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NIE Seminar

Investigative Case Based Learning for the 21st Century


Margaret Waterman, Ph.D., Southeast Missouri State University


Ethel Stanley, Ed.D., BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium, Beloit, WI

In this seminar the theoretical basis for ICBL and evidence of its effectiveness in several disciplines will be presented. The seminar participants will engage with a brief case and investigation.


Investigative Case Based Learning (ICBL) is a method of teaching and learning that uses a case (a short story or scenario) about contemporary topics as the entry point for learners.  During their analysis of a multidisciplinary case, students draw upon their prior knowledge and experience and collaboratively generate questions they need to answer in order to further understand the case.  Instructors can then engage students in investigations by using resources in classrooms, laboratories, studios, libraries, online, or in the outdoors.  The ICBL method is a variant of other case study methods, particularly Problem Based Learning as was used in medical schools.  ICBL, however, emphasizes investigations and uniquely strengthens students’ abilities to pose questions, work in teams successfully, identify solutions, and present findings.

Educators are now being asked to help students develop 21st century competencies of managing information, solving problems, contributing socially, thinking globally, and acting ethically. Because of its emphasis on investigation, ICBL is particularly well suited for taking advantage of the wealth of resources available in cyberspace (online), such as simulations and models, global data, real research tools, information sources, images, animations, visualizations, and collaboration tools.  This seminar will illustrate how some of these resources can be connected to ICBL cases.


NIEseminar8-2011 PDF (1.95 MB)


Seminar Handout:

Investigative Case Based Learning (ICBL) is one member of the Problem Based Learning/Case Study family of pedagogies.  In all of these, instruction and learning begin with a story – a realistic, complex and ill defined problem.  Analysis of the story in ICBL is scaffolded with a Case Analysis sheet (Waterman and Stanley, 2000), which stimulates collaborative groups of students to become aware of their prior knowledge, to identify learning goals, and to identify strategies for exploring those learning goals.   In ICBL, students then may undertake investigations using the tools of the discipline.  For science, they may conduct a student-designed experiment or other kind of laboratory work, they may work with a simulation, animations, data sets and other resources from the online environment.  ICBL concludes by student production of products relevant to the case, such as a lab report, short paper, pamphlet for consumers, public service announcement, visuals, posters and the like.

This family of teaching approaches is firmly grounded in current understandings of how people learn (Bransford et al., 2000) and situated cognition. The realistic (and hopefully relevant to students) problems provide a context in which learning occurs. With regard to how people learn, the idea that learners construct new knowledge by making meaning of their experiences by building on their unique prior knowledge is a key. Collaborative learning experiences, in which students share their ideas as they identify elements of the problem, helps them become aware of their misconceptions and of themselves as learners (metacognition).

What do we know about effectiveness?  Most research has been done with medical students, however there are increasing numbers of studies of undergraduate and lower levels learning (see reviews by Hmelo-Silver, 2004 and Lundeberg, 2008). Medical students using PBL generally learn slightly less content, as measured by achievement tests, than those in traditional programs. However, they learn more concepts and remember the information far longer. They also have superior diagnostic and explanatory skills

  • biology students learning with cases gained more knowledge than did traditionally instructed students.
  • if critical thinking is defined generally, no effect is seen in student performance from case groups and traditional lecture groups. However, if critical thinking is defined in terms of skills used in scientific inquiry (data analysis, question formulation,) students learning via cases outperformed students in traditional classes.
  • Further, in Lundeberg’s study of the Case It! Program, students developed ethical and global awareness to a greater extent than those not taking part in case discussions.
  • . The complex nature of case studies and problems can also lead students to assess problems from a myriad of perspectives and those that emphasize the human dimension of an issue or controversy may be able to powerfully demonstrate the relevance of a given topic to students and generate engagement.
  • the use of case-based learning in science education can significantly promote knowledge acquisition, the development of critical thinking skills in students, and student retention

We do not, however, have a clear picture of how instructors are using and developing either case studies or PBL, how learning occurs during collaboration, how students interact with online tools, and long term studies of self directed learning.  Details of learning of specific topics, such as systems thinking, with these pedagogies are also lacking.

Selected References

  • AAS. 2010. Vision and Change in Undergraduate Biology Education: A call to action. Washington, DC: AAAS
  • Bransford J. et al. 2000.  How People Learn.  Washington, DC: National Academies Press. (Free online)
  • Gjbels, David. 2008. Effectiveness of Problem-based Learning. Commissioned paper for the National Academies of Science Board on Science Education. Online at
  • Handelsman, Jo, Diane Ebert-May, Robert Beichner, Peter Bruns, Amy Chang, Robert DeHaan, Jim Gentile,Sarah Lauffer, James Stewart, Shirley M. Tilghman, William B. Wood. 2004. Scientific Teaching. Science 304 (5670): 521-522.
  • Hmelo-Silver, C. E. 2004. Problem-based learning: What and how do students learn? Educational Psychology Review, 16(3), 235-266.
  • Lundeberg, Mary Anna. 2008. Case Pedagogy in Undergraduate STEM: Research We Have, Research We Need. White Paper Commissioned by the National Academies of Science Board on Science Education. Online at:
  • National Research Council. 2009. A New Biology for the 21st Century. Board of Life Science. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
  • National Science Foundation. 2008. Fostering Learning in the Networked World: The Cyberlearning Opportunity and Challenge. Washington, DC: NSF.
  • Stanley, E. and M. Waterman. 2003.  Using Investigative Cases in Geoscience.
  • Waterman, Margaret and Ethel Stanley. 2008. Biological Inquiry: A Workbook of Investigative Cases. 2nd ed. San Francisco: Benjamin Cummings.
  • Waterman, M.A. and E.D. Stanley.  LifeLines OnLine:  Investigative Case-Based Learning for 21st Century Learners.  Proceedings of the International Union of Biological Scientists “BioEd 2000” Paris, France, May 2000.
  • Waterman, M.A. and E.D. Stanley.  Investigative Case Based Learning: Teaching Scientifically While Connecting Science to Society.  In Invention and Impact: Building Excellence in Undergraduate STEM Education Proceedings of an NSF/AAAS conference of the same name that took place in April 2004. Published 2005.

Data-based visualizations/ data sets



Real time statistics

One Map Singapore

Some Available Libraries of Case Studies

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