent technique to use with advanced groups that can perform skills rapidly. It also helps hone students’ understanding of what is important in systems because they are telling their peer what to draw or build real time. This skill can also lead to improved communication in rescue scenarios as students get used to talking efficiently about systems and equipment.

 5. (5-15 minutes) Short reading time. Quiet reading time is less effective for young learners and only a little better for adult learners. However, some students prefer personal study time over group study techniques (Figure 5). Consequently, short reading time can be used incredibly effectively. Simply provide reading materials for the students, and request that they spend 5-to-15 minutes reading for themselves. Provide training materials or use existing rescue training books, proceedings papers from the International Technical Rescue Symposium, or articles from the Nylon Highway. Students can also develop their own reading lists. SAR3 also provides many free short articles on different topics like this one. That can be read in only a few short minutes. It may be helpful to allow some students to talk about what they just read as a part of this exercise.

6. Send daily or weekly e-mails or texts with links (for smartphones) to students with educational content. This is probably the least effective method on this list, however it may work well for younger students who live much of their lives digitally. Sending an e-mail with a picture or scan of a rescue system could be a daily reminder of the information the students are supposed to know. A quick way to generate many pictures would be to use the figures from an organization training manual. This technique is more effective with a student body interested in the subject. Interested students will study diagrams e-mailed to them, submit their own images, and even wait impatiently for the next installment. Consider this option a highly motivated crew.


People and students often resist change, so it may take some time for a team or group to accept the changes in their training and study routine. Even the most experienced teacher would benefit from patience in implementing these suggestions. Consider explaining to students the purpose of the new activities, discuss how they will help students learn and retain information, and then try it out a few times. It may take a few months to see improvement, so be patient and persistent! If implemented repeatedly, students will start to notice their own increased retention from thinking about content frequently. Give these techniques a while (a month or two) to see or measure the positive effects. In short, give them a chance, they will work!