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The Learning Experience of Tough Cases:
 A Descriptive Case Study Open Access

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This qualitative, descriptive case study addressed the research question: How is learning experienced in tough cases aimed at accelerating expertise in a cognitively complex work environment? The time it takes to develop expertise in many professional domains is problematic for industrialized societies. As the baby boom generation transitions from the workforce, they are leaving behind a smaller, less experienced pool of workers to replace them. Accelerated expertise theorists have proposed tough cases as a way of speeding the development of expertise.Tough cases are rare situations that convey novel learning challenges by requiring learners to make plans and decisions in the face of ambiguous and interacting data (Klein and Hoffman, 1992). Expertise can be particularly difficult to develop in cognitively complex work environments. Cognitively complex work environments are “systems composed of psychological (cognitive), social, and technological elements, all embedded in a broader team, organizational, and social context” (Hoffman & Militello, 2008, p. 216).The study explored the learning process from the perspectives of learners, tough case leaders, and organizational leaders supporting the use of tough cases at the research site. Data were collected through observations of five tough cases and interviews before and after cases with participants and organizational leaders. Themes were inductively developed. The study had eight findings: 1) Tough cases are dynamic learning experiences that are interactive and concrete, while simultaneously confusing and disorienting; 2) the use of real events and complex problems grabs learner attention and interest; 3) making and defending quick decisions draw out learner beliefs and theories, stimulating focus and a tremendous sense of enthusiasm; 4) the practice of eliciting decisions by cold-calling puts learners on the spot, mimicking the stress of high stakes situations common to cognitively complex work environments; 5) role-playing throughout the case forces participation with the learning environment while reducing stress by making the learning experience more enjoyable and entertaining; 6) individual reflection and observation provide continual opportunities for re-examining decisions; 7) interaction and dialogue during role-play expose learners to other ways of thinking and lead to refinement of their mental models; and 8) hearing "the rest of the story" at the end of the case provides an opportunity for learner self-assessment and can build their confidence.The study concluded: (1) the tough case learning process incorporates both experiential and social cognitive learning in a single process; (2) the tough case learning process is substantially different from learning processes proposed in the expertise development literature; (3) tough case learning is a departure from processes described in the adult learning literature; and (4) tough case learning leverages everything considered foundational about adult learning. The study offered recommendations related to theory, practice, and future research.

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