April 23 2011
eCoaching Tip 87 The Learning Power of Problems and Cases
The end of the term is upon us. I hope that you and your students are enjoying the wrapping up and sharing of course projects during these final weeks. While it is not a time to relax, it is a time to have a quieter “expert voice” and to enjoy the creative spirit of your students.
Why are problems and cases such powerful learning tools?
The main reason that problems and cases are powerful learning tools is that they contextualize learning. This means that learners are able to see concepts, rules, and principles situated in authentic and complex scenarios. When novices first encounter real problems, they often just freeze up, panic and their brains feels as if they simply shut down. They might not even know where to start. Dealing with real problems and cases helps students to “discover and develop their own unique framework for approaching, understanding, and dealing with … problems.” (Barnes, Christensen & Hansen, 1994, p. 42). Actually dealing with real problems develops confidence and skill.
How are cases and case studies different?
Some practitioners make distinctions between formal case studies and less developed cases or problems. Complete case studies, such as those available from disciplines such as business, public health and engineering, provide all the history, analyses, photos, graphics, and processes of a case study and include the actions taken and the results from those actions. Some case studies are seminal to a particular discipline such as the famous John Snow’s case study in epidemiology identifying the source and type of transmission of the cholera toxin in London in 1854. A seminal classic case study in engineering is the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge disaster in Washington in 1940. A more recent case study often used in organizational management or business culture or ethics focuses on the Challenger Disaster in 1986. This last link describes in some detail how this case study is used in an undergraduate materials engineering course. These formal case studies take learners through authentic problems and learners see the application of principles, practices and concepts. Formal, well-developed case studies often lead to convergence on the particular knowledge to be learned. In other words, there is seldom room for “what if” types of thinking.
What are the benefits of using cases for the faculty?
Case method teaching has benefits not only for student learning, but also for faculty, according to C. R. Christensen, a proponent of case method for discussion and learning. He believed that case method teaching is “intellectually stimulating” for the faculty as “every class provides opportunity for new intellectual adventure, for risk taking, for new learning.” (Barnes, Christensen & Hansen, 1994, p. 42).
How do discussions forums using problems and cases work?
Here are two strategies: one is personalization; the other is brainstorming. In the personalization strategy, students are presented with a scenario that requires them to apply a principle, rule or concept to their own lives, careers, regions or interests. This might mean researching water quality, community processes, or global interests or crises and bringing their results to the forum where all can share in the insights into that scenario. In the brainstorming strategy, It can mean posing a specific scenario or problem such as saving a company from bankruptcy, managing or averting an epidemic, or managing a troublesome or manipulative employee, and have the students bring ideas, rules, strategies and possibilities to the discussion. What is essential in both these strategies is that the faculty member stay engaged, directing and shaping the engagement as appropriate to reinforce, consolidate and guide the learning.
What is my responsibility as a mentor and coach with the problems and cases?
As noted above, it is critical for faculty — with their expert and coaching voices — to be present during the discussion of these cases and problems, so that learners meet the goal of developing their own framework for approaching problems and to reinforce the core concepts in their practice. It is the faculty member’s responsibility to encourage students to think deeply about the issues with targeted questions. The faculty member must support the learning by helping students make connections, identify relationships and help the learners grow in their thinking and problem solving.
How can I get started with using cases?
Formal case studies can take a great deal of time to develop and to refine, but fortunately there are many ways of getting started with cases by using existing resources. And open-ended cases are all around us.
In contrast, complex and authentic cases can be quite lengthy, such as virtual simulations and text cases that last for an entire term. Some textbooks might have two or three cases that evolve and expand throughout the term as the principles of each of the topics are learned. Other courses give learners an opportunity to work their way through a business simulation requiring changes in strategic planning, marketing, financing, and employee morale. At the end of the course they may have saved the company or not.
Where can I find good case studies and problems?
The first — and easiest place — to find case studies and problems is in the text you have selected for your course or perhaps others that you may have on your shelf. Often times you just need a little inspiration, particularly for short sentence or paragraph problems. Other good sources are websites, both published subscription websites and free sites. In some disciplines, such as business and engineering, authors have published entire volumes of cases.
Here are a few sites to get you started, and of course, you will want to check the websites of your discipline professional organizations and simply google.
Free web sites
What about having the learners generate cases?
Learner-generated cases are another very exciting source of cases. When students are asked to bring cases from their own experiences, from friends or colleagues, or from on-going current events, students tend to get very engaged. With an emotional connection to a case, learning becomes very specific and very personal. Once a student prepares the first draft of a case, an instructor may need to help the student shape or frame the case. Then a group of 3-4 other students can work on the case, serving as a 'consultant' to their peer, the owner of the case. Another approach with learner-generated cases is to have the whole class work on one case and suggest principles, tools, or processes that might be helpful in managing a case.
Enjoying the Ambiguity of Cases and Problems
In closing, I think you will enjoy this observation about case method teaching from Roland Christensen. He said that using this method is "exchanging the relative certitude of a planned lecture and an instructor-dominated question-and-answer period for the ambiguity of a hard-to-plan, free-flowing discussion driven by student ideas, which may well follow unusual paths and come to unexpected end points." (Blagg, 2008). While most suited for a classroom setting, I think we can say that case method teaching might infuse predictable discussion forums with a stimulating exchange of ideas that “will follow unusual paths and reach satisfying and unexpected ends.”
Barnes, L. B., Christensen, C. R., & Hansen, A. J. (1994) Teaching and the case method: Text, cases, and readings. 3rd ed. Boston, Harvard Business School Press, pp. 320.
These eCoaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2010 in a book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached at judith followed by designingforlearning.org.
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