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A Pathway Forward

By Sgt. Maj. Dennis Collins, Sgt. Maj. Matt Coppi,
and Mr. Alex Santos

NCO Leadership Center of Excellence & U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy

March 4, 2019

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Command Sgt. Maj. Jimmy Sellers, commandant of the NCO Leadership Center of Excellence passes the unit colors to Command Sgt. Maj. David Lee

Deeper learning in the context of military leadership emphasizes the use of a leader’s core competencies: the ability to formulate military concepts and principles, and the capability to solve problems and disseminate ideas. Deeper learning is synonymous with Army learning as “Army learning is the act of acquiring, maintaining, or improving knowledge skills, and attitudes to achieve required performance” (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2017b, p. 21).

The graduates of the United States Army Sergeants Major Course (USASMA) will be able to think critically, apply knowledge, and solve problems under uncertain, complex, and chaotic operational environments. More importantly, according to the Army Learning Concept (2017b), it is important for the students to gain deeper understanding because “Effective critical and creative thinking are essential for successful application of all three Army Planning Methodologies: Troop Leading Procedures, Mission Decision Making Process, and the Army Design Methodology” (U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, 2017b, p. 21). Yet in today’s schoolhouse environment, there is currently no way to measure the critical thinking skill set that is desperately needed. To remedy that, the proposed qualitative action research study seeks to understand USASMA students’ perceptions of the Joint Interagency Intergovernmental Multinational (JIIM) curriculum and will determine the impact of student-centered summative assessments on students’ critical thinking skills after the recommended Phase III JIIM Mission Readiness Exercise.

The goals of this research are to help students increase their knowledge, skills, and abilities to achieve higher levels of cognition during their pursuit of one of the most fundamental learning outcomes (Evaluation), and to aid their development and metacognition in the JIIM discipline. Paul and Elder’s (2007) framework for critical thinking and Anderson’s et al. (2001) A Revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, are crucial to ensuring the JIIM curriculum sets the conditions for future senior enlisted leaders to learn at maximum capacity in the 21st century.

Students from the Department of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational are working on a notional Mission Analysis of the Southern Caucasus Region.

Background of the Problem

As USASMA educators, we are required to educate and evaluate each student on JIIM curriculum (i.e., a minimum of every six weeks for a total of six semesters). We, as instructors, realize that the gap that exists between theoretical learning and the practice within the force, creates significant inconsistencies. This need motivated us to expand our exposure to literature on curriculum theory, curriculum design, and assessment strategies that converge in andragogy theoretical educational principles in order to construct a research study to measure these deficiencies, and then propose solutions to fix them.

According to Noddings (1983), John Dewey often advised, “Any subject freely undertaken as an occupation as a set of tasks requiring goal-setting, means-ends analysis, choice of appropriate tools and materials, exercise of skills, living through the consequences, and evaluating the results—is educative” (p. 193). As members of an all-volunteer force, Army senior enlisted leaders freely accept the demands of their occupation; however, many are denied a complete education when they are required to follow a one-size-fits-all mentality within the operational enlisted force that, by design, does not consider the nature of the students’ past experiences, learning preferences, environment, or personal background.

Command Sgt. Maj. Harold A. Reynolds Jr.

The Army Institutional Noncommissioned Officers Professional Development System’s rote research methods and summative assessments currently limit the ability to educate senior enlisted leaders at Bloom’s top level of evaluation. John Dewey (1929) believed rote memorization to be ineffective and that educators should devote their time “training the child’s power of imagery and in seeing to it that he was continually forming definite vivid, and growing images of the various subjects with which he comes in contact in his experience” (p. 38). Summative assessments and associated rubrics, if modified, provide an opportunity to go from strict analyzation to instead allowing the student to evaluate the effectiveness between theories of metacognition and constructivism.

Dewey’s constructivist theory is just as important to adult learners as it is to children, but knowledge construction, left to itself, risks reinforcing erroneous data. For these reasons, this proposed action research study aims to improve senior enlisted leaders’ education regarding curriculum, pedagogy, and assessment through a thought-infused and guided constructivism. The research study is based off of Dr. Richard Paul and A. J. Binker’s teachings (Socratic Questioning, n.d.):

What we need to do, in contrast, is to stimulate student's thinking right from the start, especially about the most basic ideas in a subject so that they are motivated from the beginning to use their thinking in trying to understand things, and so that they base their thinking on foundational ideas that make sense to them. (p. 372)


Problem Statement

In the United States Army senior enlisted profession, leaders are assigned to organizations where they are required to be the subject matter experts regarding their ability to provide advice to their respective officer counterpart. Their lack of critical thinking skills, tied to a curriculum that only expects a student to reach the analyzation learning level, limits the senior enlisted leader in providing advice that is sound and articulated in a manner that allows for common understanding at the lowest levels of command. A senior enlisted leader must be able to both analyze and evaluate in an environment associated with mission command (Department of the Army, 2014a).

Purpose of the Study

Understanding USASMA students’ perceptions of curriculum leads to an understanding of the level of thought Sergeants Major Course students’ apply towards the subject. It also lends clues as to how summative assessments might be used in a traditional behaviorist curriculum.

The following research questions, representing separate iterations of the action research cycle, are the recommended guiding principles of this proposed qualitative action research study:

  1. What are USASMA students’ perceptions of JIIM curriculum concerning the experiential learning model and andragogy principles?

  2. What is the impact of summative assessments on the critical thinking skills of USASMA students regarding Bloom’s taxonomy in Phase III of the JIIM Readiness Exercise?

The study’s goal of helping students develop a standard of critical thought leading to practice is fundamental to the study, and it is fueled by additional recommendations that are being purposed to encourage continual intellectual growth that would help Sergeants Major Course students further develop their abilities throughout their senior leader careers.

The “Hall of Honor” at the U.S. Army Sergeants Major Academy recognizes individuals who meritoriously contributed directly to USASMA.


This action research study follows a qualitative design that is guided by the following research question:


What are the USASMA students’ perceptions of the efficacy of education in their professional military educational experience while attending USASMA?


This study proposes using two iterations of the action research cycle to understand students’ perceptions of the curriculum and to determine the impact of the experiential learning model and summative assessments on their performance and critical thinking abilities. Informal survey data would be captured from 16 USASMA students during the first action research cycle. After an inferential analysis of the data, an action plan informs the second action research cycle where during the second semester, 16 more students (i.e., “MSG X,” “MSG Y,” and “MSG Z”) are selected for semi-structured interviews and would participate in a guided summative assessment during phase III, Mission Readiness Exercise. In addition to the semi-structured interviews, data collection during the second cycle would include participant/researcher-developed field observations and informal interview data.

Sgt. Maj. Daniel Dailey, the 15th Sergeant Major of the Army, speaks to the crowd, June 22, gathered for the graduation ceremony of Sergeants Major Course Class 68


If action research is conducted in a two-phase scenario using a control group in the first semester made up of 16 USASMA students and an experimental group during the second semester of 16 more students, the results would show that the experimental group would reach a higher level of learning and evaluation. This would be achieved by using the dependent variables of the phase III Mission Readiness Exercise and the independent variable being the associated modified curriculum and rubric to facilitate and perform a final summative assessment.

In the first semester, the control group would receive no treatment and would only be monitored and evaluated based on the current curriculum plus an informal survey data. When the first semester finishes, the experimental group would be evaluated with the treatment and then evaluated based on the modified curriculum and rubrics set in place for the second-semester evaluation. The difference being during the final assessment the students would be asked questions associated with the learning level of evaluation. From these questions, and subsequent follow-on interviews with both groups, the research results would show that the experimental group reached a higher level of learning achievement and critical thinking ability.


A change in JIIM curriculum is needed in the USASMA portfolio to guide students’ development of deeper learning and critical thinking skills that go beyond just analysis, and rise to the level of profound evaluation and creation. This requirement is born of the need for a United States Army Sergeants Major Academy student to critically evaluate all facts and scenarios and provide sound advice to superiors, peers, and subordinates concerning the commanders’ intent, especially in combat zones. Ultimately, the goal is to educate all future senior enlisted leaders to a level equal to the top tier of Bloom’s Taxonomy. This will decrease the amount of mistakes on the multi-domain battlefield, resulting in fewer Soldier deaths due to poor mission planning and negligence.




Anderson, L.W. (Ed.), Krathwohl, D.R. (Ed.), Airasian, P.W., Cruikshank, K.A., Mayer, R.E., Pintrich, P.R., Raths, J., & Wittrock, M.C. (2001).A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (Complete edition). New York: Longman.

Dewey, J. (1929). My pedagogic creed. In D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (4th ed.) (p. 33-40). New York: Routledge.

Headquarters, Department of the Army. (2014a, March). ADP 6-0: Mission command. Washington, DC: Department of the Army.

Mertler, C. (2014).Action research: Improving schools and empowering educators (4th ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Noddings, N. (1983). The false promise of the paideia: A critical review of the paideia proposal. In D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), The curriculum studies reader (4th ed). (p. 187-194) New York: Routledge.

Paul, R. & Binker, A. (n.d.). Socratic questioning. Retrieved from

Paul, R. & Elder, L. (2007). A critical thinker’s guide to educational fads Tomales, CA: Foundation for Critical Thinking.

U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. (2017a). Army learning policy and systems. Retrieved from

U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command. (2017b). Pamphlet 350-70: The U.S. Army learning concept for training and education. Retrieved from


Sgt. Maj. Dennis J. Collins is an instructor at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy. He currently serves in the Department of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental and Multinational. He has previously served as brigade command sergeant major for the 414th Contracting Support Brigade, Vicenza, Italy and battalion command sergeant major for 129th CSSB, Fort Campbell, Kentucky. His education includes five master’s degrees in Adult Education, Master of Business Administration, MA Human Resource Development, MS Human Resource Management, and Master of Healthcare Administration. Sgt. Maj. Collins is also working on a Doctorate in Strategic Leadership.

Sgt. Maj. Matildo Coppi is a U.S. Army Penn State Fellow and an adult educator. He is currently serving as the Vice-Chair for the Department of Joint, Interagency, Intergovernmental, and Multinational at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy. He previously served as the command sergeant major for the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center at the Presidio of Monterey, California. Prior to that, he served as the battalion command sergeant major for the 344th Military Intelligence Battalion, Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas.

Mr. Alex Santos is an instructor at the United States Army Sergeants Major Academy, NCO Leadership Center of Excellence, Department of Joint Interagency Intergovernmental and Multinational. Mr. Santos is a sergeants major course subject matter expert and was a staff group advisor for Class 59, 60, 61, and 62, and an Associate Professor for class 65, 66, 67 and 68. He earned a Master of Arts in Education from University of Phoenix, 2011, and his Education Specialist degree in 2018.

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