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Interactive Training System Successful for Child Interviewers

A computer-based, interactive training system demonstrates promising results for investigative interviewers of children by improving interview questioning skills, increasing adherence to interview protocol, and enhancing overall quality of interviews. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

ppplEvaluation of a Comprehensive Interactive Training System for Investigative Interviewers of Children | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2015, Vol. 21, No. 3, 309-322

Evaluation of a Comprehensive Interactive Training System for Investigative Interviewers of Children

Authors

Mariri Benson, Deakin University
Martine B. Powell, Deakin University

Abstract

This article reports on the evaluation of an interactive interviewer training system with a large, heterogeneous sample of investigative interviewers of children. The system, delivered predominantly through computer-assisted learning activities, focused on how to elicit important evidential details from child witnesses in a narrative format. Two studies are reported, each adopting a pre versus post training design. Study 1 examined the effect of the training on trainees’ (N = 92) performance, using mock interviews where an actor played the role of the child in a highly controlled manner. Study 2 examined the effect of the training on field interviews (N = 156) conducted prior to and after the training. Five measures were analyzed: (a) proportion of interviewer question types, (b) proportion of desirable interviewer behaviors, (c) adherence to the interview protocol, (d) interview length, and (e) the quality of evidential information sought. Overall, the findings provide clear support for the utility of the training system. Irrespective of the type of interview or measure, adherence to best-practice interviewing increased from pre- to posttraining, with some evidence supporting sustained performance 12 months after there had been no intervening training or supervision. The implication is that there is now an evidence-based alternative to the traditional classroom-based training system for investigative interview- ers. Suggestions for future research are also discussed.

Keywords

child witnesses, investigative interviewing, interview training, training evaluation

Summary of the Research

Interviewing children can be a tedious and complex process, which requires careful practice by those conducting the interviews. In a forensic context, investigative interviews of children can be even more complex, as they are “centered on the elicitation of accurate, detailed, and coherent accounts of offenses. Such interviewing requires highly specialized training. The current article reports on the evaluation of a new interactive training system with a large cohort of child abuse interviewers in two jurisdictions of Australia. The new system consisted of computer-assisted learning activities, which focused on using open-ended questions to elicit narrative accounts for both investigative and evidential purposes. The learning activities, prepared in collaboration with academics and industry partners, were completed over several months in trainees’ regular workplace environments. Delivery of the learning exercises was standardized and controlled via an online learning site that uses a management system to allow in-house (organizational) trainers to track individuals’ progress” (p. 309).

The authors address the concern that, “despite strong consensus about what constitutes best-practice interviewing, a major gap exists between interviewing methods dictated in evidence-based interview protocols and those strategies used by interviewers in the field” (p. 309). They outline three features of modern child interviewing protocols: instructional ground rules about the process of interviewing, the use of a practice narrative prior to questioning of the event under investigation, and the use of open-ended questions.

The authors discuss possible factors contributing to the low efficacy of current training techniques: an underestimation of the skill required to teach child witness interviewing and a need for more interactive components to training in order to avoid passive learning. “Research in the interviewer-training field has made some head- way in identifying how to amend the structure and format of training programs to more successfully reduce the gap between best-practice guidelines and actual interview practice. Specifically researchers have increased the intensity and frequency of feedback, prolonged the length of time during which trainees received feedback, staggered face-to-face training sessions over an extended period of time, and incorporated subsequent “refresher” sessions after training completion. While such attempts have led to better success in open-ended question usage, the maintenance of skills over time (from immediate posttraining to several months follow- up) is still problematic. Another attempt to address the gap has involved incorporation of e-learning technology. E-learning technology has transformed workplace learning across a number of domains in terms of accessibility, flexibility in delivery, cost-efficiency and the fact that trainees can progress through activities in their own time and at their own. E-learning allows for active participation from trainees and places more responsibility for professional development on the individual learner. Another benefit of e-learning is that it can incorporate a wider array of media elements, such as text, narration, animations and film clips, as well as empirically supported instructional strategies into the learning environment, which promote long-term retention and transfer of skills and knowledge into practice” (p. 311).

The current study examined the efficacy of a web-based, interactive training program on child witness interviewing techniques. “At the time of this evaluation, the current training system, named the Specialist Vulnerable Witness Forensic Interview Training, had been in operation for 18 months across two Australian jurisdictions. The overriding focus of the training was to increase understanding of sufficient evidential requirements and how to elicit this information in narrative format. The training took a number of months to complete and consisted of 15 modules, covering a wide variety of topics: defining the various question types, child development, techniques on how to elicit a disclosure, how to interview about repeated abuse, identifying relevant legislation, recognizing grooming behavior, and interviewing cross- cultural children and other witnesses with complex communication needs. An interview protocol, similar in structure to the NICHD protocol and approved by local Crown prosecutors (Benson & Powell, manuscript under review) was also introduced” (p. 312).

The training program included interactive exercises, film clips, examples, presentations, virtual simulations, self-initiated practices, and quizzes. Participants were provided with immediate online feedback including explanations of correct answers. Progress was monitored through a management system by the trainers in order to prevent participants from advancing through the course too quickly. Throughout the training, mock interviews with actors (trained to respond like abused children) were utilized and conducted over phone or video call.

The study was completed in two parts. In Study 1, 92 trainees participated in the interactive training system and were assessed based on mock interviews, Participants demonstrated a decrease in specific and leading questions asked, an increase in open-ended questions asked, and the improvements lasted through a three to six month follow up. In Study 2, 78 trainees were evaluated on field interviews by the same individual both before and after training., The number of specific and leading questions of interviews are decreased, and an increase in open-ended questions was also observed. There was also a significant increase in adherence to the interview protocol post-training. These improvements showed no evidence of decline at follow-up.

“The current findings provide clear support for the utility of the training system evaluated in this study. The most important indicator of best-practice interviewing is adherence to open-ended questions, and this training was associated with a significant increase, along with relatively high posttraining rates, in the use of these questions. For the mock interviews, the mean proportion of open-ended questions increased from 30% at pretraining to 58% at posttraining. For the field interviews, the mean proportion of these questions increased fourfold from 10% pre- to 40% posttraining … Importantly, improvements in performance were sustained at the 3–6 month follow-up mock interview assessment and for up to 12 months in the field…. What the current study showed is that long-term maintenance of interviewing skills is not just about the prevalence of feedback and supervision in the months after the course ceases. The structure of the training program itself also impacts skill maintenance.” (p. 316).

Translating Research into Practice

“The implication of the current findings for government organizations is that there is now an evidence-based alternative to the traditional classroom-based training system for investigative interviewers. This is good news for those organizations with limited budgets and staff spread over large geographic regions. When excluding the costs of writing and developing the materials, the training system was no more costly to run than the previous short-term classroom-based training where most of the budgets were spent on travel, accommodation, and other requirements associated with the abstraction of large numbers of trainee interviewers into the classroom. The main costs associated with this course were technological support, the hiring of actors, the maintenance of the management system, and the evaluation of interviewer performance. It also needs to be considered that the training would have led to cost savings in other areas. Shorter interviews are associated with lower interview transcription costs. The provision of ready-made training activities and resources allow in-house trainers to focus on supporting trainee interviewers, as opposed to writing and delivering course content. Further, computerized assessment allows easier evaluation and monitoring of individual skills over time” (p. 317).

The findings of this research may be directly translated into practice by providing an innovative training method relevant to child witness interviewing and, more broadly, leading to the potential adoption of similar training programs across other forensic professional practices. The current study suggests that the use of modern technology for offering professional training is not only cost-efficient and convenient for the learner, but also successful in improving skills and practice.

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

Notably, the comprehensive interactive training program in the current study appears to maintain its success over several months. Future research and similar programs may consider secondary follow up analyses, as well as follow up training or materials to provide to learners. It would be worthwhile to create new ways to help forensic mental health and investigative professionals maintain skills learned in training over longer periods of time.

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Authored By Marissa Zappala

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Marissa is currently a second-year Master’s student in the Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Her main research interests include cognitive biases, forensic assessment, and evaluator training and education. Following her Master’s, Marissa plans to pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and an eventual career in psychological assessment.

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