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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.

This tip focuses on the power of using problems and cases for learning experiences.  As you are thinking about your upcoming courses, either for this summer or next fall, consider how you can use more problems and cases that have particular and stimulating relevance for your courses. With a sharp eye, you can find cases and problems almost anywhere.

The most recent tip  — Tip 86 — described a novice to expert framework for learning and suggested defining specific milestones on the journey to expertise within your knowledge discipline. This tip continues the theme of developing expertise by focusing on using problems, cases and more formal case studies for some of the practice learners need to develop expertise.

This tip uses the FAQ format to pose and answer questions you might have about using problems and cases in your course. First of all, let’s start with why problems and cases are such powerful tools in building skills and expertise.

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.

When designing courses, our default approach is to use a textbook and design the sequence of a course with a linear flow of topics.  For example, a course in systems analysis might begin with an overview of system analysis followed by design and implementation and testing.  Learning the component elements of any system is necessary, but then we often don’t have time to really situate the learning in real life scenarios, and have learners use and assemble their developing knowledge framework.   Without real problems, learners will not become comfortable or practiced with the knowledge. Rather then designing a course using a serial topical approach, an alternative design approach is to design with a set of problems and cases as the driving focus and then learn the elements as needed.  In this design, the textbook becomes a reference and tool for dealing with the problems or tasks. 

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.

Cases, on the other hand, are often much briefer and may provide little or no background, history, resolution.  Cases are more likely to be open-ended, leaving the recommended actions or directions to the creative insights, judgments and evaluation of the learners. Cases can be closed, however, in the sense that interim steps and actions have been taken, but the final results of these actions are still unknown.

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).

Teaching with cases requires real engagement from the instructor.  The instructor needs to be on top of their game, and also to remain humble.  Cases can sometimes take unexpected turns, and the faculty member may have to trust the students to research relevant answers and solutions. The instructor also may have to be prepared to reduce the amount of didactic, "content-based" learning, because students will be learning relevant and broader content through discovery.
So, given the power of cases and methods, how do you do it online?

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.
As we have been learning more about online learning, the processes by which students learn from the discussion forums are becoming clearer.  We know that just leaving students to themselves without some guidance, encouragement, and probing questions doesn’t serve students well.

Good discussions need to be developed, nurtured, and managed; analyzing, discussing and strategizing cases.  Problems are good tools for sustained and meaningful conversations and learning.

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.
When getting started with cases, it is useful to think of the variety of problems and cases.  Some useful cases and problems can be as short as one sentence or a short paragraph culled from a current news article. Examples of simple cases might be as follows:

  • What would you do if…
  • A leader is facing a difficult question regarding company finances, etc.  How open should a leader be about this difficulty?
  • What businesses are succeeding in the current difficult economic climate? What are they doing that is different? Unique?  Strategic?

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.

A similar approach is to have all students propose a case for consideration by the class.   Then the instructor, possibly with input from the class, may select two or three cases that are dissimilar enough to stretch the students to consider how different solutions and different applications of course concepts and principles can be useful in addressing the case problems.

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.” 

Many thanks to Jim Wolford-Ulrich for his suggestions, ideas and comments on this tip.  
Drop a note when you can about what is going well or not for you and any suggestions for future tips or webinars.


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.

Blagg, Deborah. (2008). Chris Christensen: Legend of the Classroom. Lessons from the Classroom. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5901.html.

Chipman, Susan, E. F.  (2009).  Expertise in the management of people: A new frontier for research on expert performance.  In K.A. Ericsson (Ed.) Development of professional expertise: Toward measurement of expert performance and design of optimal learning environments. Cambridge University Press, pp. 470-493.

Christensen, C. Roland. Garvin, David A. & Sweet, A.  (1992). Education for judgment: The artistry of discussion leadership. Boston, Harvard Business Press.  Pp. 320.

Driscoll, Timothy. (2001). Article on C. Roland Christensen for Library Bulletin - Christensen and the Case Method.  6/25/2001. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from http://hbswk.hbs.edu/archive/2334.html

eCoaching Tip 60  (2008) Personalizing Learning Content so that Students Grow with the Course Experiences. Retrieved April 18, 2011 from http://www.designingforlearning.info/services/writing/ecoach/tips/tip60.html

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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Revised May 20 2013
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2013