Fitting Investigative Case Study Approaches into Courses

What are some ways of proceeding with investigative case learning in the classroom?

At the 1996 BioQUEST summer workshop a group of biology faculty chose to work on case based learning, to write cases and to think about teaching with cases. One product of that group was an analysis of how the case study approach fits with the open-ended, investigative 3P's philosophy of BioQUEST: problem posing, problem solving and peer persuasion. You may wish to use this as a way to think about what you might ask students to do as they work with cases.

Recognizing potential issues
Brainstorming connections & to define problem space
Identifying material to be learned
Posing specific questions
Defining and specifying focus
Defining problems further by peer consultation
Obtaining additional references/sources
Managing information
Defining problem further (share views/info.)
Designing and conducting investigations
With simulation software for
Representing information
With field/laboratory methods
With new resources (further references, interviews, etc.)
 Peer Persuasion
Presenting conclusions of investigations
Developing analyses or reports to persuade peers
Conducting debate/opposite views or outcomes
Producing other materials that show understanding of the conclusions.

BioQUEST, Cases and the 3Ps: Collaborative, Open-Ended, In-Depth Investigation (Woodruff, P., L. Weinland, K. Klyczek, J. Fischer, K. Grimnes, M. Howse, and M. Waterman, 1996)



Instructors may want to consider the following four areas when planning for case learning.

1. The learning goals and objectives of the course
Which goals could be met by having students use the case study approach? Often a case will allow students to address more than one goal at a time. This kind of analysis can be a starting place for case writing.

A second way to use the goals of the course is when you evaluate a case for use in your class. Ask yourself these questions:

What is the case about?
What are some of the potential learning issues?
Are these central enough to the case for me to use this case? Can I modify the case?
How difficult or obscure are the issues in the case?
Will there be issues my students will care about?
Is the case open-ended enough for students to go beyond fact finding?
What do I see as possible areas for investigation?
What product might I ask students to produce?
Is the case too short or too long for the time I have available?
What sorts of learning resources might be needed for this case? Are they accessible?
If I use this case, what lectures/labs/discussions might I want to change, add or eliminate?


2. The course structure - a not entirely logistical consideration

As you can see from the above list of questions, sometimes using cases can lead to changing a course syllabus to delete, rearrange, change or add other components like lectures or labs. Another consideration is the temporal structure of the course, and the space available for teaching. When does the course meet? How often? How long? For what purposes? When would you fit in cases? Some suggested "prototypical weeks"-.

 Traditional 3 hours of lecture, 2-3 hours in lab
 Option A Two blocks per week "workshop" style with some time for case work
 Option B Combine lecture and case work, sandwiching lab
 Option C Start case on Fri., work on in lab, finish next Fri..
 Other options... create your own


3. Class size

Sure, it would be great if there were only 15 students in the class, but very few of us have that luxury,especially in beginning biology courses. In very large classes, it may work best to do case learning in lab or recitation time, when groups are smaller. This is especially important when students are learning how to work together on cases. Additional teaching staff can be faculty working in teams, graduate students (if available) and advanced undergraduate teaching assistants. It is possible to break up large classes into smaller groups, but you do need a high tolerance for noise while a couple of hundred students, working in near-neighbor groups, discusses the case.
Some biology faculty have established electronic communications so that student case groups can work together on-line. There are many solutions to having students in larger classes do meaningful work in smaller groups. There are several workshop biology/studio science courses whose materials and advice are available on line (see, for example, the University of Oregon materials referenced in the bibliography).


4. Preparing students to use case study approaches

Most college students are ill-prepared for collaborative group work, although this may change in the future as collaborative methods become more widely used in secondary education. Nonetheless, at present, college faculty need to recognize that they will have to teach students how to work together. They will also have to teach them how to use case study approaches. At Harvard Medical School, incoming classes of medical students are introduced to case-based learning in three ways. First, in orientation, they do a case about plumbing (which few know about and it isn't medical, so the pressure is off). Second, also during orientation, they sit as a group of 160 in a lecture hall and watch a small group tutorial take place live in front of them (run by second year students). Third, in their first real course, time is allotted for discussing group dynamics and case processes.
You will likely want to make a low-pressure situation for your students the first time they do a case. Make it small, fun and easy, so they can learn how to brainstorm the issues and questions of the case. Don't be afraid to give explicit directions, such as
"We begin by having one person read the case out loud. Who would like to do this?"
"Are there any words you don't know?" Or "what do you think this case is about?" "It will help you later if one of you acts as scribe and writes down the ideas (on the chalkboard). You might want to keep track of facts, questions, issues, and proposed answers to the problem."
"We have 10 minutes left and you need to plan for next meeting. What do you see as key issues you'd like to work on?"

Students also need guidelines for how to act during discussions. Having printed guidelines can help, such as "Don't interrupt one another" "Don't attack people personally, focus on ideas" "Each person must contribute to the group. There are many ways to do this." General advice books on college teaching like McKeachie's Teaching Tips will be useful for developing such guidelines, as will faculty in disciplines that use regularly use discussion (psychology, english, history, education, philosophy).


Suggestions for developing your own cases

These suggestions are drawn from the work done by the case development group at the 1996 BioQUEST summer workshop (Waterman, et al., 1996) and follow a framework commonly used in English writing classes, and for developing cases at Harvard Medical School (1991).

To develop the initial cases we used the following format that alternates between individual work and work with a partner.

1. To begin, the authors are asked to write down a topic they would like to teach, and one big "take home" message on this topic.
2. Next, individuals are asked to think of two or three settings or scenarios useful for leading students to explore that topic.
3. Working in pairs, each member explains their topic and possible scenarios, with the intent of convincing the partner of the utility of at least one of the scenarios.
4. Next, each individual drafts a brief paragraph or two describing the scenario/situation as though writing to a nonscientist friend.
5. In the last step, new partnerships form, and each author reads his or her case aloud with the partner responding by telling what he or she thinks the case is about.


We used the following case review process for further case development:

1. The case author reads their case out loud to the group.
2. The other members of the group offer suggestions (preferably in the form of questions that the case stimulates for them) as to what the case is about.
3. The author then shares what he or she intended the case to be about. Sometimes there is great congruence between what the listeners think and what the author intended, often there is some incongruity.
4. When there is much incongruity, it's time to think about recasting the case, perhaps in a new scenario.

Once the story clearly leads to the intended objectives, it is time to start structuring the case for teaching. This means analyzing each paragraph to see what it might stimulate for the students - the sort of analysis done for the first paragraph of "Fleaing Louisiana," above. It also means deciding where the story should be split up into parts for the students to work on a bit at a time. Keep the parts short. They will contain much more learning material than you anticipate.


In addition to the story (the narrative) the case might also have as components:

· A list of resources - you may wish to supply a starting list of readings, web sites, etc. You can make this longer or shorter, depending on your goals for student learning. If you want students to learn to find resources, the list will be shorter, of course.
· List of learning goals (these may or may not be given to the students). It is helpful in some circumstances to provide students with a list of the learning objectives you had for the case. It is important, however, to delay giving this to them until after they have worked on the case for some time. Otherwise, the learning becomes too teacher-directed and the power of student-centered learning is lost.
· Instructor's guide - this is important if you are teaching a course with multiple instructors or if you are planning on publishing the case. The instructor's guide lists the objectives and the main anticipated learning issues. It may also have information about resources, related learning activities, possible student projects, suggested products students could create related to this case, and the like.
· Visuals, simulations, web sites - these are all possible components of cases that can be an integral part of the case or resources to support learning with the case.

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