Friday, August 31, 2012

Problems with cheating on submarines

So the Navy has found that although it will relieve 10 percent of the crew of the USS MEMPHIS due to cheating on nuclear exams:

It doesn't have a widespread cheating problem on submarine exams:

And it doesn't have a problem with retention on submarines...or maybe it does

Critics are arguing that the Navy's study is flawed, and that cheating is rampant. Having been on a submarine, I'm going to agree with the critics. I think it really boils down to two main problems:

1. A zero-defect mentality on all things nuclear power.
2. A schedule that requires 12-15 hour days at a minimum to accomplish everything.

What has happened is that for nuclear personnel, and especially for officers, you can't throw enough money at people to make them want to be the "ideal" submariner in the eyes of big Navy. Most people do not enjoy slaving away each and every workday, plus the weekends, while in port on a submarine. That, coupled with an unhealthy attitude of "you are never good enough," leads most nuclear sailors to leave for greener pastures.

The submarine force could stand to learn some lessons from naval aviation, namely:

1. Have a zero defect mentality on key areas, while allowing lesser knowledge on others.

This is a big one. There are only some key areas where your knowledge must be 100 percent or people die, namely in emergency procedures. For everything else, you would naturally pull out the reactor plant manual. In the non-emergency cases, knowing where to find things is more important then attempting to memorize them verbatim.

In aviation, on NATOPS checkrides, not every section is weighted the same. If, for example, you don't remember every switch in the APU checklist, that's OK...that's why you use the checklist in the first place. But not knowing everything about your parachute or AIRSAVE vest could get you killed in an emergency...which is why that equipment knowledge is considered a key area and could fail your checkride.

2. Make monthly tests easy, and quarterlies harder

Every month, nuclear engineering folks take an engineering exam, and supervisors take another exam as well. They are 10 questions, but they take anywhere from 1-2 hours each. This is on top of divisional exams and division/department/command training. At one point I remember taking 5 exams in a week, each one 10 free response questions. When you're already working long hours, the tests are just a kick in the nuts.

Nuclear power would be better off with quicker weekly exams and tough quarterly exams. Make them 20-30 multiple choice questions. By being easy, you can get someone to devote the time to take them. By making the grading easy, you get quick feedback to folks. By reducing the time per exam, you get a better return by getting more out of the attention span of the person taking the exam. I suspect that many folks cheat simply because they are exhausted from working too long and just want the pain to be over with. Simplifying the tests uses the sailors time better and more effectively.

3. Start simplifying submarine life, so submariners can do their job in a normal day

A submarine is a busy place, and there is no time to waste on garbage requirements. Between mandatory GMT, SAPR training, watchstanding, squadron inspections, field day, and training, there isn't a lot of room to get real work done.

Nobody joins the Navy to do paperwork. Why are we not simplifying this then? Why aren't multiple choice tests done on the computer and graded automatically, so we don't have to waste our time grading by hand? Why aren't shore commands providing easy to access training resources so that sailors don't spend time paging through hundreds of pages of material (if the Reactor Plant Manuals were in PDF, they'd be one keyword away from any answer)? Why are there never enough computers onboard, while we waste thousands of dollars on other frivolous expenses?

There are so many ways we could make life onboard easier, and thus better enable our submariners to do the real work they signed up for, as well as have more time to actually learn their trade. The fact that we aren't actively pursuing these, and instead simply hammering on them with a zero-defect mentality, is simply depressing.