Case-Based Pedagogy

While I believe that Case-Based or Problem-Based learning can be a valuable way to engage students in the classroom, it also seems that there are some challenges that instructors must be prepared to navigate if they intend to implement this learning style.

My initial reaction to some of the readings was to wonder how people with very introverted personalities would respond to case-based teaching styles. There is certainly an argument that professional success depends upon being able to work collaboratively with others, and that everyone needs to learn this skill even if it is very difficult for them. However, I also remember feeling very challenged by group learning projects in college because of my introverted personality. I have had to learn how to overcome this inherent tendency in order to give presentations, teach, and participate in discussion seminars, but this was a skill that I gained with hard fought effort over many years. I think that it is important for instructors to understand that a student who seems hesitant to participate may not necessarily be uninterested in the material, but rather may feel uncomfortable interacting with classmates for various reasons. Students who already feel socially isolated and not connected to the student body of their university may find these types of classroom situations very challenging. Of course, if the class goes well, the student may find some way to overcome these difficulties, and to feel connected with their classmates. However, I think it is important for instructors to realize that there are a variety of reasons students may act disengaged during group projects, and that those reasons may have nothing to do with not wanting to learn the material.

The flip side of this is that some students have very extroverted, confident personalities that can lead such students to feel that they are expected to take charge for the group’s work. It is probably impossible to foster completely equal participation from all students, but perhaps teachers should use strategies to make sure that all group members are putting a strong effort into the project. It seems that group work will be most effective when true collaboration happens and the group members feel equal. However, in my experience with these types of projects there is not always enough time provided in class for a group to come together in this way. When projects feel rushed, often one student feels obligated to take the lead. It takes time for a more equal group dynamic to emerge.

In general, I do think that inquiry-based and applied learning with various real situations is a valuable tool for instructors to use. The type of learning that takes place in case-based learning mirrors the type of activity that takes place in a professional workplace in which specific problems need to be solved collaboratively. Students may gain insight into how certain explanations or practices in a field came about by seeing in practice how real life situations are resolved through specific technical or intellectual tools. Students may also feel more empowered to believe that they can make their own contributions to an academic or professional field after having the experience of working through a specific applied problem. I think that all of these benefits are very valuable.

However, in scientific or other technical fields in which specific information does need to be memorized or at least very well understood by the student, there is a risk that weaker students, or simply students who are more traditional learners, may feel left behind. Perhaps teachers could provide optional resources for students who want a more traditional presentation of the course material. Additionally, higher level courses will often assume that certain prerequisite knowledge has been obtained, and if the student ends up with a weak foundation in key concepts, this could impact the student’s confidence and their drive to continue in the field. It is important, it seems to me, for teachers to check in with students about their level of mastery of the concepts, to make sure that the intended learning goals have been successful.

In relation to my above remarks in regards to accommodating the different needs and personalities of students, it seems that successful case-based learning probably does require more effort for a teacher. Some teachers have taught the same course for many years and may feel bored enough to embrace the extra challenge. Other teachers such as myself are graduate students trying to take classes, attend conferences, and publish original research while also teaching their own courses. In my case, I am trying to be competent and to give the students the best experience that I can, but often I simply don’t have time to do more than look at the readings, write up a lecture, and try to think of some good discussion questions.

The discussion question segment of my class is the closest to problem-based learning. I tend to give students some freedom to choose among a list of questions and allow them to answer what they feel interested in answering. I also do try to connect the discussion questions to real life concerns when I can, but in my case I have to be extremely careful about not simply asking students to have a debate on personal beliefs. The class that I am currently teaching involves issues that relate to very personal political and religious belief systems, and I don’t want students to feel that I am asking them to engage from a very personal point of view. I actually don’t want to use the classroom to repeat debates that are happening in the public sphere because I feel that this would encourage students to default to their personal political identity in a defensive way, which is the opposite of the more curious, mindful, critical learning that I am trying to achieve.

I could certainly do more to encourage the students to engage in the discussion segment of my class. Often, I feel that the discussions are rushed or cut short, simply because the class runs out of time. I could try to shorten the lectures, but often I feel that the lectures are important for allowing me to introduce complex academic concepts that students will not engage with otherwise. If I skip the lectures entirely and only provide discussion questions, often the class conversation doesn’t reference the theoretical framework from the readings at all. Some people would argue that it doesn’t need to, of course, but I don’t want to turn the class into a social outlet only. To me, the whole point of case-based/problem-based learning is that students use the collaborative experience to connect back to the challenging intellectual material that I want them to feel motivated to learn.

My own teaching style is to look for a balance between teaching the material and having creative discussion, because I feel that both activities can feed off one another to create a more meaningful overall experience. Some would perhaps say that I am a traditionalist, since I tend to look for a class format that works well and that I can replicate when I am short on time. However, as mentioned, I am a desperately busy graduate student teaching my courses for the first time, and my ability to approach teaching more creatively may change as I progress along my academic career. Although, I have been told, not very many professionals in academia feel that they have an excess of time, so perhaps this is a matter of motivation and interest in cultivating a different approach.

3 thoughts on “Case-Based Pedagogy

  1. I think you raise some really important points. Implementing such active learning approaches may impose more pressure of students with an introverts personalities, and as you said getting the required group dynamic needs more time. But I also think we need a slight touch of these incidents to put students out of their comfort zones. People need to be pushed out of their boundaries to progress. Having said that, this needs careful guidance form teachers. I also think the responsibility to ensure this lies on the instructor, which is way some criticism is directed towards these methods in terms of whether the instructor is really able to pull that effort or not. It is challenging task for teaches and requires a lot of dedication and hard work to succeed.


  2. You bring up some really interesting points – the one that stood out to me most was the concept of time. I completely agree in that as a graduate student, it can be extremely challenging to do all of the things we are tasked to do in a timely manner, let alone to do them well. It can be challenging to hear that people that are established in academica also feel that they do not have enough time and consequently might be hesitant to try new learning methods, such as active learning. While a lot of time, dedication, and hard work will be required of the student and teacher alike, if this is something that could be rewarding for both parties and foster learning maybe we (as educators, not necessarily grad student TAs) should make the time for it.


  3. I had a WordPress glitch and I think my original comment got lost.

    Anyway, your post got me to thinking about a different student’s blog that I read this week. Go take a look at Kai’s and maybe think about how starting small might on a PBL might be a nice way to add new content/experiences to your course. I get the over-extended graduate student thing, so this might be a good way to do PBL well and offer students something that may benefit from working towards a solution in a small, well-framed context.

    Kai’s post: Let’s Pump the Brakes before Diving Straight into Popular Pedagogies


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