FORT BLISS, Texas (Army News Service, Feb. 29, 2008) -- Students attending the First Sergeant Course Phase II, whether in residence or through video tele-training, are quickly realizing that the course is not like the one described by former students.

Gone are many of the written examinations and classroom instruction led mainly by course instructors. In their place is a more student-led, lessons-learned, participatory form of instruction that is focused on being relevant to today's operational environment. What's more -- if Soldiers are attending in residence at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy on Fort Bliss, their time spent away from home station just shrunk by six days.

"For the longest time the First Sergeant Course was pretty much predicated on exams," said Sgt. Maj. Ramzy Noel, First Sergeant Course senior instructor. "It focused too much on exams and as a result some of the experience that is relevant to what is going on today wasn't being addressed."

"So one of the most significant changes we have done is getting away from an exam-based course to one that that is primarily focused on facilitation discussions and performance appraisals. And that has done a lot for us in that when we get into the classroom we can sit down and talk about some of the most relevant things that are happening on the battlefield."

To reduce temporary duty time for residence attendees from 21 days to 15 days, the program of instruction has been changed from a five-day training week to a six-day training week with extended hours.

"We start as early as 7 a.m. depending on the instruction for the day and end around 7 p.m.," said Master Sgt. Jerry Bailey, First Sergeant Course instructor. "This is the first class doing the 6-day training week and the first Saturday the students were like, 'Okay, it's Saturday and we're in school.' But they are enjoying it because a lot of them are really looking forward to getting back home earlier."

Changes to the curriculum include the removal of instruction on training meetings, training execution and training assessments and the addition of instruction on things like riot control, improvised explosive device defeat, casualty evacuation, grade registration and improved logistics. Changes were also made to the formal briefings given by the students and the addition of an end of course sustainment exercise.

The course is set up into three phases of instruction - the Leadership Phase (I), Training Phase (II) and War Fighter Phase (III).

"The Leadership Phase is similar to the old course of instruction with the exception of instead of a military briefing; the students give an information briefing based on a provided scenario. In the training Phase all of our lessons are geared towards training that is being done in the field today," Noel said. "At the end of that training they do a decision brief based on one of five topics and the brief has to relate to their home station. Finally in the War Fighter Phase we talks about things a first sergeant will be faced with on the battlefield and it is where the students can share their experiences with each other."

Other improvements to the course of instruction both Noel and Bailey pointed to are that both in residence and VTT courseware are exactly the same. The only difference being that the VTT course of instruction is still three weeks, due mainly to time differences between Fort Bliss and many VTT sites, and requiring remote sites to bring students in for Saturday instruction would take them unnecessarily away from their families on the weekend.

With the addition of the end of course sustainment exercise, the students come face-to-face with, much of the new battlefield technology.

"The end of course exam is big on the Force XXI Battle Command, Brigade-and-Below [digital battlefield system]," Noel said. "The students will receive about eight hours of instruction on the FBCB2, four hours on plans and annexes and then they will create an operations order as a group. From there each student will participate in the rock drill and brief their part of the operation order. Then they come back inside and actually execute the order on the FBCB2 system."

In addition to the new sustainment exercise, residence students have a group room competition called the First Sergeant Challenge where the group rooms compete in physical fitness events, orienteering and briefing presentations. The group with the highest number of points is named the winner of the challenge.

"To me this course is night and day," Noel said. "We are able to transition to the new POI that is more relevant to what is on the battlefield."

Officials estimate the cost savings for going to the 6-day training week for the in-residence course is more than $300,000 annually. For more information on the new course of instruction contact Master Sgt. Latanya Jackson at (915) 568-8359, DSN 978.

(David Crozier writes for the NCO Journal )