Student Notes

Educational approaches are constantly revised. These "new" methods of teaching and learning enable us to deal with the objectives each generation feels are essential for their learners. The case study approach is a method of providing students with an opportunity to use stories of people dealing with science-based issues (i.e., the cases) as a way to structure their own learning. The cases provided here are specially designed to serve as springboards to student-designed investigations. Case-based learning is student-centered. Working with a teacher-provided case, students determine issues they wish to pursue, and then use a wide variety of approaches and resources for learning.

This approach to learning biology may feel awkward at first since it is different from more highly structured ways to learn. Although the general area of biology under investigation is defined by the case, you generate the questions which will define your own topic of study. You will find yourself posing problems, trying to solve them, and presenting conclusions that represent your own findings to others. Your instructor as well as your classmates are collaborators in this process.

You may find yourself working in a group. This is an excellent way to begin exploring biology since scientific investigations necessarily involve similar group dynamics. Even if you are not planning on becoming a scientist yourself, it is nevertheless essential for you to develop a familairity about the way scientists work in order to better understand biological issues that affect you as a global citizen.

What does a case look like?

Cases come in many formats, including videos, computer-based cases, and written forms. Text-based cases are the most common and they can be one paragraph or many pages long.

Here is an example of a short biology case. The first thing to do is to see what the case is about. Read it through to get a sense of the story and issues. One good case-learning method when you're working in groups is to have one student read the case out loud while the others read along silently. This sounds corny, but it gets everyone "on the same page" and students say it helps them get started.

Note: Have a good dictionary and reference books available to be able to quickly look things up.


Fleaing Louisiana

Case author: Margaret Waterman, 1996.

Moses Anders hung up the phone after talking with Ella Cardinale-Jones about her troubles. She had ticks on the dog, roaches in the house and hungry mosquitos chewing up her kids. "Now Mr. Anders, I'm used to seeing some bugs around -- this is Louisiana. But it seems no matter what I do there are more and more of them. How can I get rid of them? I don't feel like my children are safe." Ms. Cardinale-Jones was the 19th caller about these insects this month, and it was only January 7th.

Moses Anders is an intern with the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service while he finishes his BS in biology. Moses dug out the last of the the old tick, flea, and roach pamphlets in the files to send a copy to Ms. Cardinale-Jones. It said that these insects shouldn't be significant problems until late spring, the pamphlet did not really answer Ms. Cardinale-Jones questions, and it didn't mention mosquitos.

He talked about this situation with Fran Collins, his internship mentor, an agent who has been with the Service for several years. "Yeah," she said, "it's been really busy this winter. In fact, it's been this way all the time for a couple of years now." She agreed with Moses that the pamphlet needed to be updated and that he could take on the project, once he'd given her a work plan and time line.

Moses and Judy Yee, an intern in the public health office traded stories over lunch at one of the city's crowded outdoor cafes. She told him that the first case of Lyme disease in the area had recently been reported, and he told her about his new project. Their talk turned to the weather as they made their way back to work.

How to begin?

Individuals approach learning with cases in very different ways. You may wish to consider doing one or more of the following after reading a case:

· Recognize potential issues

Go back and read the case again, this time noting words or phrases that seem to be important to you in understanding what the case is about. If you have a hard copy, underline these phrases. You are looking for "learning issues' that you might explore further. Jot down your ideas and questions about these phrases If you are working in a group, this approach might be done as a group discussion, with one person keeping a list of issues (maybe on the chalkboard) as they are raised.

Here's an example of some of the kinds of issues raised in one paragraph of Fleaing Louisiana:

Moses Anders hung up the phone after talking with Ella Cardinale-Jones about her troubles with ticks on the dog, roaches in the house and hungry mosquitos chewing up her kids. "Now Mr. Anders, I'm used to seeing some bugs around -- this is Louisiana. But it seems no matter what I do there are more and more of them. How can I get rid of them? I don't feel like my children are safe." Ms. Cardinale-Jones was the 19th caller about these insects this month, and it was only January 7th.

What we know now: It's January in Louisiana. There are lots of insects, perhaps more than usual, and people with safety concerns are calling Moses Anders about this.

Potential learning issues: Insect populations and the factors that affect them. Problems posed to humans by insects. Insect control measures. Unusual insect occurences in winter. The job held by Moses that would lead people to call him.

· Brainstorm for connections

There are several ways to do this. One way is to think about the case as a whole and see if there are underlying themes. Global warming, insect-borne diseases, and careers in biology are some themes many people identify for "Fleaing Louisiana."

Another way to brainstorm is to list questions you have as a result of reading the case. Using the first paragraph again as an example, here are some questions raised by learners who have worked with this case:

 Why are there lots of insects in January? What affects the number of insects at any given time of year? Are there really more than usual? What is the usual pattern?

Why is Ms. Cardinale-Jones concerned for the safety of her children? What diseases do ticks, roaches and mosquitos carry? Are there other reasons besides disease to be concerned about these insects?

What can Ms. Cardinale-Jones do to control the insects? What advice should Moses give her? What is the biology of ticks? Roaches? Mosquitoes?

Why are people calling Moses Anders about this? What do they think he knows or can do for them? What sorts of jobs deal with these issues?

· Pose specific questions

Brainstorming can lead to a long list of questions, not all of which you or your group (or your teacher) may choose to pursue. Spend time as a group identifying key issues of interest. For our example, there are several types of questions on this list that lead to different types of learning. Here are some examples.

 Learning Questions


Further brainstorming

"Why is Ms. Cardinale-Jones concerned for the safety of her children?" or "What affects the number of insects at any given time of year?" or "What sorts of jobs deal with these issues?"


Searching out basic facts.

"What diseases do the insects carry?" or "What is the biology of ticks?" These questions in and of themselves do not pose a scientific research problem, but learning more about these may lead to other questions that are scientific.


 Finding information, analyzing it and finding patterns.

"What is the usual pattern of insects in Louisiana?" and "Is it different this year?" These questions might lead you to the Internet or elsewhere to get insect sampling data for analysis.

Decision making.

"What advice should Moses give her?" You will need to understand the issues, and evaluate the consequences of the options before you can answer this question.

Scientific investigations

"What affects the number of insects at any given time of year?" could be refined to focus on climatic variables. These could then be investigated by modeling (with Biota or EDM), by actually collecting weather and insect population data, by using data sets collected by others, or by finding published information on the topic.


  "One of the greatest challenges in biology is to frame appropriate and productive questions that can be pursued by the technology at hand. You have probably had a great deal of experience in solving pre-posed problems, such as those found at the end of textbook chapters. However, if you were asked to go into a lab or out in a field and pose a research question, you will find that this is often difficult to do without some practice....

(The BioQUEST Library IV: A Note to the Student 1996)


· Obtain additional references/resources

No matter what type of question you pose, it is likely you will seek and use other resources to help you develop a persuasive answer. Resources may include your textbooks; other library materials; results of computer simulations; results of lab or field research; articles, data sets, maps, emails, or other electronically based resources; pamphlets from organizations; interviews with experts; museum exhibits, etc., etc.

· Define problem further by sharing your views and concerns

  Why are some research questions considered better than others? What are the cultural, personal, and political biases that influence what questions are posed and how they are posed?

(The BioQUEST Library IV: A Note to the Student 1996)

As you develop problem and questions you want to investigate, it will be important to consult with others: most likely members of your group or other classmates. Talking about your ideas and plans with others is an important step in refining problems, and can lead you to different perspectives that might be good research problems. Continue this practice of sharing with others as you gather evidence in anwswer to your problem, and as you prepare to present your conclusions.

What am I expected to do with my question(s)?

Once you have a problem you want to investigate, you might consider any of the following:

· Design and conduct investigations utilizing:

laboratory /field methods
computers (software modules, spreadsheets, graphics, etc.)
new sources (further refererences, interviews, etc.)

· Initiate debate on views or outcomes

For Fleaing Louisiana, a debate on global warming might be something teams of students might choose to prepare.


How to end?

  "... you must confront the issue of closure in research. How do you know when you have a "right" answer? When is research done? Scientists do not arrive at a final answer; usually research is abandoned for a variety of reasons, including time, resources, and most importantly when the scientific research team is "satisfied" with their conclusions, that is when the solution is "useful" for some purpose."

(The BioQUEST Library IV: A Note to the Student 1996)

When you are ready to present your own conclusions, consider the following:

· Develop analyses/reports to persuade others of your ideas

  "Research is not complete, no matter how many experiments have been conducted, no matter how many puzzles have been solved, until peers outside of a research team are persuaded of the utility of the answers. Persuasion is a social process and an essential one for you to experience in order to understand the nature of scientific theories and paradigm shifts. Communication in the science community is an active process full of controversy and debate. The productive side of science involves open criticism of the methods and conclusions made by a research group. This controversy and debate is important to the creation and acceptance of new scientific knowledge."

(The BioQUEST Library IV: A Note to the Student 1996)

· Produce materials that support understanding of the conclusions you are making

The possibilities are vast: posters, poetry, plays, videos, booklets, pamphlets, consulting reports (if you are role playing), artwork, designs for new technology, scientific reports, a new case study, etc.

How are collaborative efforts assessed and evaluated?

Like most undergraduates, you may have concerns about the assessment and evaluation methods used in group work.

Peer review is a key feature of how scientists judge each other's work. You are likely to peer review one another's proposal, investigations, and persuasive materials. Recently, self-assessment has become a more frequent component of assessment in science, especially as more group work is done.

The bottom line is that there are many ways to assess group products and group process. Some teachers give a group grade and an individual grade when both group and individual products are developed. Some include the peer evaluations and group self-evaluations. If he or she has not already explained, you will want to discuss with your teacher how she or he plans to assess students work.

Why does my instructor want me to use the case study approach?

One clearly defined criticism of biology education for undergraduates lies in the inability of most students to link the biology they learn in college with the biological issues they face day to day.

  "... school-acquired knowledge remains apart from everyday matters, so that it is difficult to meet the aim for science to illuminate people's lives." p. 190

White, Richard T. 1988. Learning Science. Basil Blackwell Ltd. Oxford, UK.


If we believe that biology learning should result in applicable, flexible knowledge of the living world and how to investigate it, then case-based learning may help. When used to generate open-ended investigations, however, case-based learning offers promise of meeting the needs of biology learners. Cases, coupled with powerful tools for investigation, are about meaningful, real-world problems and how to approach them collaboratively using science knowledge and processes. Learning with cases puts the learners more in control of the problems to be studied and the resources used than most other types of learning.

Some kinds of teaching in biology may actually limit the interactions students have with the discipline. Curiously, even the labs which were often described as giving the student an opportunity to explore methods and questions with greater autonomy than in lectures have been recognized as problematic. In fact, they have been criticized for years.

  " in botany has often become too mechanical, too stereotyped, too restrictive, too dependent upon a laboratory manual which lays it all out on the line and which thus gives the student little opportunity for independent work, for display of initiative for the exercise of imagination, for the satisfaction of personal curiosity." p. 495

Fuller, H. J. 1958. Fifty Years of Botany : The odor of botany. McGraw-Hill Book Company, NY.


Reform in biology education has been called for so that all biology students may become familiar with the process of science and value this approach to problem-solving in their own lives:

 "... an effective way of presenting first-year biology involves an emphasis on the conceptual framework of the discipline, a ruthless de-emphasis of the incredible terminology that plagues many introductory courses and texts, an explicit concern with important human problems for which the biological sciences may suggest solutions, and an emphasis on the strengths and limitations of scientific procedures."

Moore, J. 1988. Science as a Way of Knowing, "Understanding Nature - Form and Function". American Zoologist 28: p.449.


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