- Albert Einstein
As the world becomes ever more complex and interconnected, it becomes increasingly critical that we provide ours students with the thinking tools, skills, and opportunities to develop their capacity to solve problems. Problems are rarely simple, direct, or can be solved with a single approach. These are the kind of learning experiences our students need to contribute to the future. Problem based learning (PBL) and case study experiences have the potential to help students to build these capacities.
Key features of the strategy
Problem based learning and case study activities are widely used in higher education to engage students in authentic, real-world learning opportunities. There are a number of ways to design problem based learning experiences and case studies in postsecondary education. Some rely heavily on technology tools and resources for data exploration, analysis, and communication. Others are entirely paper-based or instructor-led. These experiences can be done individually or in small groups, face-to-face or online, in a single class session or spanning a semester. There are a few key elements of problem based learning and case study experiences that help students to build their capacity to solve complex, real-world problems beyond the courses we teach.
PBL experiences and case studies should focus on complex and often ambiguous real-world scenarios that are open-ended enough to be approached in multiple ways and lead to divergent student outcomes. They should be organized and facilitated in a way that encourages the use of questions, dialog, debate that draws on analytical tools and frameworks appropriate to the discipline. They should include a range of authentic, rich resources that include multiple perspectives or facets of the focus problem.
For faculty interested in these two approaches, a wealth of resources are available. The University of Southern California Center for Technology Excellence offers an excellent handbook for teaching with case studies. The Northern Illinois University Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center offers a similar resource for problem based learning. The University of Central Florida Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning offers a helpful list of collections of case studies from a variety of disciplines. The following examples provide a sense of what these experiences look like in practice.
Examples and Variations
At Texas Women’s University, Laura Trujillo-Jenks employs a range of different types of case studies in her teaching in educational law. She differentiates between different levels of depth in case study design. She regularly uses elaborate scenarios that focus on problems and issues that are similar to the kinds of cases represented in the literature. In addition to these more elaborate cases, she also utilizes short (one to two sentence) scenarios at the beginning of class to assist students in reviewing key concepts or to introduce a new one. Similarly, she leverages video or news stories of current events that serve a similar purpose. With all these different approaches, her goal is to engage students in small groups in “applying learned concepts, objectives, and knowledge to hypothetical situations” in ways that engage students in critical thinking.
In a more elaborate problem based learning example, Don Woods from McMaster University engages students in small group, self-directed, and self-assessed PBL experiences in the chemical engineering program. Students in the program work through one problem in a junior level course and five problems in a senior level course. Prior to their first PBL experience, students participate in workshops designed to explore the approach, managing change, problem solving, and group skills. In groups of five, students draw on their course knowledge to work through a problem collaboratively. The begin with three meetings: a goals meeting, a teach meeting and an elaboration/feedback meeting in which they share their results with the instructor. They journal about their experience and what they have learned throughout the exploration.
The medical school at the University of Limerick designed their curriculum from scratch and is built completely around PBL. These experiences are integrated in the first two years as students build their foundational knowledge in areas like physiology and anatomy. The work continues in the third and fourth years as they move into the clinical setting. The program Web site offers rich video descriptions of the program and how PBL supports student learning.
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
When students engage in case study and/or problem based learning, they develop critical 21st century learning skills real-world problem solving and innovation and collaboration. Through active engagement in these inquiry-based approaches students not only develop and apply their content knowledge related to the topic, the work together to devise and test innovative solutions.
These approaches can be accomplished without the use of technology at all. For decades, instructors in business, law, medicine, and other disciplines conducted paper-based case studies as an integral part of coursework. The affordances of digital media and interactive tools, however, provide opportunities to increase the authenticity of case study and PBL. By including digital media and access to real data, students work with the kinds of materials and resources that they will encounter beyond the classroom. In addition, they can use data analysis tools to work with and learn from the data provided.
What strategies do you use to incorporate problem based learning or case studies in your courses?
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