Features of Investigative Cases

Cases provide meaningful contexts for study.

   “Start with the student’s experience . . . and relate the subject matter to things the student already knows.” (pp. 65-66)

(Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology” NSF, 1996.)

   Learners come “to formal education with a range of prior knowledge, skills, beliefs and concepts. This affects what learners notice, how they reason and solve problems, and how they remember.”

(p.10) (How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. National Research Council, National Academy Press, 2000.)

Investigative cases enable students to use their prior knowledge and their own interests to choose a meaningful problem for study. Learners construct new knowledge based on what they already know (National Academy Press, 2000).

Students learn biological science in context as they employ scientific information and methods to investigate and resolve - at least partially - realistic, complex problems. When learning occurs around a specific problem, there is an increased likelihood that this learned material will be better retained and more easily applied to similar situations (Brown et al., 1989, Schmidt, 1983). While students may never face the exact problems under study, they gain experience using scientific approaches to work out reasonable solutions to situations that exist in their world. This experience is potentially transferable to the unique problems they will face in their own lives.

Cases initiate problem based learning for student-directed exploration.

   “Build into every course inquiry (involving the student in asking questions and finding answers), the processes of science, a knowledge of what practitioners do, and the excitement of cutting edge research.”

(p. 53) (Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology” NSF, 1996.)

In investigative case based learning, the case problem comes first in the instructional sequence.

Learners use the case to brainstorm a set of questions they will try to answer. Students become more aware of what they know and what they need to know. They thus become more directed in their reading and more motivated in subsequent lectures, labs, and discussions. In fact, they are learning in just the way most of us learn - they have a problem or question first.

Cases require the development of skills necessary for collaboration and lifelong problem solving.

“Devise and use pedagogy that develops skills for communications, teamwork, critical thinking and lifelong learning in each student. . .”

(p. iii) (“Shaping the Future: New Expectations for Undergraduate Education in Science, Mathematics, Engineering and Technology” NSF, 1996.)


Collaborative skills are essential to successful case analysis, a key step in ICBL, in which learners work collectively to identify what they already know about the case and to develop questions about information they think they need to know.  Case analysis provides opportunities for students to share their prior knowledge and to confront their own and others’ misconceptions.  These are essential skills for successful lifelong learning.

As a team, students search for resources, select relevant information, and further manage that information to support an investigative approach.  Students collectively decide how to proceed with their investigations, what variables to explore and how to collect, analyze and present meaningful data.  Communication skills are developed both within and beyond their group as students present their approaches and findings to other groups and their instructor. 

Cases are complex and require multidisciplinary approaches.

There is a tendency for learners to compartmentalize content and process knowledge by discipline - an unintended result of declaring a major and the resulting stepwise curricular approaches in undergraduate education. This is diminished as students draw from multiple resources in the sciences, mathematics, social sciences, and other disciplines to work with the case.

Cases serve as springboards to student-designed investigations.

Students structure their own learning using the "story" of the case as a problem space. Although the case defines the general area of geoscience under investigation, students generate questions based both on their interests and prior knowledge that relates to the topic of study. Investigative cases are useful for lifelong learning because they are open-ended and draw from a broad range of situations in which scientific reasoning can be applied. Investigative cases necessarily shift the focus of student learning beyond the facts to include using scientific knowledge to frame questions and to answer them.

Cases engage students and faculty in collaborative problem posing, problem solving, and persuasion.

Instructors as well as students are collaborators in this process. As students pose problems, try to solve them, and present conclusions that represent their own findings to others, both the instructor and other students may serve as resources. This collaboration aids learners in defining potential strengths and weaknesses in the design of the problem statement and the investigation. The resolution (or clarification) of the problem and its presentation to other students as well as to the instructor extends opportunities for student practice in utilizing and evaluating scientific approaches to problem solving.

Cases provide flexible options for addressing learning concerns.

Adding investigative cases to a course, lab, field, or computational workspace provides flexibility in addressing instructional needs such as pre-assessment or engaging learners in relevant contexts for both content and process. Cases need not be formal and can range from a mini-assignment to semester long explorations. For example, a case could be introduced at the start of lecture with a short discussion (5-10 minutes) for assessing students. Students reveal their prior knowledge and experience, while at the same time identify what they need to learn more about. This pre-assessment strategy might then be tied into a lab or field assignment.

Cases can be used to address a variety of instructional tasks:

Copyright ©2011 BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium, All Rights Reserved.