The Case Method Increasing the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Marine Education by Captain Paul Tremblay Jr USMC | Law Enforcement & Security Consulting

An honor and privilege to get permission from Captain Paul Tremblay Jr. to post his paper on “The Case Method Increasing the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Marine Education” that was also published in the Marine Corps Gazette back in 2012. Its written with the Marine Corps in mind but the Case Method will help policing increase efficiency and effectiveness as well. The Case Method is a method of teaching that uses the solution of the complex problems at the heart of real life events (“cases”) to teach a wide variety of skills and subjects.

Every police officer. Every police leader and most especially every police trainer should read this piece to learn how and why we should be using experiential learning methods to prepare and develop police officers. Thanks to Paul for allowing us to share this valuable information with the police profession.

“Tell me – I forget. Show me – I remember. Let me do – I understand.” ~Ancient Chinese Proverb

In the typical classroom setting throughout the Marine Corps, students are required to attend lectures given by an inexperienced or unqualified instructor; forced to either look at the required overhead or slide, listen to what is being said, or a haphazard conglomerate of both. These same students usually do not understand the relevance of the material because they were either given inappropriate reference material or they were not given enough time to prepare due to an ever increasing list of competing interests. If the student decides to actually listen to what is being said, it becomes readily apparent that the instructor is quickly laboring through the presentation, one slide at a time (often reading the information verbatim and making irrelevant jokes to compensate for nervousness), trying to remember the scripted talking points, all while attempting to adhere to a pre-determined timeline. After approximately ten minutes, the average student can often be observed either staring off into space, carrying on their own sidebar conversation about the overused and irrelevant video clip, acronym or joke, or they start the mad dash toward sleepy-town.

Active versus Passive Learning

“Prior to the invention of the printing press, when only scholars had access to handwritten information sources, the lecture was the primary means of transmitting information. Students would gather around the master-teacher and absorb everything that was said out of necessity. The lecture remained the common mode of disseminating information until printed resources and technological advancements became more available and affordable.”[i] Although today’s military leads the way in technological advancements and employment, the lecture method has remained as the primary educational method. Partly due to historical bias, but mostly because it is the safest and easiest teaching method, the lecture method offers the instructor the most control of the classroom.[ii] However, what if the student has access to the text? What if the instructor is not a master, but an individual filling the billet of a teacher by necessity, chance or luck? At what point does the lecture method become counterproductive? How does information become knowledge? What is more important to the Marine Corps – the efficient transfer of information or the effective retention of knowledge?

Recent studies have shown that, when comparing passive teaching methodologies, such as the lecture method, to more active methodologies, the individual student’s ability to retain information is directly correlated to his or her role in the learning process (see figure below). If the student is only able read the PowerPoint slides during a lecture, he will only retain ten percent of that information after a two week span of time. That means that only six minutes of every hour’s worth of reading is being retained! Compare that with being able to recall thirty minutes worth of every hour long movie or demonstration. How about a simulation? [iii]

So why do we lecture? Most educators learn how to teach based on their experiences as students. The “teach as I was taught” approach tends to perpetuate the lecture as the only true time tested method of transferring information. The problem is, aside from retention issues, lectures usually only describe information from the teacher’s point of view, allowing no space for the student to express his or her opinion or other faculty to address competing interests or differing points of view. “In fact, the lack of interaction is considered one of the major limitations of the traditional lecture.”[iv] Conceptual understanding of the information is at risk because the whole experience is neither inspiring nor challenging and the background reading is usually the same as the lecture itself; why read something when someone is going to read it to you?

“Two educational researchers, Doctors Price and Mitchell, discovered that interactive learning is enhanced through the effective use of key teaching skills including questioning, demonstrating, providing positive reinforcement and reviewing.”[v] “Recent studies have also shown that active learning, a learning that engaged the various senses of the students, was more effective and learners performed better.”[vi] Traditional lecturing does not make use of the variety of available teaching styles, especially experiential and situated learning. Traditional lecturing does not incorporate individual differences or the various learning styles that may occur in a general military educational setting. The above research suggests that such passive methodology generally leads to a limited retention of information by students, and that information is usually biased and does not correlate directly to knowledge or mastery.

By re-organizing or adapting the ways they present material to students, instructors can create an environment in which knowledge retention is significantly increased. One of the best methods to incorporate active learning methodology in the classroom is through the case method. “In 1870 at Harvard University, Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell decided that law students learn more from analyzing cases rather than from reading textbooks.”[vii] “Although textbooks allowed students to memorize laws, he wanted students to learn to apply law in different situations.”[viii] “He combined cases with Socratic Dialogue (e.g., challenging questions) to teach legal reasoning, in contrast to written law. Langdell’s admirable belief was that properly trained law students should acquire the skill of generalizing from singular cases to other analogous legal applications. Most law schools now employ his case study method of teaching. In 1919, the new business school dean at Harvard, Wallace P. Donham, was a lawyer and a graduate of Harvard Law School. Given his extensive experience with the case method, Donham promoted the case method at the Harvard Business School”.[ix]

Why it works

Dr. Gary Klein, one of the founders of the field of naturalistic decision making and one of the world’s foremost experts on recognition primed decision making, has found that people draw on a large set of abilities in order to make decisions; abilities termed by previous researchers as sources of power. “The conventional sources of power include deductive logical thinking, analysis of probabilities, and statistical methods – clearly defined procedures used primarily in laboratory settings. Yet the abilities that are needed in natural settings; those settings that include time pressure, high stakes, inadequate information, dynamic conditions, and team coordination, are usually not conventional at all. Natural decision making is defined by poorly defined procedures, where one has to invent or modify procedures.”[x] Dr. Klein studied firefighters, police officers, nurses, ER doctors, and military officers, and was fascinated with how they made split-second decisions that saved lives. He found that “the powers of intuition, mental simulation, metaphor and storytelling are what experienced decision makers leverage in natural settings that have a series of decision points.”[xi]

“The power of intuition enables us to size up a situation quickly. It depends on the use of experience to recognize key patterns that indicate the dynamics of the situation. The power of mental simulation lets us imagine how a course of action might be carried out. The power of metaphor lets us draw on our experience by suggesting parallels between the current situation and something else we have come across. The power of storytelling helps us consolidate those details in order to make them available in the future, either to ourselves or to others.”[xii] Dr. Klein contends that “expertise in recognitional prime decision-making depends on perceptual skills.”[xiii] His research supports that “you can rarely get someone to jump a skill level by teaching more facts, rules or lessons learned.”[xiv] Perhaps in a field such as mathematics, a teacher can move a student rapidly through some concepts because it is easy to see how numbers relate to each other – they all fit on the same page. However, in natural settings, perceptual learning takes many cases to develop conceptual understanding due to the sheer volume of information and variety of competing inputs.[xv] Therefore, the Marine Corps cannot expect to develop adaptive leaders with the current passive educational model. Adaptive decision-making skills require active learning methodologies that harness natural sources of power.

Why we must change

There is only one way to learn the demanding art of leadership and decision-making in naturalistic settings – and that is by leading and making decisions. The approach that harnesses the power of storytelling, while enabling the development of intuition, mental simulation and the power of metaphor is the case method. “By engaging students in scenarios developed from real events, both past and present, cases immerse students in the challenges they are expected to face; challenges that require thoughtful analyses with limited or even insufficient information. They require effective responses within ambiguous circumstances or complex economic, military and political contexts. The scenarios, most of all, demand decisive action that must be articulated – and even defended – among other talented, ambitious individuals.”[xvi] Imagine a formal school where every day you are challenged to conceptually serve as leader in a complex environment, ranging from the Battle of Marathon to a futuristic scenario in the Horn of Africa. At each crucial decision point, you are called out and asked what you would do with the information available at the time and your decisions are compared to the record of the past and evaluated openly by your instructors and your peers. Your fear of failure, isolation and indecision simulate the fog and friction of war. Your understanding of history, culture, and regional dynamics, and operational designs are exponentially increased. You develop an appreciation for your own strengths and weaknesses out of self-preservation and your personal professional development begins to address enabling the one while mitigating the other. The books from the Commandant’s Reading List become your textbooks; doctrine becomes intuitive.

Experience is what separates the novice from the professional. Understanding how we learn and adapt to our environment is crucial to understanding how we evolve and become more efficient and effective. Leveraging the latest research to maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of how we educate our present and future leaders will drastically reduce the time and friction associated with bridging the gap between academia and experience. The current industrial age model of creating leaders and decision makers using the assembly line like series of passive, monotonous slideshow after slideshow of statistics, principles and lessons learned is outdated and highly dependent on the quality of instructor; most of which have no business being on instructor duty to begin with. It is time to maximize the development of intuition, and mental simulation through the power of the metaphor – by basing our educational system on storytelling (the case method) in order to bring harmony to the complexity of leadership development. Whether we realize it or not, our current bid for success to educate the force is hoping that the individual will leverage these sources of power on their own through personal PME (reading, watching movies, etc). I say hope because we have no way of evaluating whether that individual follows an individual PME program that develops their recognitional primed decision-making skills until they are on the battlefield. The time is now to maximize the effective retention of knowledge. It is time to modernize our educational model.

[i] Martha J. Bradshaw., and Arlene J. Lowenstein, Innovative Teaching Strategies in Nursing and Related Health Professions (Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, (2011), 114.

[ii] Bradshaw and Lowenstein, 114.

[iii] Dale Edgar, Audio-Visual Methods of Teaching, > (17 January 2011)

[iv] Lawrence S. Munson, How to Conduct Training Seminars: A Complete Reference Guide for Training Managers and Professionals (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992), 17.

[v] C. A. Mitchell, and D. A. Price. “A Model for Clinical Teaching and Learning”, Medical Education 27 (1993) 62–68.

[vi] Carol A. Twigg, “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure,” Educom Review 29(1994) 4-6.

[vii] Lee S. Shulman, “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching”, Educational Researcher 15, no. 2 (1986) 4.

[viii] Shulman, 5.

[ix] Steven M. Shugan, “Save Research – Abandon the Case Method of Teaching”, Marketing Science. 25, no. 2 (2006) 109.

[x] Gary Klein. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999) 3.

[xi] Klein, 3

[xii] Klein, 3

[xiii] Klein, 287

[xiv] Klein, 287

[xv] Klein, 287

[xvi] President and Fellows of Harvard College. Learning in Practice – Harvard Business School, 2011, <> (17 January 2011).


Bradshaw, Martha J., and Arlene J. Lowenstein, Innovative Teaching Strategies in Nursing and Related Health Professions. Massachusetts: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2011

Edgar, Dale. Audio-Visual Methods of Teaching, > (17 January 2011)

Klein, Gary. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1999.

Mitchell, C. A., and D. A. Price. “A Model for Clinical Teaching and Learning”, Medical Education 27 (1993) 62–68.

Munson, Lawrence S. How to Conduct Training Seminars: A Complete Reference Guide for Training Managers and Professionals New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

President and Fellows of Harvard College. Learning in Practice – Harvard Business School, 2011, <> (17 January 2011).

Shugan, Steven M. “Save Research – Abandon the Case Method of Teaching”, Marketing Science. 25, no. 2 (2006) 109.

Shulman, Lee S. “Those Who Understand: Knowledge Growth in Teaching”, Educational Researcher 15, no. 2 (1986) 4.

Twigg, Carol A. “The Need for a National Learning Infrastructure,” Educom Review 29(1994) 4-6.

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