Study indicates 'adaptive thinking' training helps army leaders

January 10 2007

While President Bush is calling for more troops to be sent to Iraq, a U.S. Army research psychologist is developing a training method for more prepared troops, who can "think on their feet" during battle.

In a recent study of U.S. Army captains who participated in the "Think Like a Commander" training program, Scott Shadrick, a senior research psychologist for the U.S. Army Research Institute at Fort Knox, Ky., found that captains with this focused adaptive thinking training outperformed a sample of lieutenant colonels who had seen real combat in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

"While this doesn't indicate that captains can perform battle command tasks better than, or even as well as, lieutenant colonels," Shadrick said, "what it does indicate is that captains with focused training can quickly learn to identify key features of a rapidly changing tactical situation, and may do so at higher levels of proficiency than officers who gained their skill through the 'trial-by-fire' experiences of current conflicts, such as Iraq or Afghanistan."

While the "Think Like a Commander" training program has been employed by the U.S. Army in several courses since 2000, Shadrick's research, conducted for his doctorate in technology management at Indiana State University, was the first thorough validation of the program's ability to accelerate the development of adaptive thinking.

Shadrick defines "adaptive thinking" as being able to respond effectively under complex and rapidly changing conditions when a multitude of events compete for a leader?s attention. It is this kind of ability (e.g., adaptability in its soldiers) that the Army has identified as one of its top needs, and was specifically stated by Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker in 2006 during the second session of the 109th Congress.

In order to train soldiers to think in this manner, "the 'Think Like a Commander" training involves repetitive cognitive drills where highly complex and unpredictable vignettes are presented," Shadrick said.

Officers are taught to apply specific behavioral themes to each tactical situation. The themes represent the mental model expert tactical thinkers apply when analyzing situations.

"The soldiers are given coaching and feedback on their performance to develop expert thinking patterns," he said.

Programs such as the "Think Like a Commander" underscore the Army?s current understanding that teaching soldiers how to think is just as important as teaching them how to fight.

"The 'Think Like a Commander' training program has been used to train adaptive thinking and has shown considerable promise," he said.

Shadrick's dissertation, "Accelerating the Development of Adaptive Thinking in United States Army Captains," adds to the evidence that adaptive thinking skills gained via deliberate training may exceed those gained via experiential learning alone.

His results also suggest that officers with deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan perform better than officers without deployment experience.

"The performance gains for the deployed officers presumably reflect experiential learning that took place during deployment," Shadrick said. "This learning is valuable and contributes to the development of expertise and adaptive performance."

The highest performers, however, were captains who received focused, deliberate training using the "Think Like a Commander" training tool.

As part of his duties to enhance battle command training, Shadrick will continue to implement the "Think Like a Commander" training throughout the Army and use the theme-based training method to train other complex cognitive skills.

"So far, we have started to apply the method for the training of crisis action planning and execution in a collaborative research agreement with the Indiana Army National Guard," he said, "and we are starting to apply the method to train battlefield visualization skills at the battalion level."


Contact: Scott Shadrick, Ph.D., FBC Team Leader/Senior Research Psychologist, U.S. Army Research Institute, (502) 624-4932,

Writer: Katie Spanuello, assistant director of media relations, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790,

ISU Communications & Marketing: (812) 237-3773,

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Story Highlights

For his doctorate work at ISU, U.S. Army research psychologist Scott Shadrick studied the "Think Like a Commander" training program, and found that it helps soldiers "think on their feet" during battle.

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