'Non-Cognitive' Testing Could Identify Better Marine Drill Instructors

Drill instructors at Parris Island retire the guidons Dec. 2, 2016. (Marine Corps Photo)
Drill instructors at Parris Island retire the guidons Dec. 2, 2016. (Marine Corps Photo)

In the wake of a series of 2016 investigations that substantiated allegations of hazing and abuse of recruits at Parris Island, South Carolina, the Marine Corps is testing new psychological screening tools at drill instructor training school that could highlight qualities difficult to pinpoint with a test or checklist.

In a recent interview with Military.com, the commander of Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island and the Marine Corps Eastern Recruiting Region, Brig. Gen. Austin Renforth, said the service has been experimenting with testing tools at the depot's drill instructor school, but the effort is still in its fledgling stages.

"What we're looking at is [is] there a good test for us to give to the drill instructor candidates. Is there a good test once they come here, to maybe identify those individuals who don't have what it takes to be a drill instructor," he said.

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"And that's tough, because you don't want somebody to have a bad day on Sunday, and he doesn't get the opportunity to be a drill instructor," Renforth added. "So it's got to be something that we can factor in enough to identify a potential issue. There's more work to be done on that."

The Corps has flirted with so-called "non-cognitive" testing tools for several years.

In 2015, Marine Corps Recruiting Command issued a solicitation for research and studies on ways to identify predictors for success for officer candidates. Officials explained at the time that existing recruiting methods did not always predict whether a candidate would have the resiliency to succeed.

The effort is in line with a recent scientific interest in the characteristic of "grit" as a predictor for success.

Perhaps the most frequently cited example of a non-cognitive test to isolate this requirement is the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment of the 1960s, in which small children were offered a single marshmallow right away, or two marshmallows if they could wait a short time for the reward.

Those who could delay gratification, the study found, tended to do better on standardized tests as they grew older, have lower body mass indexes, and have higher measures of competency than those who couldn't resist the first marshmallow.

How that might translate to drill instructor training is less clear. Renforth said he didn't want to name any specific program or test the Corps had looked into, as officials have already examined some options and determined they aren't a good fit.

"We haven't signed up for any specific testing yet that we think is right for what we have here, so what we're looking at, is there something out there, another screener to maybe identify a young man or woman that isn't ready to maybe be under the pressure of being a drill instructor," he said.

Could such a measure prevent potential incidents of hazing and recruit abuse at the hands of drill instructors? That would be "really connecting some dots," Renforth said.

But, he added, "We want the right person to be here. We think we have a pretty good checklist now, but if there's another measure we could put in place to potentially screen someone who couldn't handle these kinds of pressures, we'd like to have that."

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

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