Education for an Uncertain Environment

By Capt Dan O’Connell & Capt Matt Fallon

For Marines, the lecture method stifles the initiative and creativity the Marine Corps requires from its leaders. To execute maneuver warfare, Marines at all levels must make sound and timely decisions to out cycle their opponents. To do this, all leaders must develop sound judgment in their decisions. In his 2010 planning guidance, Gen James F. Amos stated, “We will better educate and train our Marines to succeed in distributed operations and increasingly complex environments.”1 Yet the Marine Corps training and education system is in some ways still grounded in outdated modes of instruction, most notably the lecture method, which is designed to produce massive citizen armies—formations that we may not need for the foreseeable future. There have been educational gaps both exploited and created across Marine Corps schools by hard working instructors. We need an instructional method that is in step with current adult education theory and capable of producing Marine leaders that the Commandant demands and the future operating environment will require.

Throughout their time in the Marine Corps, Marines of all ranks are often called upon to teach classes in both formal and informal settings. Unfortunately, the current teaching methodology most Marines are familiar and comfortable with is among the least effective methods to impart knowledge and create understanding.2 In fact, the GOLMEST method (gain attention, overview, learning objectives, method/media, evaluation, safety, transitions) focuses on memorizing facts and data vice long-term retention, application, and innovative thinking. If the Marine Corps is going to produce leaders capable of confronting the myriad challenges the current security environment presents, we need a more effective teaching method. Current methods that focus on rote memorization and regurgitation without thought fall short of the task. We require a more holistic teaching methodology by first describing why the current methodology is ineffective.

According to studies as early as 1969 and as recently at 2012, only 10 to 30 percent of the population retains information from a lecture and can apply that information.3 As an example, students routinely get in the habit of memorizing information for the test but consistently fail to apply and generalize concepts they were taught.4 This problem stems from two issues: first, how the brain functions, and second, what the lecture actually teaches. Adult education expert David Sousa explains this in his brain processing model. He suggests that information only transitions beyond working memory and into long-term memory when it becomes “useful” to the individual.5 Information in working memory is prioritized in three ways: survival, emotion, and new learning. Due to the inability to evoke any of those three categories, information presented in a lecture typically will not make it past the working memory. Working memory draws on an individual’s past experiences to help him answer two questions: Does this new information make sense? And does this information have meaning for me? When both questions are answered “yes,” there is a high likelihood of long-term storage.6 Consequently, appealing to adult learners at a visceral level will result in greater retention and application of new information. The second problem is the fundamental premise of the lecture. The lecture is predicated on the existence of a singular right answer. Students tend to believe that whenever they apply the techniques stated in the lecture or the textbook, they will be able to solve real-world problems. Perhaps this is because the “problems” developed for a lecture are carefully chosen to have a sanctioned answer, driven home by stale questions seeking a little “nugget” which launches the instructor on another long talk. Despite the world being an inherently complex and chaotic place, the typical lecture method only prepares students to deliver a “book” answer.

One approach to consider is the Adaptive Learning Model (ALM). In a 2009 article from Assembly magazine, Maj Chad Foster explains the power of evoking emotion as central to long-term and useful retention, through the ALM:

Above all, ALM nurtures effective decision-making and adaptability through experiential learning. Experimentation first…the ‘teaching’ is accomplished through these (after-action reports or “wrap-up’s”) as the students discover for themselves the concepts and principles involved. Only after this has occurred, is the ‘theory’ or doctrine formally introduced by the instructor.7

Allowing students to experience an event relevant to the subject and, more importantly, make decisions in relation to the subject, ensures a far higher degree of retention. Additionally, decisions and critique foster judgment. ALM prepares a leader or a Marine for the true rigors of battle and challenges of leadership, to recognize patterns and choose an appropriate course of action. This is the leader that the modern Corps demands.

One effective ALM tool is the decision forcing cases (DFCs). A DFC is based on a historical situation. The instructor retells the story from the point of view of a protagonist such as a squad leader, commanding general, or even the Queen of England. Upon reaching the point in which the protagonist has to make a decision, the instructor stops the story and demands that the students make a decision by placing themselves in the historical moment of the leader’s dilemma. The instructor then facilitates a discussion that encourages analysis and diagnosis of the situation, allowing students to better understand key concepts through argument. The discussion and argument ensure that concepts will be stored in working memory. The flexibility to make a decision encourages deeper understanding versus rote, school-like regurgitation of information.8 Additionally, students are placed under the constraints and restraints that leaders faced in all their complexity. Each situation in combat and leadership is unique and requires an individually tailored solution bound by the science of weapons and human nature. The primary purpose of the case method is “to develop the student’s ability to solve complex and unstructured issues well.”9 Complex and unstructured issues define the operating environment that the Commandant envisions Marines operating in for the foreseeable future. To prepare for these operating environments, we need to move past the transmittal education model and adopt the case method approach through ALM, and the DFC specifically.

In addition to being a better vehicle for teaching, implementing the DFC has multiple benefits by second- and third-order effect. First, teaching and learning by the DFC develops a depth of subject knowledge for both instructor and student. This can include doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures, and historical approaches. The DFC develops analytical and application skills which allow the student to analyze issues into key concepts then identify viable solutions based on knowledge developed from multiple cases. Third, when students defend a plan, they explore their own level of knowledge and reflect on personal values, ethics, and morals while strengthening communication skills. N.M. Webb’s extensive research on interaction and learning in peer groups demonstrates that when students must explain concepts or defend a position, the exercise serves to improve their own understanding.10 Further, Harvard University professor Erik Mazur points out that a classmate is more likely to reach another student than the instructor: “You’re a student and you’ve only recently learned this, so you still know where you got hung up, because it’s not that long ago that you were hung up on that very same thing.”11 This is the crux of the DFC. In an interactive classroom, objectives are reached more rapidly than in a traditional informal lecture. In an interactive learning setting, there are greater overall gains in knowledge and retention.12 When students are required to reconstruct information in new and personally meaningful ways, that information is processed in such a way as to be meaningful and useful in other situations. Information-processing theories stress that reformulating information and generating new ideas builds extensive cognitive structures that integrate new ideas with old knowledge.13 Creating such elaborated memory structures fosters understanding of new information.14 This method of education can develop a bias for action while providing the opportunity to cultivate the judgment required for maneuver warfare and the future operating environment. It is inexpensive and develops the teacher and student by broadening their knowledge of military history and doctrine. Finally, when the teacher employs a case with Marine Corps history, it builds a familiarity with our heritage, defined as a key component of our character by Col T.X. Hammes in Forgotten Warriors.

In a March 2014 Marine Corps Gazette article, Col Todd S. Desgrosseilliers, CO, TBS, identified that:

By understanding their Corps’ combat history, Marine second lieutenants visualize those leaders who have gone before them and recognize that what’s expected of their generation as an extension of that heritage.15

At TBS, many classes have been transitioned to a DFC, such as night attacks, urban operations, and many more. Student feedback has all been overwhelmingly positive and the application of learning objectives in the field has reflected this positive attitude. To provide doctrinal language to the event, a discussion of learning objectives at the end of a case is usually required, and is much preferable to a 100-slide dissertation. Other formal schools have incorporated the DFC method as well. For example, Expeditionary Warfare School, Sergeant’s Course, Command and Staff College, Infantry Small Unit Leader’s Course, Infantry Officer Course, and Marine Corps Tactical Operations Group all use DFCs at length.

The number and topic of cases is limited only by recorded history and the creativity of the instructor. Cases can teach tactics and doctrine or they can teach ethics and leadership through challenging situations others have faced. They can teach how past Services have educated, armed, and equipped the forces. Currently, Marine Corps University’s Case Method Project is spearheading the effort to spread the use of DFCs within our Service. They have a website that contains resources, summaries of a portion of their case library, and videos of cases being taught. This can be found at

The purpose of this article is not to condemn the lecture. The lecture will always be useful, especially to hear the experiences others have had, to hear a new theory or proposal, or as a presentation on a book. However, the lecture method should not be the default method of instruction for Marines at a formal school or in the Fleet Marine Forces. Does a DFC require more work than a lecture? Probably not. You will most likely study and prepare longer as an instructor building a DFC. But you will take far less time remediating what the students did not learn in lecture when you are in the field, in execution, or dealing with leadership challenges that the PowerPoint failed to prevent. The DFC appeals to adult learning mechanisms, and that means your Marines will learn more. It will deepen their understanding of military history, making them more thoughtful. Employing Marine Corps history examples will foster an appreciation of our heritage, a hallmark of the Corps. It will develop Marines’ ability to argue and disagree tactfully, making leaders capable of persuading their subordinates and superiors of an appropriate course of action. Finally, it will make leaders who are capable of recognizing patterns and making decisions, a foundation of maneuver warfare and a skill set crucial to the future operating environment. If you care about the subject material you teach, transition that old platform class to a DFC, and see the difference for yourself.


1. James F. Amos, 35th Commandant of the Marine Corps Commandant’s Planning Guidance, Washington, DC: Headquarters Marine Corps, 2010.

2. R. E. Mayer, “Aids to Prose Comprehension.” Educational Psychologist 19 (1984), 30–42.

3. Edgar Dale, Audio-visual Methods in Teaching, (New York: Dryden), 1954.

4. Robert J. Sternberg and Elena L. Grigorenko, Teaching for Successful Intelligence: To Increase Student Learning and Achievement, (Arlington Heights, IL, SkyLight Professional Development), 2000.

5. David A. Sousa, How the Brain Learns, (Thousand Oaks, CA, Corwin), 2006.

6. Mayer, “Aids to Prose Comprehension,” 30–42.

7. Chad Foster, “No ‘Approved Solutions’ in Asymmetric Warfare: Nurturing Adaptive leadership in an outcomes based Training Solution, Assembly Magazine, (July/August 2009).

8. Emily Hanford, “Physicists Seek To Lose The Lecture As Teaching Tool,” National Public Radio, 1 January 2012.

9. Nils Randrup and Amy Sekits, The Case Method: Road Map for How Best to Study, Analyze and Present Cases, (Denmark: International Management Rodovre), 2007.

10. N.M. Webb, “Peer interaction and learning in small groups,” International Journal of Educational Research 13, (1989), 21–39.

11. Craig Lambert, “Twilight of the Lecture.” Harvard Magazine, (March–April 2012).

12. Randrup, The Case Method.

13. Mayer, “Aids to Prose Comprehension.”

14. Ibid.

15. Todd S. Desgrosseilliers, and Randall Hoffman, “The Basic School,” Marine Corps Gazette, (March 2014), 8–20.