Making the Case for Using the Case Study Approach as an Effective Learning Tool

Teaching in the adult/professional learning environment has many similarities to providing instructional guidance in the K-12 learning setting. In both arenas, the end goal remains the same—learning or behavior modification. 

In the adult learning environment, there are many tools, strategies, and activities that can be employed to influence learning. One particularly effective approach involves the use of case studies. Real world case studies are beneficial because they allow the adult learner to apply previous experiences and knowledge, coupled with new knowledge, into the case study discussion. 

In the fire service, near miss and line of duty death (LODD) reports are classic examples of a case study. These free case studies are available online through the NIOSH and Firefighter Near Miss web portals. Additionally, the Harvard Business Review web portal is a good source for leadership and management case studies. Harvard University was an early adopter and champion of the case study method in the formal learning environment.

During a recent professional development session with company and chief officers, the author used the Beacon Street Fire (Boston Fire Department) to discuss fire dynamics, building construction, apparatus placement, tactics & tasks, and command & control decision making best practices. Because this was an actual incident that unfortunately resulted in the death of two fire service members, the discussion was “rich” on many levels. Additionally, the incident allowed these same officers to make themselves vulnerable by sharing past behaviors that were not necessarily in line with fire service best practices and department mandates. Last and most importantly, the Beacon Street Fire case study resulted in several officers freely promising to change some of their practices and activities at both the company and battalion levels. First-rate example of learning or behavior modification at the adult/professional level!

As fire service instructors, we need to ensure that LODD reports are used as a learning tool—not as an instrument to ridicule another fire service organization in regard to their particular actions and decision making at a past incident. Adults in the fire service seek knowledge and training primarily for professional development purposes. It is imperative that we as fire service instructors use the right tools for an intended audience to influence professional growth. Continue being students of the profession!


Demond Simmons
Oakland (CA) Fire Department

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Making the Case for Using the Case Study Approach as an Effective Learning Tool