Planning for


The format of a case often influences how you choose to use it with students. Examples of cases with commonly encountered formats are provided with a brief description and likely implementation strategies.  

Extensive, detailed case study

Frequently used in business courses, these cases often center on a particular decision, the people who made it, the people affected by it, and the impact of that decision on all parties.  These cases may run 100 pages or more.  Usually the student reads the entire case individually and prepares an analysis of the decisions with recommendations for change. The case is then discussed.

An example from sociology is Separate but Safer and Two Lives in a Global Neighborhood a case designed for an online seminar on sustainable food systems.  Case Study of a Usability Lab is one of many at Georgia Tech.

Descriptive, narrative cases, parts of which are given successively

These are up to 5 pages with about 1-2 paragraphs per page and are designed to be used over the course of two or more class meetings. The case is disclosed to the students one page at a time, with discussion, hypothesis generation and development of learning goals and study questions for each part of the case. Objectives are given to the student toward the end of the case.  This style of case originated in medical settings.  An example from nursing is Baby JW . The ASM case Souvenirs deals with hantavirus in five parts. There are extensive teaching notes and resources including assessment.  


Designed to be used in a single class meeting, usually tightly focused. Useful for helping students apply concepts, for introducing practical applications in lab settings, or as a pre-lab exercise designed to make lab work more meaningful.  See Coldwater Lake a prelude to a modeling exercise on lake food webs and Deadly Diet Pills to lead into respiration.

Bullet Cases

Two or three sentences with a single teaching point. Similar to problems commonly used on exams, however, students discuss them in small groups. These can be used for pre-assessment such as MTBE Alert or the The Rumor activity from How Now Mad Cow to test prior knowledge of proteins and prions.

Directed Case Study

In this format, short cases are followed immediately with highly directed questions.  See the several cases in the Human Anatomy and Physiology Case Project at Niagara University, for example, Muscle Dysgenesis

Fixed Choice Options (Multiple Choice Cases)

These may be a variation on bullet cases above, is a minicase with 4-5 plausible solutions. In groups students must choose and defend one solution. Useful for policy, ethics, design decisions. Good for short, in-class uses. Multiple choice questions might convert easily to these.

Learning Goals and Course Objectives

  • Which goals could be met by having students use the casestudy 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?

Course Structure

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


Class Size

Biology classes come in all sizes - 15, 50, 150, or 500 students with enrollments tending to be highest in beginning courses. There are even biology classes where the members never meet in person. Implementing case-cased learning in different sized classes requires planning.

In very large classes, cases could be short introductory experiences that lead into additional learning experiences in lab or recitation time.Some part of the lecture time is used to provide the case background, perhaps in a short video segment. Directed cases with a defined problem space are used within large lecture settings by selecting class members to respond individually. Often individuals are chosen to report on the progress of short periods of work accomplished within proximity groups of students. There are many solutions to having students in larger classes do meaningful work in smaller groups. Additional support for case based teaching can be provided by 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 a case. Peer interactions are enriched by the prior knowledge, experience and interests the larger number of students bring to the process.

In smaller classes, there's a real advantage for students learning how to work together on cases. Groups can be smaller and more easily interacted with. Investigative case-based learning works well in this setting. Here the case serves as a springboard for further investigations in the lab or field. Further research options might include modeling and simulation, data mining, or data visualization. A number of undergraduate institutions have set up workshop biology or studio science style introductory courses that result in lower sized classes specifically to take advantage of cooperative and collaborative learning in biology. Student products required of the case learning experience are also not as limited. Longer term individual case projects are more likely to be an option here.

In virtual classes, cases are introduced electronically with student groups working together on-line. This approach also works well to extend opportunities for community college students who may be older and working. There are faculty whose case materials and advice are made available on line.

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.

Address student concerns by providing access to specific information on what to expect with case-based learning such as: Notes for Students on Investigative Case-Based Learning

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 ofyou 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 or Barbara Gross Davis "Tools for Teaching" will be useful for developing such guidelines, as will colleagues in disciplines that regularly use discussion (psychology, english, history, education, philosophy).

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This material is based on an excerpt from Waterman and Stanley "Investigative Case Based Learning,"
a text module in the BioQUEST Library V, John Jungck and Virginia Vaughan (Eds) Academic Press, 1998.
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