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Case Study-Based Learning

Enhancing learning through immediate application.

By the Mind Tools Content Team

case study for learning theory

If you've ever tried to learn a new concept, you probably appreciate that "knowing" is different from "doing." When you have an opportunity to apply your knowledge, the lesson typically becomes much more real.

Adults often learn differently from children, and we have different motivations for learning. Typically, we learn new skills because we want to. We recognize the need to learn and grow, and we usually need – or want – to apply our newfound knowledge soon after we've learned it.

A popular theory of adult learning is andragogy (the art and science of leading man, or adults), as opposed to the better-known pedagogy (the art and science of leading children). Malcolm Knowles , a professor of adult education, was considered the father of andragogy, which is based on four key observations of adult learners:

  • Adults learn best if they know why they're learning something.
  • Adults often learn best through experience.
  • Adults tend to view learning as an opportunity to solve problems.
  • Adults learn best when the topic is relevant to them and immediately applicable.

This means that you'll get the best results with adults when they're fully involved in the learning experience. Give an adult an opportunity to practice and work with a new skill, and you have a solid foundation for high-quality learning that the person will likely retain over time.

So, how can you best use these adult learning principles in your training and development efforts? Case studies provide an excellent way of practicing and applying new concepts. As such, they're very useful tools in adult learning, and it's important to understand how to get the maximum value from them.

What Is a Case Study?

Case studies are a form of problem-based learning, where you present a situation that needs a resolution. A typical business case study is a detailed account, or story, of what happened in a particular company, industry, or project over a set period of time.

The learner is given details about the situation, often in a historical context. The key players are introduced. Objectives and challenges are outlined. This is followed by specific examples and data, which the learner then uses to analyze the situation, determine what happened, and make recommendations.

The depth of a case depends on the lesson being taught. A case study can be two pages, 20 pages, or more. A good case study makes the reader think critically about the information presented, and then develop a thorough assessment of the situation, leading to a well-thought-out solution or recommendation.

Why Use a Case Study?

Case studies are a great way to improve a learning experience, because they get the learner involved, and encourage immediate use of newly acquired skills.

They differ from lectures or assigned readings because they require participation and deliberate application of a broad range of skills. For example, if you study financial analysis through straightforward learning methods, you may have to calculate and understand a long list of financial ratios (don't worry if you don't know what these are). Likewise, you may be given a set of financial statements to complete a ratio analysis. But until you put the exercise into context, you may not really know why you're doing the analysis.

With a case study, however, you might explore whether a bank should provide financing to a borrower, or whether a company is about to make a good acquisition. Suddenly, the act of calculating ratios becomes secondary – it's more important to understand what the ratios tell you. This is how case studies can make the difference between knowing what to do, and knowing how, when, and why to do it.

Then, what really separates case studies from other practical forms of learning – like scenarios and simulations – is the ability to compare the learner's recommendations with what actually happened. When you know what really happened, it's much easier to evaluate the "correctness" of the answers given.

When to Use a Case Study

As you can see, case studies are powerful and effective training tools. They also work best with practical, applied training, so make sure you use them appropriately.

Remember these tips:

  • Case studies tend to focus on why and how to apply a skill or concept, not on remembering facts and details. Use case studies when understanding the concept is more important than memorizing correct responses.
  • Case studies are great team-building opportunities. When a team gets together to solve a case, they'll have to work through different opinions, methods, and perspectives.
  • Use case studies to build problem-solving skills, particularly those that are valuable when applied, but are likely to be used infrequently. This helps people get practice with these skills that they might not otherwise get.
  • Case studies can be used to evaluate past problem solving. People can be asked what they'd do in that situation, and think about what could have been done differently.

Ensuring Maximum Value From Case Studies

The first thing to remember is that you already need to have enough theoretical knowledge to handle the questions and challenges in the case study. Otherwise, it can be like trying to solve a puzzle with some of the pieces missing.

Here are some additional tips for how to approach a case study. Depending on the exact nature of the case, some tips will be more relevant than others.

  • Read the case at least three times before you start any analysis. Case studies usually have lots of details, and it's easy to miss something in your first, or even second, reading.
  • Once you're thoroughly familiar with the case, note the facts. Identify which are relevant to the tasks you've been assigned. In a good case study, there are often many more facts than you need for your analysis.
  • If the case contains large amounts of data, analyze this data for relevant trends. For example, have sales dropped steadily, or was there an unexpected high or low point?
  • If the case involves a description of a company's history, find the key events, and consider how they may have impacted the current situation.
  • Consider using techniques like SWOT analysis and Porter's Five Forces Analysis to understand the organization's strategic position.
  • Stay with the facts when you draw conclusions. These include facts given in the case as well as established facts about the environmental context. Don't rely on personal opinions when you put together your answers.

Writing a Case Study

You may have to write a case study yourself. These are complex documents that take a while to research and compile. The quality of the case study influences the quality of the analysis. Here are some tips if you want to write your own:

  • Write your case study as a structured story. The goal is to capture an interesting situation or challenge and then bring it to life with words and information. You want the reader to feel a part of what's happening.
  • Present information so that a "right" answer isn't obvious. The goal is to develop the learner's ability to analyze and assess, not necessarily to make the same decision as the people in the actual case.
  • Do background research to fully understand what happened and why. You may need to talk to key stakeholders to get their perspectives as well.
  • Determine the key challenge. What needs to be resolved? The case study should focus on one main question or issue.
  • Define the context. Talk about significant events leading up to the situation. What organizational factors are important for understanding the problem and assessing what should be done? Include cultural factors where possible.
  • Identify key decision makers and stakeholders. Describe their roles and perspectives, as well as their motivations and interests.
  • Make sure that you provide the right data to allow people to reach appropriate conclusions.
  • Make sure that you have permission to use any information you include.

A typical case study structure includes these elements:

  • Executive summary. Define the objective, and state the key challenge.
  • Opening paragraph. Capture the reader's interest.
  • Scope. Describe the background, context, approach, and issues involved.
  • Presentation of facts. Develop an objective picture of what's happening.
  • Description of key issues. Present viewpoints, decisions, and interests of key parties.

Because case studies have proved to be such effective teaching tools, many are already written. Some excellent sources of free cases are The Times 100 , CasePlace.org , and Schroeder & Schroeder Inc . You can often search for cases by topic or industry. These cases are expertly prepared, based mostly on real situations, and used extensively in business schools to teach management concepts.

Case studies are a great way to improve learning and training. They provide learners with an opportunity to solve a problem by applying what they know.

There are no unpleasant consequences for getting it "wrong," and cases give learners a much better understanding of what they really know and what they need to practice.

Case studies can be used in many ways, as team-building tools, and for skill development. You can write your own case study, but a large number are already prepared. Given the enormous benefits of practical learning applications like this, case studies are definitely something to consider adding to your next training session.

Knowles, M. (1973). 'The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species [online].' Available here .

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Case-based learning.

Case-based learning (CBL) is an established approach used across disciplines where students apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios, promoting higher levels of cognition (see Bloom’s Taxonomy ). In CBL classrooms, students typically work in groups on case studies, stories involving one or more characters and/or scenarios.  The cases present a disciplinary problem or problems for which students devise solutions under the guidance of the instructor. CBL has a strong history of successful implementation in medical, law, and business schools, and is increasingly used within undergraduate education, particularly within pre-professional majors and the sciences (Herreid, 1994). This method involves guided inquiry and is grounded in constructivism whereby students form new meanings by interacting with their knowledge and the environment (Lee, 2012).

There are a number of benefits to using CBL in the classroom. In a review of the literature, Williams (2005) describes how CBL: utilizes collaborative learning, facilitates the integration of learning, develops students’ intrinsic and extrinsic motivation to learn, encourages learner self-reflection and critical reflection, allows for scientific inquiry, integrates knowledge and practice, and supports the development of a variety of learning skills.

CBL has several defining characteristics, including versatility, storytelling power, and efficient self-guided learning.  In a systematic analysis of 104 articles in health professions education, CBL was found to be utilized in courses with less than 50 to over 1000 students (Thistlethwaite et al., 2012). In these classrooms, group sizes ranged from 1 to 30, with most consisting of 2 to 15 students.  Instructors varied in the proportion of time they implemented CBL in the classroom, ranging from one case spanning two hours of classroom time, to year-long case-based courses. These findings demonstrate that instructors use CBL in a variety of ways in their classrooms.

The stories that comprise the framework of case studies are also a key component to CBL’s effectiveness. Jonassen and Hernandez-Serrano (2002, p.66) describe how storytelling:

Is a method of negotiating and renegotiating meanings that allows us to enter into other’s realms of meaning through messages they utter in their stories,

Helps us find our place in a culture,

Allows us to explicate and to interpret, and

Facilitates the attainment of vicarious experience by helping us to distinguish the positive models to emulate from the negative model.

Neurochemically, listening to stories can activate oxytocin, a hormone that increases one’s sensitivity to social cues, resulting in more empathy, generosity, compassion and trustworthiness (Zak, 2013; Kosfeld et al., 2005). The stories within case studies serve as a means by which learners form new understandings through characters and/or scenarios.

CBL is often described in conjunction or in comparison with problem-based learning (PBL). While the lines are often confusingly blurred within the literature, in the most conservative of definitions, the features distinguishing the two approaches include that PBL involves open rather than guided inquiry, is less structured, and the instructor plays a more passive role. In PBL multiple solutions to the problem may exit, but the problem is often initially not well-defined. PBL also has a stronger emphasis on developing self-directed learning. The choice between implementing CBL versus PBL is highly dependent on the goals and context of the instruction.  For example, in a comparison of PBL and CBL approaches during a curricular shift at two medical schools, students and faculty preferred CBL to PBL (Srinivasan et al., 2007). Students perceived CBL to be a more efficient process and more clinically applicable. However, in another context, PBL might be the favored approach.

In a review of the effectiveness of CBL in health profession education, Thistlethwaite et al. (2012), found several benefits:

Students enjoyed the method and thought it enhanced their learning,

Instructors liked how CBL engaged students in learning,

CBL seemed to facilitate small group learning, but the authors could not distinguish between whether it was the case itself or the small group learning that occurred as facilitated by the case.

Other studies have also reported on the effectiveness of CBL in achieving learning outcomes (Bonney, 2015; Breslin, 2008; Herreid, 2013; Krain, 2016). These findings suggest that CBL is a vehicle of engagement for instruction, and facilitates an environment whereby students can construct knowledge.

Science – Students are given a scenario to which they apply their basic science knowledge and problem-solving skills to help them solve the case. One example within the biological sciences is two brothers who have a family history of a genetic illness. They each have mutations within a particular sequence in their DNA. Students work through the case and draw conclusions about the biological impacts of these mutations using basic science. Sample cases: You are Not the Mother of Your Children ; Organic Chemisty and Your Cellphone: Organic Light-Emitting Diodes ;   A Light on Physics: F-Number and Exposure Time

Medicine – Medical or pre-health students read about a patient presenting with specific symptoms. Students decide which questions are important to ask the patient in their medical history, how long they have experienced such symptoms, etc. The case unfolds and students use clinical reasoning, propose relevant tests, develop a differential diagnoses and a plan of treatment. Sample cases: The Case of the Crying Baby: Surgical vs. Medical Management ; The Plan: Ethics and Physician Assisted Suicide ; The Haemophilus Vaccine: A Victory for Immunologic Engineering

Public Health – A case study describes a pandemic of a deadly infectious disease. Students work through the case to identify Patient Zero, the person who was the first to spread the disease, and how that individual became infected.  Sample cases: The Protective Parent ; The Elusive Tuberculosis Case: The CDC and Andrew Speaker ; Credible Voice: WHO-Beijing and the SARS Crisis

Law – A case study presents a legal dilemma for which students use problem solving to decide the best way to advise and defend a client. Students are presented information that changes during the case.  Sample cases: Mortgage Crisis Call (abstract) ; The Case of the Unpaid Interns (abstract) ; Police-Community Dialogue (abstract)

Business – Students work on a case study that presents the history of a business success or failure. They apply business principles learned in the classroom and assess why the venture was successful or not. Sample cases: SELCO-Determining a path forward ; Project Masiluleke: Texting and Testing to Fight HIV/AIDS in South Africa ; Mayo Clinic: Design Thinking in Healthcare

Humanities - Students consider a case that presents a theater facing financial and management difficulties. They apply business and theater principles learned in the classroom to the case, working together to create solutions for the theater. Sample cases: David Geffen School of Drama


Finding and Writing Cases

Consider utilizing or adapting open access cases - The availability of open resources and databases containing cases that instructors can download makes this approach even more accessible in the classroom. Two examples of open databases are the Case Center on Public Leadership and Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) Case Program , which focus on government, leadership and public policy case studies.

  • Consider writing original cases - In the event that an instructor is unable to find open access cases relevant to their course learning objectives, they may choose to write their own. See the following resources on case writing: Cooking with Betty Crocker: A Recipe for Case Writing ; The Way of Flesch: The Art of Writing Readable Cases ;   Twixt Fact and Fiction: A Case Writer’s Dilemma ; And All That Jazz: An Essay Extolling the Virtues of Writing Case Teaching Notes .

Implementing Cases

Take baby steps if new to CBL - While entire courses and curricula may involve case-based learning, instructors who desire to implement on a smaller-scale can integrate a single case into their class, and increase the number of cases utilized over time as desired.

Use cases in classes that are small, medium or large - Cases can be scaled to any course size. In large classes with stadium seating, students can work with peers nearby, while in small classes with more flexible seating arrangements, teams can move their chairs closer together. CBL can introduce more noise (and energy) in the classroom to which an instructor often quickly becomes accustomed. Further, students can be asked to work on cases outside of class, and wrap up discussion during the next class meeting.

Encourage collaborative work - Cases present an opportunity for students to work together to solve cases which the historical literature supports as beneficial to student learning (Bruffee, 1993). Allow students to work in groups to answer case questions.

Form diverse teams as feasible - When students work within diverse teams they can be exposed to a variety of perspectives that can help them solve the case. Depending on the context of the course, priorities, and the background information gathered about the students enrolled in the class, instructors may choose to organize student groups to allow for diversity in factors such as current course grades, gender, race/ethnicity, personality, among other items.  

Use stable teams as appropriate - If CBL is a large component of the course, a research-supported practice is to keep teams together long enough to go through the stages of group development: forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning (Tuckman, 1965).

Walk around to guide groups - In CBL instructors serve as facilitators of student learning. Walking around allows the instructor to monitor student progress as well as identify and support any groups that may be struggling. Teaching assistants can also play a valuable role in supporting groups.

Interrupt strategically - Only every so often, for conversation in large group discussion of the case, especially when students appear confused on key concepts. An effective practice to help students meet case learning goals is to guide them as a whole group when the class is ready. This may include selecting a few student groups to present answers to discussion questions to the entire class, asking the class a question relevant to the case using polling software, and/or performing a mini-lesson on an area that appears to be confusing among students.  

Assess student learning in multiple ways - Students can be assessed informally by asking groups to report back answers to various case questions. This practice also helps students stay on task, and keeps them accountable. Cases can also be included on exams using related scenarios where students are asked to apply their knowledge.

Barrows HS. (1996). Problem-based learning in medicine and beyond: a brief overview. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 68, 3-12.  

Bonney KM. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains. Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education, 16(1): 21-28.

Breslin M, Buchanan, R. (2008) On the Case Study Method of Research and Teaching in Design.  Design Issues, 24(1), 36-40.

Bruffee KS. (1993). Collaborative learning: Higher education, interdependence, and authority of knowledge. Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD.

Herreid CF. (2013). Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science, edited by Clyde Freeman Herreid. Originally published in 2006 by the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA); reprinted by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) in 2013.

Herreid CH. (1994). Case studies in science: A novel method of science education. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 23(4), 221–229.

Jonassen DH and Hernandez-Serrano J. (2002). Case-based reasoning and instructional design: Using stories to support problem solving. Educational Technology, Research and Development, 50(2), 65-77.  

Kosfeld M, Heinrichs M, Zak PJ, Fischbacher U, Fehr E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435, 673-676.

Krain M. (2016) Putting the learning in case learning? The effects of case-based approaches on student knowledge, attitudes, and engagement. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 27(2), 131-153.

Lee V. (2012). What is Inquiry-Guided Learning?  New Directions for Learning, 129:5-14.

Nkhoma M, Sriratanaviriyakul N. (2017). Using case method to enrich students’ learning outcomes. Active Learning in Higher Education, 18(1):37-50.

Srinivasan et al. (2007). Comparing problem-based learning with case-based learning: Effects of a major curricular shift at two institutions. Academic Medicine, 82(1): 74-82.

Thistlethwaite JE et al. (2012). The effectiveness of case-based learning in health professional education. A BEME systematic review: BEME Guide No. 23.  Medical Teacher, 34, e421-e444.

Tuckman B. (1965). Development sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6), 384-99.

Williams B. (2005). Case-based learning - a review of the literature: is there scope for this educational paradigm in prehospital education? Emerg Med, 22, 577-581.

Zak, PJ (2013). How Stories Change the Brain. Retrieved from: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_stories_change_brain


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Case Method Teaching and Learning

What is the case method? How can the case method be used to engage learners? What are some strategies for getting started? This guide helps instructors answer these questions by providing an overview of the case method while highlighting learner-centered and digitally-enhanced approaches to teaching with the case method. The guide also offers tips to instructors as they get started with the case method and additional references and resources.

On this page:

What is case method teaching.

  • Case Method at Columbia

Why use the Case Method?

Case method teaching approaches, how do i get started.

  • Additional Resources

The CTL is here to help!

For support with implementing a case method approach in your course, email [email protected] to schedule your 1-1 consultation .

Cite this resource: Columbia Center for Teaching and Learning (2019). Case Method Teaching and Learning. Columbia University. Retrieved from [today’s date] from https://ctl.columbia.edu/resources-and-technology/resources/case-method/  

Case method 1 teaching is an active form of instruction that focuses on a case and involves students learning by doing 2 3 . Cases are real or invented stories 4  that include “an educational message” or recount events, problems, dilemmas, theoretical or conceptual issue that requires analysis and/or decision-making.

Case-based teaching simulates real world situations and asks students to actively grapple with complex problems 5 6 This method of instruction is used across disciplines to promote learning, and is common in law, business, medicine, among other fields. See Table 1 below for a few types of cases and the learning they promote.

Table 1: Types of cases and the learning they promote.

For a more complete list, see Case Types & Teaching Methods: A Classification Scheme from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.

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Case Method Teaching and Learning at Columbia

The case method is actively used in classrooms across Columbia, at the Morningside campus in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the School of Business, Arts and Sciences, among others, and at Columbia University Irving Medical campus.

Faculty Spotlight:

Professor Mary Ann Price on Using Case Study Method to Place Pre-Med Students in Real-Life Scenarios

Read more  

Professor De Pinho on Using the Case Method in the Mailman Core

Case method teaching has been found to improve student learning, to increase students’ perception of learning gains, and to meet learning objectives 8 9 . Faculty have noted the instructional benefits of cases including greater student engagement in their learning 10 , deeper student understanding of concepts, stronger critical thinking skills, and an ability to make connections across content areas and view an issue from multiple perspectives 11 . 

Through case-based learning, students are the ones asking questions about the case, doing the problem-solving, interacting with and learning from their peers, “unpacking” the case, analyzing the case, and summarizing the case. They learn how to work with limited information and ambiguity, think in professional or disciplinary ways, and ask themselves “what would I do if I were in this specific situation?”

The case method bridges theory to practice, and promotes the development of skills including: communication, active listening, critical thinking, decision-making, and metacognitive skills 12 , as students apply course content knowledge, reflect on what they know and their approach to analyzing, and make sense of a case. 

Though the case method has historical roots as an instructor-centered approach that uses the Socratic dialogue and cold-calling, it is possible to take a more learner-centered approach in which students take on roles and tasks traditionally left to the instructor. 

Cases are often used as “vehicles for classroom discussion” 13 . Students should be encouraged to take ownership of their learning from a case. Discussion-based approaches engage students in thinking and communicating about a case. Instructors can set up a case activity in which students are the ones doing the work of “asking questions, summarizing content, generating hypotheses, proposing theories, or offering critical analyses” 14 . 

The role of the instructor is to share a case or ask students to share or create a case to use in class, set expectations, provide instructions, and assign students roles in the discussion. Student roles in a case discussion can include: 

  • discussion “starters” get the conversation started with a question or posing the questions that their peers came up with; 
  • facilitators listen actively, validate the contributions of peers, ask follow-up questions, draw connections, refocus the conversation as needed; 
  • recorders take-notes of the main points of the discussion, record on the board, upload to CourseWorks, or type and project on the screen; and 
  • discussion “wrappers” lead a summary of the main points of the discussion. 

Prior to the case discussion, instructors can model case analysis and the types of questions students should ask, co-create discussion guidelines with students, and ask for students to submit discussion questions. During the discussion, the instructor can keep time, intervene as necessary (however the students should be doing the talking), and pause the discussion for a debrief and to ask students to reflect on what and how they learned from the case activity. 

Note: case discussions can be enhanced using technology. Live discussions can occur via video-conferencing (e.g., using Zoom ) or asynchronous discussions can occur using the Discussions tool in CourseWorks (Canvas) .

Table 2 includes a few interactive case method approaches. Regardless of the approach selected, it is important to create a learning environment in which students feel comfortable participating in a case activity and learning from one another. See below for tips on supporting student in how to learn from a case in the “getting started” section and how to create a supportive learning environment in the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia . 

Table 2. Strategies for Engaging Students in Case-Based Learning

Approaches to case teaching should be informed by course learning objectives, and can be adapted for small, large, hybrid, and online classes. Instructional technology can be used in various ways to deliver, facilitate, and assess the case method. For instance, an online module can be created in CourseWorks (Canvas) to structure the delivery of the case, allow students to work at their own pace, engage all learners, even those reluctant to speak up in class, and assess understanding of a case and student learning. Modules can include text, embedded media (e.g., using Panopto or Mediathread ) curated by the instructor, online discussion, and assessments. Students can be asked to read a case and/or watch a short video, respond to quiz questions and receive immediate feedback, post questions to a discussion, and share resources. 

For more information about options for incorporating educational technology to your course, please contact your Learning Designer .

To ensure that students are learning from the case approach, ask them to pause and reflect on what and how they learned from the case. Time to reflect  builds your students’ metacognition, and when these reflections are collected they provides you with insights about the effectiveness of your approach in promoting student learning.

Well designed case-based learning experiences: 1) motivate student involvement, 2) have students doing the work, 3) help students develop knowledge and skills, and 4) have students learning from each other.  

Designing a case-based learning experience should center around the learning objectives for a course. The following points focus on intentional design. 

Identify learning objectives, determine scope, and anticipate challenges. 

  • Why use the case method in your course? How will it promote student learning differently than other approaches? 
  • What are the learning objectives that need to be met by the case method? What knowledge should students apply and skills should they practice? 
  • What is the scope of the case? (a brief activity in a single class session to a semester-long case-based course; if new to case method, start small with a single case). 
  • What challenges do you anticipate (e.g., student preparation and prior experiences with case learning, discomfort with discussion, peer-to-peer learning, managing discussion) and how will you plan for these in your design? 
  • If you are asking students to use transferable skills for the case method (e.g., teamwork, digital literacy) make them explicit. 

Determine how you will know if the learning objectives were met and develop a plan for evaluating the effectiveness of the case method to inform future case teaching. 

  • What assessments and criteria will you use to evaluate student work or participation in case discussion? 
  • How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the case method? What feedback will you collect from students? 
  • How might you leverage technology for assessment purposes? For example, could you quiz students about the case online before class, accept assignment submissions online, use audience response systems (e.g., PollEverywhere) for formative assessment during class? 

Select an existing case, create your own, or encourage students to bring course-relevant cases, and prepare for its delivery

  • Where will the case method fit into the course learning sequence? 
  • Is the case at the appropriate level of complexity? Is it inclusive, culturally relevant, and relatable to students? 
  • What materials and preparation will be needed to present the case to students? (e.g., readings, audiovisual materials, set up a module in CourseWorks). 

Plan for the case discussion and an active role for students

  • What will your role be in facilitating case-based learning? How will you model case analysis for your students? (e.g., present a short case and demo your approach and the process of case learning) (Davis, 2009). 
  • What discussion guidelines will you use that include your students’ input? 
  • How will you encourage students to ask and answer questions, summarize their work, take notes, and debrief the case? 
  • If students will be working in groups, how will groups form? What size will the groups be? What instructions will they be given? How will you ensure that everyone participates? What will they need to submit? Can technology be leveraged for any of these areas? 
  • Have you considered students of varied cognitive and physical abilities and how they might participate in the activities/discussions, including those that involve technology? 

Student preparation and expectations

  • How will you communicate about the case method approach to your students? When will you articulate the purpose of case-based learning and expectations of student engagement? What information about case-based learning and expectations will be included in the syllabus?
  • What preparation and/or assignment(s) will students complete in order to learn from the case? (e.g., read the case prior to class, watch a case video prior to class, post to a CourseWorks discussion, submit a brief memo, complete a short writing assignment to check students’ understanding of a case, take on a specific role, prepare to present a critique during in-class discussion).

Andersen, E. and Schiano, B. (2014). Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide . Harvard Business Press. 

Bonney, K. M. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains†. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education , 16 (1), 21–28. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846

Davis, B.G. (2009). Chapter 24: Case Studies. In Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. 

Garvin, D.A. (2003). Making the Case: Professional Education for the world of practice. Harvard Magazine. September-October 2003, Volume 106, Number 1, 56-107.

Golich, V.L. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. International Studies Perspectives. 1, 11-29. 

Golich, V.L.; Boyer, M; Franko, P.; and Lamy, S. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. Pew Case Studies in International Affairs. Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. 

Heath, J. (2015). Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide. The Case Center, UK. 

Herreid, C.F. (2011). Case Study Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. No. 128, Winder 2011, 31 – 40. 

Herreid, C.F. (2007). Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science . National Science Teachers Association. Available as an ebook through Columbia Libraries. 

Herreid, C.F. (2006). “Clicker” Cases: Introducing Case Study Teaching Into Large Classrooms. Journal of College Science Teaching. Oct 2006, 36(2). https://search.proquest.com/docview/200323718?pq-origsite=gscholar  

Krain, M. (2016). Putting the Learning in Case Learning? The Effects of Case-Based Approaches on Student Knowledge, Attitudes, and Engagement. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 27(2), 131-153. 

Lundberg, K.O. (Ed.). (2011). Our Digital Future: Boardrooms and Newsrooms. Knight Case Studies Initiative. 

Popil, I. (2011). Promotion of critical thinking by using case studies as teaching method. Nurse Education Today, 31(2), 204–207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2010.06.002

Schiano, B. and Andersen, E. (2017). Teaching with Cases Online . Harvard Business Publishing. 

Thistlethwaite, JE; Davies, D.; Ekeocha, S.; Kidd, J.M.; MacDougall, C.; Matthews, P.; Purkis, J.; Clay D. (2012). The effectiveness of case-based learning in health professional education: A BEME systematic review . Medical Teacher. 2012; 34(6): e421-44. 

Yadav, A.; Lundeberg, M.; DeSchryver, M.; Dirkin, K.; Schiller, N.A.; Maier, K. and Herreid, C.F. (2007). Teaching Science with Case Studies: A National Survey of Faculty Perceptions of the Benefits and Challenges of Using Cases. Journal of College Science Teaching; Sept/Oct 2007; 37(1). 

Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass.

Additional resources 

Teaching with Cases , Harvard Kennedy School of Government. 

Features “what is a teaching case?” video that defines a teaching case, and provides documents to help students prepare for case learning, Common case teaching challenges and solutions, tips for teaching with cases. 

Promoting excellence and innovation in case method teaching: Teaching by the Case Method , Christensen Center for Teaching & Learning. Harvard Business School. 

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science . University of Buffalo. 

A collection of peer-reviewed STEM cases to teach scientific concepts and content, promote process skills and critical thinking. The Center welcomes case submissions. Case classification scheme of case types and teaching methods:

  • Different types of cases: analysis case, dilemma/decision case, directed case, interrupted case, clicker case, a flipped case, a laboratory case. 
  • Different types of teaching methods: problem-based learning, discussion, debate, intimate debate, public hearing, trial, jigsaw, role-play. 

Columbia Resources

Resources available to support your use of case method: The University hosts a number of case collections including: the Case Consortium (a collection of free cases in the fields of journalism, public policy, public health, and other disciplines that include teaching and learning resources; SIPA’s Picker Case Collection (audiovisual case studies on public sector innovation, filmed around the world and involving SIPA student teams in producing the cases); and Columbia Business School CaseWorks , which develops teaching cases and materials for use in Columbia Business School classrooms.

Center for Teaching and Learning

The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers a variety of programs and services for instructors at Columbia. The CTL can provide customized support as you plan to use the case method approach through implementation. Schedule a one-on-one consultation. 

Office of the Provost

The Hybrid Learning Course Redesign grant program from the Office of the Provost provides support for faculty who are developing innovative and technology-enhanced pedagogy and learning strategies in the classroom. In addition to funding, faculty awardees receive support from CTL staff as they redesign, deliver, and evaluate their hybrid courses.

The Start Small! Mini-Grant provides support to faculty who are interested in experimenting with one new pedagogical strategy or tool. Faculty awardees receive funds and CTL support for a one-semester period.

Explore our teaching resources.

  • Blended Learning
  • Contemplative Pedagogy
  • Inclusive Teaching Guide
  • FAQ for Teaching Assistants
  • Metacognition

CTL resources and technology for you.

  • Overview of all CTL Resources and Technology
  • The origins of this method can be traced to Harvard University where in 1870 the Law School began using cases to teach students how to think like lawyers using real court decisions. This was followed by the Business School in 1920 (Garvin, 2003). These professional schools recognized that lecture mode of instruction was insufficient to teach critical professional skills, and that active learning would better prepare learners for their professional lives. ↩
  • Golich, V.L. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. <i>International Studies Perspectives. </i>1, 11-29. ↩
  • </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">Herreid, C.F. (2007). </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">. National Science Teachers Association. Available as an </span><a href="http://www.columbia.edu/cgi-bin/cul/resolve?clio12627183"><span style="font-weight: 400;">ebook</span></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> through Columbia Libraries. ↩
  • Davis, B.G. (2009). Chapter 24: Case Studies. In <i>Tools for Teaching. </i>Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. ↩
  • Andersen, E. and Schiano, B. (2014). <i>Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide</i>. Harvard Business Press. ↩
  • Lundberg, K.O. (Ed.). (2011). <i>Our Digital Future: Boardrooms and Newsrooms. </i>Knight Case Studies Initiative. ↩
  • Heath, J. (2015). <i>Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide. </i>The Case Center, UK. ↩
  • Bonney, K. M. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains†. <i>Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education</i>, <i>16</i>(1), 21–28.<a href="https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846"> https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846</a> ↩
  • Krain, M. (2016). Putting the Learning in Case Learning? The Effects of Case-Based Approaches on Student Knowledge, Attitudes, and Engagement. <i>Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. </i>27(2), 131-153. ↩
  • Thistlethwaite, JE; Davies, D.; Ekeocha, S.; Kidd, J.M.; MacDougall, C.; Matthews, P.; Purkis, J.; Clay D. (2012). <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22578051">The effectiveness of case-based learning in health professional education: A BEME systematic review</a>. <i>Medical Teacher.</i> 2012; 34(6): e421-44. ↩
  • Yadav, A.; Lundeberg, M.; DeSchryver, M.; Dirkin, K.; Schiller, N.A.; Maier, K. and Herreid, C.F. (2007). Teaching Science with Case Studies: A National Survey of Faculty Perceptions of the Benefits and Challenges of Using Cases. <i>Journal of College Science Teaching; </i>Sept/Oct 2007; 37(1). ↩
  • Popil, I. (2011). Promotion of critical thinking by using case studies as teaching method. Nurse Education Today, 31(2), 204–207. <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2010.06.002">https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2010.06.002</a> ↩
  • Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. ↩
  • Herreid, C.F. (2006). “Clicker” Cases: Introducing Case Study Teaching Into Large Classrooms. <i>Journal of College Science Teaching. </i>Oct 2006, 36(2). <a href="https://search.proquest.com/docview/200323718?pq-origsite=gscholar">https://search.proquest.com/docview/200323718?pq-origsite=gscholar</a> ↩

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  • Our Mission

Making Learning Relevant With Case Studies

The open-ended problems presented in case studies give students work that feels connected to their lives.

Students working on projects in a classroom

To prepare students for jobs that haven’t been created yet, we need to teach them how to be great problem solvers so that they’ll be ready for anything. One way to do this is by teaching content and skills using real-world case studies, a learning model that’s focused on reflection during the problem-solving process. It’s similar to project-based learning, but PBL is more focused on students creating a product.

Case studies have been used for years by businesses, law and medical schools, physicians on rounds, and artists critiquing work. Like other forms of problem-based learning, case studies can be accessible for every age group, both in one subject and in interdisciplinary work.

You can get started with case studies by tackling relatable questions like these with your students:

  • How can we limit food waste in the cafeteria?
  • How can we get our school to recycle and compost waste? (Or, if you want to be more complex, how can our school reduce its carbon footprint?)
  • How can we improve school attendance?
  • How can we reduce the number of people who get sick at school during cold and flu season?

Addressing questions like these leads students to identify topics they need to learn more about. In researching the first question, for example, students may see that they need to research food chains and nutrition. Students often ask, reasonably, why they need to learn something, or when they’ll use their knowledge in the future. Learning is most successful for students when the content and skills they’re studying are relevant, and case studies offer one way to create that sense of relevance.

Teaching With Case Studies

Ultimately, a case study is simply an interesting problem with many correct answers. What does case study work look like in classrooms? Teachers generally start by having students read the case or watch a video that summarizes the case. Students then work in small groups or individually to solve the case study. Teachers set milestones defining what students should accomplish to help them manage their time.

During the case study learning process, student assessment of learning should be focused on reflection. Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick’s Learning and Leading With Habits of Mind gives several examples of what this reflection can look like in a classroom: 

Journaling: At the end of each work period, have students write an entry summarizing what they worked on, what worked well, what didn’t, and why. Sentence starters and clear rubrics or guidelines will help students be successful. At the end of a case study project, as Costa and Kallick write, it’s helpful to have students “select significant learnings, envision how they could apply these learnings to future situations, and commit to an action plan to consciously modify their behaviors.”

Interviews: While working on a case study, students can interview each other about their progress and learning. Teachers can interview students individually or in small groups to assess their learning process and their progress.

Student discussion: Discussions can be unstructured—students can talk about what they worked on that day in a think-pair-share or as a full class—or structured, using Socratic seminars or fishbowl discussions. If your class is tackling a case study in small groups, create a second set of small groups with a representative from each of the case study groups so that the groups can share their learning.

4 Tips for Setting Up a Case Study

1. Identify a problem to investigate: This should be something accessible and relevant to students’ lives. The problem should also be challenging and complex enough to yield multiple solutions with many layers.

2. Give context: Think of this step as a movie preview or book summary. Hook the learners to help them understand just enough about the problem to want to learn more.

3. Have a clear rubric: Giving structure to your definition of quality group work and products will lead to stronger end products. You may be able to have your learners help build these definitions.

4. Provide structures for presenting solutions: The amount of scaffolding you build in depends on your students’ skill level and development. A case study product can be something like several pieces of evidence of students collaborating to solve the case study, and ultimately presenting their solution with a detailed slide deck or an essay—you can scaffold this by providing specified headings for the sections of the essay.

Problem-Based Teaching Resources

There are many high-quality, peer-reviewed resources that are open source and easily accessible online.

  • The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University at Buffalo built an online collection of more than 800 cases that cover topics ranging from biochemistry to economics. There are resources for middle and high school students.
  • Models of Excellence , a project maintained by EL Education and the Harvard Graduate School of Education, has examples of great problem- and project-based tasks—and corresponding exemplary student work—for grades pre-K to 12.
  • The Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning at Purdue University is an open-source journal that publishes examples of problem-based learning in K–12 and post-secondary classrooms.
  • The Tech Edvocate has a list of websites and tools related to problem-based learning.

In their book Problems as Possibilities , Linda Torp and Sara Sage write that at the elementary school level, students particularly appreciate how they feel that they are taken seriously when solving case studies. At the middle school level, “researchers stress the importance of relating middle school curriculum to issues of student concern and interest.” And high schoolers, they write, find the case study method “beneficial in preparing them for their future.”

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Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning

  • Case Based Learning

What is the case method?

In case-based learning, students learn to interact with and manipulate basic foundational knowledge by working with situations resembling specific real-world scenarios.

How does it work?

Case studies encourage students to use critical thinking skills to identify and narrow an issue, develop and evaluate alternatives, and offer a solution.  In fact, Nkhoma (2016), who studied the value of developing case-based learning activities based on Bloom’s Taxonomy of thinking skills, suggests that this approach encourages deep learning through critical thinking:

case study for learning theory

Sherfield (2004) confirms this, asserting that working through case studies can begin to build and expand these six critical thinking strategies:

  • Emotional restraint
  • Questioning
  • Distinguishing fact from fiction
  • Searching for ambiguity

What makes a good case?

Case-based learning can focus on anything from a one-sentence physics word problem to a textbook-sized nursing case or a semester-long case in a law course.  Though we often assume that a case is a “problem,” Ellet (2007) suggests that most cases entail one of four types of situations:

  • Evaluations
  • What are the facts you know about the case?
  • What are some logical assumptions you can make about the case?
  • What are the problems involved in the case as you see it?
  • What is the root problem (the main issue)?
  • What do you estimate is the cause of the root problem?
  • What are the reasons that the root problem exists?
  • What is the solution to the problem?
  • Are there any moral or ethical considerations to your solution?
  • What are the real-world implications for this case?
  • How might the lives of the people in the case study be changed because of your proposed solution?
  • Where in your world (campus/town/country) might a problem like this occur?
  • Where could someone get help with this problem?
  • What personal advice would you give to the person or people concerned?

Adapted from Sherfield’s Case Studies for the First Year (2004)

Some faculty buy prepared cases from publishers, but many create their own based on their unique course needs.  When introducing case-based learning to students, be sure to offer a series of guidelines or questions to prompt deep thinking.  One option is to provide a scenario followed by questions; for example, questions designed for a first year experience problem might include these:

Before you begin, take a look at what others are doing with cases in your field.  Pre-made case studies are available from various publishers, and you can find case-study templates online.

  • Choose scenarios carefully
  • Tell a story from beginning to end, including many details
  • Create real-life characters and use quotes when possible
  • Write clearly and concisely and format the writing simply
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning—perhaps identifying connections between the lesson and specific course learning outcomes—after working a case

Additional Resources

  • Barnes, Louis B. et al. Teaching and the Case Method , 3 rd (1994). Harvard, 1994.
  • Campoy, Renee. Case Study Analysis in the Classroom: Becoming a Reflective Teacher . Sage Publications, 2005.
  • Ellet, William. The Case Study Handbook . Harvard, 2007.
  • Herreid, Clyde Freeman, ed. Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science . NSTA, 2007.
  • Herreid, Clyde Freeman, et al. Science Stories: Using Case Studies to Teach Critical Thinking . NSTA, 2012.
  • Nkhoma, M., Lam, et al. Developing case-based learning activities based on the revised Bloom’s Taxonomy . Proceedings of Informing Science & IT Education Conference (In SITE) 2016, 85-93. 2016.
  • Rolls, Geoff. Classic Case Studies in Psychology , 3 rd Hodder Education, Bookpoint, 2014.
  • Sherfield, Robert M., et al. Case Studies for the First Year . Pearson, 2004.
  • Shulman, Judith H., ed. Case Methods in Teacher Education . Teacher’s College, 1992.

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  • J Microbiol Biol Educ
  • v.16(1); 2015 May

Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains †

Associated data.

  • Appendix 1: Example assessment questions used to assess the effectiveness of case studies at promoting learning
  • Appendix 2: Student learning gains were assessed using a modified version of the SALG course evaluation tool

Following years of widespread use in business and medical education, the case study teaching method is becoming an increasingly common teaching strategy in science education. However, the current body of research provides limited evidence that the use of published case studies effectively promotes the fulfillment of specific learning objectives integral to many biology courses. This study tested the hypothesis that case studies are more effective than classroom discussions and textbook reading at promoting learning of key biological concepts, development of written and oral communication skills, and comprehension of the relevance of biological concepts to everyday life. This study also tested the hypothesis that case studies produced by the instructor of a course are more effective at promoting learning than those produced by unaffiliated instructors. Additionally, performance on quantitative learning assessments and student perceptions of learning gains were analyzed to determine whether reported perceptions of learning gains accurately reflect academic performance. The results reported here suggest that case studies, regardless of the source, are significantly more effective than other methods of content delivery at increasing performance on examination questions related to chemical bonds, osmosis and diffusion, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA structure and replication. This finding was positively correlated to increased student perceptions of learning gains associated with oral and written communication skills and the ability to recognize connections between biological concepts and other aspects of life. Based on these findings, case studies should be considered as a preferred method for teaching about a variety of concepts in science courses.


The case study teaching method is a highly adaptable style of teaching that involves problem-based learning and promotes the development of analytical skills ( 8 ). By presenting content in the format of a narrative accompanied by questions and activities that promote group discussion and solving of complex problems, case studies facilitate development of the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning; moving beyond recall of knowledge to analysis, evaluation, and application ( 1 , 9 ). Similarly, case studies facilitate interdisciplinary learning and can be used to highlight connections between specific academic topics and real-world societal issues and applications ( 3 , 9 ). This has been reported to increase student motivation to participate in class activities, which promotes learning and increases performance on assessments ( 7 , 16 , 19 , 23 ). For these reasons, case-based teaching has been widely used in business and medical education for many years ( 4 , 11 , 12 , 14 ). Although case studies were considered a novel method of science education just 20 years ago, the case study teaching method has gained popularity in recent years among an array of scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry, nursing, and psychology ( 5 – 7 , 9 , 11 , 13 , 15 – 17 , 21 , 22 , 24 ).

Although there is now a substantive and growing body of literature describing how to develop and use case studies in science teaching, current research on the effectiveness of case study teaching at meeting specific learning objectives is of limited scope and depth. Studies have shown that working in groups during completion of case studies significantly improves student perceptions of learning and may increase performance on assessment questions, and that the use of clickers can increase student engagement in case study activities, particularly among non-science majors, women, and freshmen ( 7 , 21 , 22 ). Case study teaching has been shown to improve exam performance in an anatomy and physiology course, increasing the mean score across all exams given in a two-semester sequence from 66% to 73% ( 5 ). Use of case studies was also shown to improve students’ ability to synthesize complex analytical questions about the real-world issues associated with a scientific topic ( 6 ). In a high school chemistry course, it was demonstrated that the case study teaching method produces significant increases in self-reported control of learning, task value, and self-efficacy for learning and performance ( 24 ). This effect on student motivation is important because enhanced motivation for learning activities has been shown to promote student engagement and academic performance ( 19 , 24 ). Additionally, faculty from a number of institutions have reported that using case studies promotes critical thinking, learning, and participation among students, especially in terms of the ability to view an issue from multiple perspectives and to grasp the practical application of core course concepts ( 23 ).

Despite what is known about the effectiveness of case studies in science education, questions remain about the functionality of the case study teaching method at promoting specific learning objectives that are important to many undergraduate biology courses. A recent survey of teachers who use case studies found that the topics most often covered in general biology courses included genetics and heredity, cell structure, cells and energy, chemistry of life, and cell cycle and cancer, suggesting that these topics should be of particular interest in studies that examine the effectiveness of the case study teaching method ( 8 ). However, the existing body of literature lacks direct evidence that the case study method is an effective tool for teaching about this collection of important topics in biology courses. Further, the extent to which case study teaching promotes development of science communication skills and the ability to understand the connections between biological concepts and everyday life has not been examined, yet these are core learning objectives shared by a variety of science courses. Although many instructors have produced case studies for use in their own classrooms, the production of novel case studies is time-consuming and requires skills that not all instructors have perfected. It is therefore important to determine whether case studies published by instructors who are unaffiliated with a particular course can be used effectively and obviate the need for each instructor to develop new case studies for their own courses. The results reported herein indicate that teaching with case studies results in significantly higher performance on examination questions about chemical bonds, osmosis and diffusion, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA structure and replication than that achieved by class discussions and textbook reading for topics of similar complexity. Case studies also increased overall student perceptions of learning gains and perceptions of learning gains specifically related to written and oral communication skills and the ability to grasp connections between scientific topics and their real-world applications. The effectiveness of the case study teaching method at increasing academic performance was not correlated to whether the case study used was authored by the instructor of the course or by an unaffiliated instructor. These findings support increased use of published case studies in the teaching of a variety of biological concepts and learning objectives.

Student population

This study was conducted at Kingsborough Community College, which is part of the City University of New York system, located in Brooklyn, New York. Kingsborough Community College has a diverse population of approximately 19,000 undergraduate students. The student population included in this study was enrolled in the first semester of a two-semester sequence of general (introductory) biology for biology majors during the spring, winter, or summer semester of 2014. A total of 63 students completed the course during this time period; 56 students consented to the inclusion of their data in the study. Of the students included in the study, 23 (41%) were male and 33 (59%) were female; 40 (71%) were registered as college freshmen and 16 (29%) were registered as college sophomores. To normalize participant groups, the same student population pooled from three classes taught by the same instructor was used to assess both experimental and control teaching methods.

Course material

The four biological concepts assessed during this study (chemical bonds, osmosis and diffusion, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA structure and replication) were selected as topics for studying the effectiveness of case study teaching because they were the key concepts addressed by this particular course that were most likely to be taught in a number of other courses, including biology courses for both majors and nonmajors at outside institutions. At the start of this study, relevant existing case studies were freely available from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) to address mitosis and meiosis and DNA structure and replication, but published case studies that appropriately addressed chemical bonds and osmosis and diffusion were not available. Therefore, original case studies that addressed the latter two topics were produced as part of this study, and case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors and published by the NCCSTS were used to address the former two topics. By the conclusion of this study, all four case studies had been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the NCCSTS ( http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/ ). Four of the remaining core topics covered in this course (macromolecules, photosynthesis, genetic inheritance, and translation) were selected as control lessons to provide control assessment data.

To minimize extraneous variation, control topics and assessments were carefully matched in complexity, format, and number with case studies, and an equal amount of class time was allocated for each case study and the corresponding control lesson. Instruction related to control lessons was delivered using minimal slide-based lectures, with emphasis on textbook reading assignments accompanied by worksheets completed by students in and out of the classroom, and small and large group discussion of key points. Completion of activities and discussion related to all case studies and control topics that were analyzed was conducted in the classroom, with the exception of the take-home portion of the osmosis and diffusion case study.

Data collection and analysis

This study was performed in accordance with a protocol approved by the Kingsborough Community College Human Research Protection Program and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the City University of New York (CUNY IRB reference 539938-1; KCC IRB application #: KCC 13-12-126-0138). Assessment scores were collected from regularly scheduled course examinations. For each case study, control questions were included on the same examination that were similar in number, format, point value, and difficulty level, but related to a different topic covered in the course that was of similar complexity. Complexity and difficulty of both case study and control questions were evaluated using experiential data from previous iterations of the course; the Bloom’s taxonomy designation and amount of material covered by each question, as well as the average score on similar questions achieved by students in previous iterations of the course was considered in determining appropriate controls. All assessment questions were scored using a standardized, pre-determined rubric. Student perceptions of learning gains were assessed using a modified version of the Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) course evaluation tool ( http://www.salgsite.org ), distributed in hardcopy and completed anonymously during the last week of the course. Students were presented with a consent form to opt-in to having their data included in the data analysis. After the course had concluded and final course grades had been posted, data from consenting students were pooled in a database and identifying information was removed prior to analysis. Statistical analysis of data was conducted using the Kruskal-Wallis one-way analysis of variance and calculation of the R 2 coefficient of determination.

Teaching with case studies improves performance on learning assessments, independent of case study origin

To evaluate the effectiveness of the case study teaching method at promoting learning, student performance on examination questions related to material covered by case studies was compared with performance on questions that covered material addressed through classroom discussions and textbook reading. The latter questions served as control items; assessment items for each case study were compared with control items that were of similar format, difficulty, and point value ( Appendix 1 ). Each of the four case studies resulted in an increase in examination performance compared with control questions that was statistically significant, with an average difference of 18% ( Fig. 1 ). The mean score on case study-related questions was 73% for the chemical bonds case study, 79% for osmosis and diffusion, 76% for mitosis and meiosis, and 70% for DNA structure and replication ( Fig. 1 ). The mean score for non-case study-related control questions was 60%, 54%, 60%, and 52%, respectively ( Fig. 1 ). In terms of examination performance, no significant difference between case studies produced by the instructor of the course (chemical bonds and osmosis and diffusion) and those produced by unaffiliated instructors (mitosis and meiosis and DNA structure and replication) was indicated by the Kruskal-Wallis one-way analysis of variance. However, the 25% difference between the mean score on questions related to the osmosis and diffusion case study and the mean score on the paired control questions was notably higher than the 13–18% differences observed for the other case studies ( Fig. 1 ).

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Case study teaching method increases student performance on examination questions. Mean score on a set of examination questions related to lessons covered by case studies (black bars) and paired control questions of similar format and difficulty about an unrelated topic (white bars). Chemical bonds, n = 54; Osmosis and diffusion, n = 54; Mitosis and meiosis, n = 51; DNA structure and replication, n = 50. Error bars represent the standard error of the mean (SEM). Asterisk indicates p < 0.05.

Case study teaching increases student perception of learning gains related to core course objectives

Student learning gains were assessed using a modified version of the SALG course evaluation tool ( Appendix 2 ). To determine whether completing case studies was more effective at increasing student perceptions of learning gains than completing textbook readings or participating in class discussions, perceptions of student learning gains for each were compared. In response to the question “Overall, how much did each of the following aspects of the class help your learning?” 82% of students responded that case studies helped a “good” or “great” amount, compared with 70% for participating in class discussions and 58% for completing textbook reading; only 4% of students responded that case studies helped a “small amount” or “provided no help,” compared with 2% for class discussions and 22% for textbook reading ( Fig. 2A ). The differences in reported learning gains derived from the use of case studies compared with class discussion and textbook readings were statistically significant, while the difference in learning gains associated with class discussion compared with textbook reading was not statistically significant by a narrow margin ( p = 0.051).

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The case study teaching method increases student perceptions of learning gains. Student perceptions of learning gains are indicated by plotting responses to the question “How much did each of the following activities: (A) Help your learning overall? (B) Improve your ability to communicate your knowledge of scientific concepts in writing? (C) Improve your ability to communicate your knowledge of scientific concepts orally? (D) Help you understand the connections between scientific concepts and other aspects of your everyday life?” Reponses are represented as follows: Helped a great amount (black bars); Helped a good amount (dark gray bars); Helped a moderate amount (medium gray bars); Helped a small amount (light gray bars); Provided no help (white bars). Asterisk indicates p < 0.05.

To elucidate the effectiveness of case studies at promoting learning gains related to specific course learning objectives compared with class discussions and textbook reading, students were asked how much each of these methods of content delivery specifically helped improve skills that were integral to fulfilling three main course objectives. When students were asked how much each of the methods helped “improve your ability to communicate knowledge of scientific concepts in writing,” 81% of students responded that case studies help a “good” or “great” amount, compared with 63% for class discussions and 59% for textbook reading; only 6% of students responded that case studies helped a “small amount” or “provided no help,” compared with 8% for class discussions and 21% for textbook reading ( Fig. 2B ). When the same question was posed about the ability to communicate orally, 81% of students responded that case studies help a “good” or “great” amount, compared with 68% for class discussions and 50% for textbook reading, while the respective response rates for helped a “small amount” or “provided no help,” were 4%, 6%, and 25% ( Fig. 2C ). The differences in learning gains associated with both written and oral communication were statistically significant when completion of case studies was compared with either participation in class discussion or completion of textbook readings. Compared with textbook reading, class discussions led to a statistically significant increase in oral but not written communication skills.

Students were then asked how much each of the methods helped them “understand the connections between scientific concepts and other aspects of your everyday life.” A total of 79% of respondents declared that case studies help a “good” or “great” amount, compared with 70% for class discussions and 57% for textbook reading ( Fig. 2D ). Only 4% stated that case studies and class discussions helped a “small amount” or “provided no help,” compared with 21% for textbook reading ( Fig. 2D ). Similar to overall learning gains, the use of case studies significantly increased the ability to understand the relevance of science to everyday life compared with class discussion and textbook readings, while the difference in learning gains associated with participation in class discussion compared with textbook reading was not statistically significant ( p = 0.054).

Student perceptions of learning gains resulting from case study teaching are positively correlated to increased performance on examinations, but independent of case study author

To test the hypothesis that case studies produced specifically for this course by the instructor were more effective at promoting learning gains than topically relevant case studies published by authors not associated with this course, perceptions of learning gains were compared for each of the case studies. For both of the case studies produced by the instructor of the course, 87% of students indicated that the case study provided a “good” or “great” amount of help to their learning, and 2% indicated that the case studies provided “little” or “no” help ( Table 1 ). In comparison, an average of 85% of students indicated that the case studies produced by an unaffiliated instructor provided a “good” or “great” amount of help to their learning, and 4% indicated that the case studies provided “little” or “no” help ( Table 1 ). The instructor-produced case studies yielded both the highest and lowest percentage of students reporting the highest level of learning gains (a “great” amount), while case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors yielded intermediate values. Therefore, it can be concluded that the effectiveness of case studies at promoting learning gains is not significantly affected by whether or not the course instructor authored the case study.

Case studies positively affect student perceptions of learning gains about various biological topics.

Finally, to determine whether performance on examination questions accurately predicts student perceptions of learning gains, mean scores on examination questions related to case studies were compared with reported perceptions of learning gains for those case studies ( Fig. 3 ). The coefficient of determination (R 2 value) was 0.81, indicating a strong, but not definitive, positive correlation between perceptions of learning gains and performance on examinations, suggesting that student perception of learning gains is a valid tool for assessing the effectiveness of case studies ( Fig. 3 ). This correlation was independent of case study author.

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Perception of learning gains but not author of case study is positively correlated to score on related examination questions. Percentage of students reporting that each specific case study provided “a great amount of help” to their learning was plotted against the point difference between mean score on examination questions related to that case study and mean score on paired control questions. Positive point differences indicate how much higher the mean scores on case study-related questions were than the mean scores on paired control questions. Black squares represent case studies produced by the instructor of the course; white squares represent case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors. R 2 value indicates the coefficient of determination.

The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis that teaching with case studies produced by the instructor of a course is more effective at promoting learning gains than using case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors. This study also tested the hypothesis that the case study teaching method is more effective than class discussions and textbook reading at promoting learning gains associated with four of the most commonly taught topics in undergraduate general biology courses: chemical bonds, osmosis and diffusion, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA structure and replication. In addition to assessing content-based learning gains, development of written and oral communication skills and the ability to connect scientific topics with real-world applications was also assessed, because these skills were overarching learning objectives of this course, and classroom activities related to both case studies and control lessons were designed to provide opportunities for students to develop these skills. Finally, data were analyzed to determine whether performance on examination questions is positively correlated to student perceptions of learning gains resulting from case study teaching.

Compared with equivalent control questions about topics of similar complexity taught using class discussions and textbook readings, all four case studies produced statistically significant increases in the mean score on examination questions ( Fig. 1 ). This indicates that case studies are more effective than more commonly used, traditional methods of content delivery at promoting learning of a variety of core concepts covered in general biology courses. The average increase in score on each test item was equivalent to nearly two letter grades, which is substantial enough to elevate the average student performance on test items from the unsatisfactory/failing range to the satisfactory/passing range. The finding that there was no statistical difference between case studies in terms of performance on examination questions suggests that case studies are equally effective at promoting learning of disparate topics in biology. The observations that students did not perform significantly less well on the first case study presented (chemical bonds) compared with the other case studies and that performance on examination questions did not progressively increase with each successive case study suggests that the effectiveness of case studies is not directly related to the amount of experience students have using case studies. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence from previous semesters of this course suggests that, of the four topics addressed by cases in this study, DNA structure and function and osmosis and diffusion are the first and second most difficult for students to grasp. The lack of a statistical difference between case studies therefore suggests that the effectiveness of a case study at promoting learning gains is not directly proportional to the difficulty of the concept covered. However, the finding that use of the osmosis and diffusion case study resulted in the greatest increase in examination performance compared with control questions and also produced the highest student perceptions of learning gains is noteworthy and could be attributed to the fact that it was the only case study evaluated that included a hands-on experiment. Because the inclusion of a hands-on kinetic activity may synergistically enhance student engagement and learning and result in an even greater increase in learning gains than case studies that lack this type of activity, it is recommended that case studies that incorporate this type of activity be preferentially utilized.

Student perceptions of learning gains are strongly motivating factors for engagement in the classroom and academic performance, so it is important to assess the effect of any teaching method in this context ( 19 , 24 ). A modified version of the SALG course evaluation tool was used to assess student perceptions of learning gains because it has been previously validated as an efficacious tool ( Appendix 2 ) ( 20 ). Using the SALG tool, case study teaching was demonstrated to significantly increase student perceptions of overall learning gains compared with class discussions and textbook reading ( Fig. 2A ). Case studies were shown to be particularly useful for promoting perceived development of written and oral communication skills and for demonstrating connections between scientific topics and real-world issues and applications ( Figs. 2B–2D ). Further, student perceptions of “great” learning gains positively correlated with increased performance on examination questions, indicating that assessment of learning gains using the SALG tool is both valid and useful in this course setting ( Fig. 3 ). These findings also suggest that case study teaching could be used to increase student motivation and engagement in classroom activities and thus promote learning and performance on assessments. The finding that textbook reading yielded the lowest student perceptions of learning gains was not unexpected, since reading facilitates passive learning while the class discussions and case studies were both designed to promote active learning.

Importantly, there was no statistical difference in student performance on examinations attributed to the two case studies produced by the instructor of the course compared with the two case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors. The average difference between the two instructor-produced case studies and the two case studies published by unaffiliated instructors was only 3% in terms of both the average score on examination questions (76% compared with 73%) and the average increase in score compared with paired control items (14% compared with 17%) ( Fig. 1 ). Even when considering the inherent qualitative differences of course grades, these differences are negligible. Similarly, the effectiveness of case studies at promoting learning gains was not significantly affected by the origin of the case study, as evidenced by similar percentages of students reporting “good” and “great” learning gains regardless of whether the case study was produced by the course instructor or an unaffiliated instructor ( Table 1 ).

The observation that case studies published by unaffiliated instructors are just as effective as those produced by the instructor of a course suggests that instructors can reasonably rely on the use of pre-published case studies relevant to their class rather than investing the considerable time and effort required to produce a novel case study. Case studies covering a wide range of topics in the sciences are available from a number of sources, and many of them are free access. The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) database ( http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/ ) contains over 500 case studies that are freely available to instructors, and are accompanied by teaching notes that provide logistical advice and additional resources for implementing the case study, as well as a set of assessment questions with a password-protected answer key. Case study repositories are also maintained by BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium ( http://www.bioquest.org/icbl/cases.php ) and the Science Case Network ( http://sciencecasenet.org ); both are available for use by instructors from outside institutions.

It should be noted that all case studies used in this study were rigorously peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the NCCSTS prior to the completion of this study ( 2 , 10 , 18 , 25 ); the conclusions of this study may not apply to case studies that were not developed in accordance with similar standards. Because case study teaching involves skills such as creative writing and management of dynamic group discussion in a way that is not commonly integrated into many other teaching methods, it is recommended that novice case study teachers seek training or guidance before writing their first case study or implementing the method. The lack of a difference observed in the use of case studies from different sources should be interpreted with some degree of caution since only two sources were represented in this study, and each by only two cases. Furthermore, in an educational setting, quantitative differences in test scores might produce meaningful qualitative differences in course grades even in the absence of a p value that is statistically significant. For example, there is a meaningful qualitative difference between test scores that result in an average grade of C− and test scores that result in an average grade of C+, even if there is no statistically significant difference between the two sets of scores.

In the future, it could be informative to confirm these findings using a larger cohort, by repeating the study at different institutions with different instructors, by evaluating different case studies, and by directly comparing the effectiveness of the case studying teaching method with additional forms of instruction, such as traditional chalkboard and slide-based lecturing, and laboratory-based activities. It may also be informative to examine whether demographic factors such as student age and gender modulate the effectiveness of the case study teaching method, and whether case studies work equally well for non-science majors taking a science course compared with those majoring in the subject. Since the topical material used in this study is often included in other classes in both high school and undergraduate education, such as cell biology, genetics, and chemistry, the conclusions of this study are directly applicable to a broad range of courses. Presently, it is recommended that the use of case studies in teaching undergraduate general biology and other science courses be expanded, especially for the teaching of capacious issues with real-world applications and in classes where development of written and oral communication skills are key objectives. The use of case studies that involve hands-on activities should be emphasized to maximize the benefit of this teaching method. Importantly, instructors can be confident in the use of pre-published case studies to promote learning, as there is no indication that the effectiveness of the case study teaching method is reliant on the production of novel, customized case studies for each course.



This article benefitted from a President’s Faculty Innovation Grant, Kingsborough Community College. The author declares that there are no conflicts of interest.

† Supplemental materials available at http://jmbe.asm.org

Case-Based Learning

This guide explores what case studies are, the value of using case studies as teaching tools, and how to implement them in your teaching.

What are case studies?

Case studies are stories that are used as a teaching tool to show the application of a theory or concept to real situations. Dependent on the goal they are meant to fulfill, cases can be fact-driven and deductive where there is a correct answer, or they can be context driven where multiple solutions are possible. Various disciplines have employed case studies, including humanities, social sciences, sciences, engineering, law, business, and medicine. Good cases generally have the following features: they tell a good story, are recent, include dialogue, create empathy with the main characters, are relevant to the reader, serve a teaching function, require a dilemma to be solved, and have generality.

How to use cases for teaching and learning

Instructors can create their own cases or can find cases that already exist. The following are some things to keep in mind when creating a case:

  • What do you want students to learn from the discussion of the case?
  • What do they already know that applies to the case?
  • What are the issues that may be raised in discussion?
  • How will the case and discussion be introduced?
  • What preparation is expected of students? (Do they need to read the case ahead of time? Do research? Write anything?)
  • What directions do you need to provide students regarding what they are supposed to do and accomplish?
  • Do you need to divide students into groups or will they discuss as the whole class?
  • Are you going to use role-playing or facilitators or record keepers? If so, how?
  • What are the opening questions?
  • How much time is needed for students to discuss the case?
  • What concepts are to be applied/extracted during the discussion?
  • How will you evaluate students?

To find other cases that already exist, try the following websites (if you know of other examples, please let us know and we will add them to this resource) :

  • The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science , University of Buffalo. SUNY-Buffalo maintains this set of links to other case studies on the web in disciplines ranging from engineering and ethics to sociology and business
  • A Journal of Teaching Cases in Public Administration and Public Policy, University of Washington
  • The American Anthropological Association’s Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology , Chapter 3: Cases & Solutions  provides cases  in a format that asks the reader to solve each dilemma and includes the solutions used by the actual anthropologists. Comments by anthropologists who disagreed with the “solution” are also provided.

Additional information

  • Teaching with Cases , Harvard Kennedy School
  • World Association for Case Method Research and Application
  • Case-Based Teaching & Problem-Based Learning , UMich
  • What is Case-Based Learning , Queens University

You may also be interested in:

Project-based learning, game-based learning & gamification, udl learning community 2023, experiential learning, student engagement part 2: ensuring deep learning, embodied learning: teaching and learning with reacting to the past, safety, curiosity, and the joy of learning, learning from anywhere for everyone: inclusion in a digital world.

  • Author Rights
  • Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Journal of Leadership Education

  • JOLE 2023 Special Issue
  • Editorial Staff
  • 20th Anniversary Issue
  • Using a Case Study to Develop the Transformational Teaching Theory

 Barry L. Boyd 10.12806/V7/I3/TF1


Leadership educators continually seek the most effective means to enhance student learning. Tom Gallagher (2002), founding editor of The Journal of Leadership Education , advocated that leadership education “is not a singular focus,” but instead “sits at the nexus of two disciplines, the art and science of leadership and the art and science of education” (pp. 3-4). Gallagher implies that these two disciplines can be combined in a symbiotic relationship to impact leadership students on a deeper level. One path for engaging leadership students in the classroom is to examine the use of transformational leadership as a pedagogical theory. James McGreagor Burns first proposed the idea of a transformational leader as one who connects with the needs and motives of his or her followers and raises both the follower and leader to a higher level of motivation and morality (Bass, 1990). Transformational leaders help their followers reach their fullest potential, and in the process, transform their little corner of society. In contrast, a transactional leader is one who exchanges rewards or recognition for performance. Transactional leadership results in the expected outcomes, but transformational leadership results in outcomes that exceed expectations.

Leadership theories can be difficult for students to grasp until they are seen in action. Williams and Rosser (2008) note that when students can make connections between content and something in their lives, they are able to better integrate that knowledge. The use of popular media helps operationalize leadership theories that can appear abstract to students. Another way to operationalize leadership theories is to model them in the classroom. The author suggests using transformational leadership theory as a pedagogical method and teaching philosophy will not only help students operationalize the theory, but will also lead to deeper understanding for students – a transformation of their understanding of themselves as leaders and leadership itself.

How can this theory be applied to teaching? Let us examine the case of Erin Gruwell, a first-year high school English teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, and the subject of the 2006 movie The Freedom Writers (DeVito, Shamberg, Sher, & Lagravense, 2006). Gruwell and her students are used to illustrate the application of transformational leadership as pedagogy.

When Erin Gruwell stepped into her freshman English classroom on the first day of the semester, her idyllic view of teaching came crashing down around her. The students were ushered into the classroom by a hall monitor. Their body language screamed that they did not want to be there and a fight almost broke out during roll call. Not exactly what Gruwell expected on her first day as a teacher. Despite her inexperience as a teacher and the challenges posed by her students, on whom the educational system had given up, Gruwell transformed her class into a haven where teens felt safe to be themselves and developed a love for learning. Gruwell’s application of transformation leadership theory as pedagogy changed not only the students’ lives, but changed Gruwell as well.

Transformational Leadership Defined

Bass (1990) describes four factors that make up transformational leadership: (a) idealized influence, (b) inspirational motivation, (c) intellectual stimulation, and (d) individual consideration. Leaders who use idealized influence provide their followers with a compelling vision. They are strong role models that followers can trust to do the right thing. Leaders using inspirational motivation have high expectations of their followers and build commitment to achieving the organization’s shared vision. They motivate followers to go beyond their own self-interest for the advancement of the group. Leaders using intellectual stimulation inspire followers to challenge their own assumptions as well as those of the leader and the organization. Followers are encouraged to find innovative ways to solve problems. The final factor is individualized consideration . Leaders using this factor create a supportive climate by listening to the individual needs of their followers and help them become fully actualized. Can this theory be applied to the classroom to improve student learning?

Transformational Teaching Defined

Transformational teaching is a term rarely used in pedagogical discussions. Robert E. Quinn provides a broad definition, describing transformational teachers as those who “turn ordinary students into extraordinary students” (cited in Anding, 2005, p. 488). A more common term, found mostly in adult education literature, is transformative learning. Tennant (2002) defines transformative education as “promoting awareness and fundamental change at the personal, relational, institutional, and global levels” (p. 102). Meziro & Associates (2000) define transformative learning as “the process by which we transform our taken- for-granted frames of reference to make them more inclusive, discriminating, open, emotionally capable of change and reflective so that they may generate beliefs and opinions that will prove more true or justified to guide action” (p. 7). Meziro goes on to state that transformative learning occurs in one of four ways: by elaborating on existing frames of reference, by learning new frames of reference, by transforming points of view, or by transforming habits of mind.

When transformative learning occurs, students’ prior beliefs, values, and assumptions are tested and substantial changes in the way they make sense of their world occurs (King, 2005). Cranton (2006) notes transformative learning depends upon the instructor establishing genuine, meaningful relationships with students. Instructors and students get to know each other as people, both inside and outside the classroom. Such relationships are one component of authentic teaching . According to Cranton and Carusetta (2004), authentic teachers have high self-awareness, develop deep relationships with learners, and engage in critical reflection of educational practice as well as critical self-reflection. Authentic teaching is crucial to transformative learning.

A Case for Transformational Teaching

There are several similarities between transformational leadership theory and transformational teaching. Both set high expectations for followers or students, both depend upon deep relationships between leader or teacher and follower or student, and both lead to a transformation. Applying the four factors of transformational leadership to the classroom provides a clear and familiar model to leadership educators for understanding transformational teaching. Gruwell demonstrated all four transformational leadership components in transforming her students at Woodrow Wilson High School.

In 1994 Gruwell became a first-year teacher of freshman English literature. Her students were primarily African-American, Hispanic, and Asian students who were bussed to Woodrow Wilson High School. Most of them were in gangs (both male and female) and had criminal records. Her students were considered “unteachable” by the other teachers and the administrators of Woodrow Wilson High School. Most of the students did not expect to graduate from high school, and because of their gang affiliation, many did not expect to live to see their senior year. Through the use of transformational leadership, Gruwell transformed these teens from “unteachable thugs” to high achieving students who, in turn, began transforming their school and their communities ( The Freedom Writers & Gruwell , 1999).

Transformational Leadership Theory as a Teaching Model

Transformational teachers help their students see the larger view of education by practicing idealized influence. Transformational teachers communicate to students the difference that an education can make in their lives, thus providing students with a compelling vision of their future. Gruwell began helping her students build a vision by asking them what they would leave behind when they die. Many of her students had previously stated that they were “respected” by their peers because they were not afraid to die. She challenged them to leave behind something more than a reputation as a “gansta.” Gruwell built on this vision by showing her students the world outside of their school and neighborhood. She took students on fieldtrips to museums, plays, and movies, all at her own expense. She organized dinners at the hotel restaurant where she moonlighted as a concierge. Such exposure to a different lifestyle helped the students see that there were other opportunities for them beyond their small neighborhood and the gang lifestyle. Gruwell helped her students develop a vision of a positive future.

Leadership educators can use idealized influence by expanding students’ worldview and guiding them through reflective thought about their desired future. Many leadership educators lead students on industry tours or study abroad to expand their worldview, but this reaches a limited number of students. Most universities have a resident population of international students and faculty that could serve as guest speakers in classrooms, exposing students to leadership issues in other countries. Technology now allows students to take virtual trips to other countries and solve real problems affecting their citizens (Boyd, Felton, & Dooley, 2004). With some ingenuity, leadership educators can help their students envision themselves in roles that are beyond their current view.

Gruwell used inspirational motivation by setting high expectations for her students. Gruwell’s department head would not give the students grade-level textbooks, believing that the students were incapable of reading them. Instead, she gave Gruwell elementary-level books. Gruwell refused to have her students read elementary material and she purchased books for the students at her own expense. Building her curriculum around the theme of intolerance, Gruwell purchased copies of Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Zlata’s Diary: A Child’s Life in Sarajevo . By their sophomore year, the students were reading Romeo and Juliet , relating the story of the star-crossed lovers and their feuding families to their own lives. When students wanted to invite Miep Gies, the woman who hid Anne Frank’s family, to speak at their school, Gruwell told them they would have to raise the money to pay Gies’s travel expenses. They not only met, but exceeded her challenge.

Higher education has been criticized for grade inflation (Kolevzon, 1981; Eislzer, 2002) and low student expectations, yet students complain about the workload in their classes. Leadership educators can set high expectations for their students by assigning challenging readings and requiring critical reflection of those readings through writing, projects, and class discussion. Such critical reflection helps learners become more aware of and critical of their own and others’ assumptions (Cranton, 1994), and deepens their understanding and application of leadership theory.

Gruwell’s use of intellectual stimulation forced her students to challenge their own assumptions about themselves and their community. Gruwell’s students were raised to hate other races and protect people of their own race. This often meant lying to authorities and indiscriminately retaliating against students of other races when one of their own had been attacked. Students voiced their hatred of each other, but could not explain why; it had just always been that way. Gruwell challenged their views about other races by continually asking them to defend their thoughts with reason and logic. She used stories about the holocaust and the ethnic war in Bosnia to illustrate the senselessness of hatred and intolerance. By connecting the characters in the stories with the students’ lives, she transformed the students’ points of view.

Gruwell also challenged the assumptions of a school system that said that these students were “unteachable,” and that she, as an untenured teacher, could not teach junior and senior students. The students not only published The Freedom Writers Diary , but most went on to higher education, serving as role models for children in their communities. Gruwell convinced school administrators that her teaching methods were effective and she was allowed to continue with her students through their senior year, despite having only two years of teaching experience.

Leadership educators use intellectual stimulation in the classroom to help students challenge assumptions that limit their thinking. They do so by asking students to think critically about their beliefs and examine their biases. Leadership educators should expose students to opposing viewpoints and provide them with examples of others, such as Gruwell, who challenged a system and changed it for the better. Providing students with a diverse curriculum broadens their horizons and helps them develop a world-view.

Transformational teachers use individual consideration by listening to students’ needs and helping them become self-actualized. Gruwell recognized that even school hallways were dangerous places for students. She met students’ needs by creating a safe community in room 203. Students were able to share their thoughts and concerns in a safe environment. She developed close relationships with her students by creating a trusting atmosphere in the classroom where students were not ridiculed. She got to know her students on a personal level by listening to them and through reading their diaries (with their permission). One student’s life was threatened when she testified in court, identifying one of her own “people” as the shooter in a drive-by shooting. To keep her safe, Gruwell allowed the student to stay in the classroom after school until it was time to catch the bus to her aunt’s house across town.

In order to meet students’ individual needs, transformational teachers must first establish relationships with their students (Cranton, 2006). Educators begin building relationships by arriving to the classroom early and staying after class to visit with students. Several faculty members from a leadership department at a major land-grant university invite students for informal office visits at the beginning of each semester. The purpose of these five-minute visits is simply to get to know the students on a personal level. These informal visits help students feel more comfortable approaching the faculty member later when personal issues arise that might interfere with their class work. By knowing students on a more personal level, leadership educators can direct students to needed services or point them to resources or mentors that can help them achieve their personal goals. Such relationships often extend beyond the student’s graduation.

Bass (1990) notes transformational leaders transcend their own interests for the interests of their followers. When school administrators would not provide current textbooks to Gruwell because of their fear that the students would destroy the books, Gruwell worked additional jobs as a hotel concierge and a department store salesperson to earn enough money to buy new, grade-level books for her students. On weekends Gruwell took the students to museums, plays, movies, and to dinners at a local hotel to expose them to the world beyond their neighborhood. Such dedication to her students contributed to the breakup of Gruwell’s marriage. While the breakup of her marriage was an unintended consequence of her actions, Gruwell was herself transformed. She developed the courage to challenge the system for her students’ sake, and in the process, changed that system.

Gruwell’s experience at Woodrow Wilson High School serves as a successful case for applying transformational leadership theory as pedagogy. Transformational leadership theory provides the classroom instructor with a familiar model for approaching transformational teaching. As leadership educators, we must practice what we teach. By modeling transformational leadership in the classroom, educators can both transform the lives of their students and deepen their understanding of leadership.

However, transformational leadership theory as pedagogy remains untested. Taylor (2000) examined the state of research on transformative learning. His recommendations for future research included examining how transformative learning is fostered in the classroom. Recommendations for further research include determining if the use of transformational leadership theory as a teaching model consistently leads to transformative learning and determining how leadership educators can measure transformational learning. Since most research is currently focused on adult learners, how does transformational learning theory impact college-age students who are at the nexus of pedagogy and andragogy?

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Boyd, B. L., Felton, S. R., & Dooley, K. E. (2004). Providing virtual international experiences for undergraduates. Journal of International Agricultural and Extension Education, 11 (3), 63-68.

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Cranton, P., & Carusetta, E. (2004). Perspectives on authenticity. Adult Education Quarterly , 55 (1), 5-22.

DeVito, D., Shamberg, M., Sher, S. (Producers), & Lagravense, R. (Director). (2006). Freedom Writers [Film]. United States: Paramount Pictures.

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The Freedom Writers & Gruwell, E. (1999). The freedom writers’ diary: How a teacher and 150 teens used writing to change themselves and the world around them . New York: Broadway Books.

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Taylor, E. (2000). Fostering transformative learning in the adult education classroom: A review of the empirical studies. In C.A. Wiessner, S. Meyer, and D. Fuller (Eds.). Challenges of practice: Transformative learning in action . Proceedings of the Third International Conference on Transformative Learning, Teachers College, Columbia University.

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Williams, J., & Rosser, M. (2008). Teaching leadership using popular media: Alternative formats to reach the millennial generation. Journal of Leadership Education, 7 (2), vii-viii.


Situated Learning: An Inductive Case Study of a Collaborative Learning Experience

Situated Learning: An Inductive Case Study of a Collaborative Learning Experience John W. Schell The University of Georgia Rhonda S. Black The University of Hawaii Some vocational teacher educators are beginning to reconsider the assumptions that underlie their graduate-level teaching. A particular concern is that learners often cannot adequately apply their acquired theoretical knowledge when solving complex problems in their professional lives ( Schell & Rojewski, 1995 ). While searching for an instructional approach that encourages inquiry and active use of information, some have found that the view of the "professor as a dispenser of knowledge" is too confining and potentially exclusionary to some learners. Lave and Wenger ( 1991 ) have stated: The master as the locus of authority (in several senses) is, after all, as much a product of the conventional, centered theory of learning as is the individual learner…a decentered view of the master as pedagogue moves the focus of analysis away from teaching and onto the intricate structuring of a community's learning resources. ( p. 94 )

This research was designed to explore a decentered learning environment where the focus was on a community of learners learning and applying difficult concepts within an ill-structured environment, while the professor adopted a perspective of facilitation and support ( Schell & Rojewski, 1995 ).

Situated cognition theory, based on an anthropological view of natural learning in natural settings, was the theoretical framework chosen to support this research. In theory, situated learning has the potential advantage of (a) placing learners in realistic settings where socially acquired ways of knowing are often valued, (b) increasing the likelihood of application within similar contexts, and (c) strategically applying the learner's prior knowledge on a given subject ( Lave & Wenger, 1991 ).

While terminology used to describe situated learning may be new to many of today's teacher educators, the ideas clearly are not. Much of the work of John Dewey ( 1974 ) is based on his view of education as a process of living and not as preparation for the future. Modern theorists such as Brooks and Brooks ( 1993 ) and the constructivist movement also are appropriate philosophic companions for the situated learning perspective, as they encourage a community approach to the construction of new knowledge. Lastly, Gardner's ( 1993 ) extensive work on multiple intelligences is relevant as individuals are encouraged to learn in ways that are natural to their "type" of intelligence.

Obviously, situated learning (which occurs naturally in natural settings) can be problematic within the confines of a major research university where learning is typically limited to organized classes which are presented in the context of a fixed classroom. To address these issues, selected aspects of situated learning were applied in an upper-division course delivered through the use of an extensive, quarter-long simulation.

About the Course and The CEO Simulation

About the course.

The informants for this research participated in a doctoral-level organizational behavior course. Course content focused on issues such as motivation theory, organizational power, influence, affiliation, organizational structure, organizational culture and design, job design, and communications. Organizational change was a unifying theme for the course. Under the quarter system, the course was conducted on Saturday mornings (5 1/2 hours) for 10 weeks. Class meetings were organized into two to three hours of Socratic discussion of that week's content, with an additional two or three hours devoted to group work on the Changing Educational Organizations (CEO) project. Each class session was concluded with periods of articulation and reflection-both important elements of cognitive apprenticeship which is often viewed as appropriate for situated educational activities ( Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989 ; Lave, 1988 ; Schell & Rojewski, 1995 ).

About the Simulation

Aspects of situated learning were further applied through the use of the CEO simulated educational activity. With purposely minimal information and direction, students were asked to form groups, create roles, and interact within a community of scholars to design a model educational organization. Learners were provided with invented information about new state legislation and a Governor's mandate to create an organization where future workers are educated to be critical thinkers and problem-solvers. A careful reading of the CEO materials reveals many subtle details that often emerge only after a period of reflection. For example, students must develop organizational strategies in an environment where a very controlling school director comes out of character to mandate full employee participation in decision-making. Often students respond to these ambiguous expectations by asking questions such as: "Is this right?," "Is this what you want?," or "Just tell me what I have to do to get an A." These requests are consistently answered by the instructor who uses phrases such as: "There is no one right way," "What do you want out of the course?," or "Let's get beyond grades and concentrate on learning…grades will take care of themselves." As the course progressed, some learners gradually realized that this progression was really about group processes and the dynamics involved in a learning community. These realizations emerged as learners were encouraged to agree and disagree about very complex issues of organizational behavior. Other class members found this approach at once liberating and challenging and frustrating. All learners were required to apply their theoretical knowledge about organizational behavior to what became a very personal learning situation. The final product of the simulation was the development of a written proposal describing how their exemplary organization could incorporate complex and interrelated aspects of organizational behavior. The hypothetical proposal was to be prepared for submission to an imaginary state education agency for funding consideration.

Purposes of the Study

The purposes of this study were to examine the (a) assumption that situated learning and teaching activities can engage the learner in more realistic settings, thereby increasing the likelihood that the acquired information will be useful when students face similar situations in real life; (b) perceived "reality" of the CEO simulation and the likelihood of subsequent use of the information to solve organizational problems in the learner's own workplace; and (c) effectiveness of articulation and reflection instructional practices as tools for activating the learner's acquired knowledge.

Theoretical Framework

Situated cognition theory.

"Situated cognition" has become an educational buzzword in recent years. While some aspects of the concept have emerged from the realm of cognitive science, a major movement within the field is grounded in anthropological research ( Reynolds, Sinatra, & Jetton, 1996 ). In the context of this research, the sociological view of the term cognition ( Lave, 1988 ; Lave & Wenger, 1991 ) has been adopted. This is a fundamental and major shift from the more traditional psychological views of learning theory. Anthropologists Lave and Wenger ( 1991 ) state that "learning is an integral part of generative social practice in the lived-in world" ( p. 35 ). In their writing, they describe the concept of legitimate peripheral participation as a "descriptor of engagement in social practice that entails learning as an integral constituent" ( p. 35 ). Participation in social contexts becomes a way of engaging the learner that involves both absorbing and being absorbed in "the culture of practice" ( p. 95 ). Viewed from Lave's ( 1988 ) sociologic views of community, each CEO group member in the simulation negotiated his or her own role that was played out in the learning community. A major issue that is included in situated cognition is the construct of learning transfer. This has been an important issue in educational research for many years. From the sociological view, however, generalizability of acquired information to other situations is viewed as relatively rare and unpredictable ( Lave & Wenger, 1991 ; Greeno, 1997 ). Other researchers, working from within a psychological perspective, have also concluded that there is no general cognitive skill that promotes learning transfer ( Detterman, 1993 ). The authors of this study are not arguing that transfer does not exist. In fact, they have adopted the perspective of Sternberg & Frensch ( 1993 ) that teaching should promote learning in a context that is as close as possible to the one where the acquired information will be applied. This ensures a better chance of it being activated when needed. This perspective is central to the initial research assumptions that support this research.

Cognitive Apprenticeship Teaching

Principles of cognitive apprenticeship have been advanced as an appropriate means of teaching through the use of "situated" activities such as the CEO simulation ( Brown et al., 1989 ). This form of apprenticeship is more metaphorical than an attachment of a novice to a master craftsperson. The CEO simulation was based on four interacting elementsthe content, methods, sequence, and sociology of the learning community ( Collins, Hawkins, & Carver, 1991 ). Content refers to the types and levels of knowledge required by experts to solve complex problems in the real world. Methods include a variety of instructional strategies employed by a facilitating teacher. They range from traditional demonstration to higher-order methods of exploration, articulation, and reflection ( Brown et al., 1989 ). Articulation and reflection were two key instructional strategies used in this research. Articulation was used to encourage learners to verbalize their knowledge, reasoning, or approaches to problem-solving, while reflection enabled learners to compare their own problem-solving against those of an expert ( Schon, 1983 ). Instructional sequence can be thought of as three basic strategies including (a) linear movement through materials, (b) increasing capacity (teaching one concept to be used repeatedly in different settings), and (c) global information before local details where an overview of information is provided before detailed instruction begins. The final characteristic of the cognitive apprenticeship model is the beliefs, values, and social settings in which real-world learning takes place. Three aspects of sociology are key for situated learning: (a) developing a community of practice, (b) encouraging intrinsic motivation, and (c) maximizing cooperation within the community. These elements are instructional building blocks that have been well known for many years. However, when taken as an integrated and interactive whole, they constitute the framework for a substantially different instructional environment that includes new roles for both the learner and the teacher.

Preliminary Assumptions

From the situated cognition and cognitive apprenticeship literature, the following assumptions were constructed to guide the initial phases of this research. Assumption #1: Learners who perceived the course as pertinent to their work/ professional situation were more likely to use their knowledge to solve organizational problems in their workplace. Assumption #2: Learners who perceived the CEO simulation as more "real" were more likely to use their knowledge to solve organizational behavior problems outside of class. Assumption #3: Articulation instructional practices enhance the learner's use of their acquired knowledge. Assumption #4: Reflective instructional practices enhance the learner's active use of acquired knowledge.

Research Population, Methods, Data Collection, and Analysis

Class members ranged in age from 25 to 52, with only two members under 30 years of age and the majority in their 40s. All members of the class signed informed consent forms in compliance with the university's human subjects policy. The teaching experience among class members ranged from 1 to 21 years. Only three of the members lived near the university, and two of these three worked full-time and attended weekend or night classes. The rest commuted to the university on weekends after working full-time at their jobs in secondary and post-secondary settings as administrators and teachers around the state. One exception was one learner who commuted, but did not work full-time. These adult learners had families, friends, jobs, and lives that are quite apart from campus life. They comprised a very disparate group of learners with diverse needs and expectations about their classes.

Research Method-Analytic Induction

An analytic induction research design was employed ( Patton, 1990 ; Robinson, 1951 ; Znaniecki, 1934 ). Husband and Foster ( 1987 ) define analytic induction as a process of evaluating current data against pre-existing hypotheses and then expanding and refining the hypotheses or theoretical statements as needed to fully accommodate all of the data. This is done by searching the data for examples which confirm or refute the hypothesis. To avoid confusion with quantitative methodologies, the authors refer to their preliminary hypotheses about situated learning theory as "assumptions" which, when reformulated, may contribute toward a more developed theory of situated cognition. Historically, theory has been assumed to "understand, predict, and control events" ( Denzin & Lincoln, 1994, p. 39 ). Current research on situated learning has not yet established it as a complete theory worthy of "understanding," "prediction," and "control of learning events." In support of this contention, the authors point to the current academic debate in recent issues of the Educational Researcher ( Anderson, Reder, & Simon, 1996 , 1997 ; Greeno, 1997 ), where debate is raging over the concept of situated learning and its claims and/or disclaimers for the concept of learning transfer. In spite of these controversies, the authors believe that some aspects of the emerging theory serve as useful starting points against which to view and analyze data. An inductive approach begins with the experiences of each individual where the focus is on "full understanding of individual cases before those unique cases are combined or aggregated" ( Patton, 1990, p. 45 ). Therefore, the categories that emerged were examined after an analysis of individual cases. The primary research emphasis was on the identification of negative cases that refuted the preliminary assumptions of the investigators. Secondary emphasis was placed on the identification and subsequent analysis of cases judged to be confirmatory. In this way assumptions were continually refined until all examples were accounted for and explained ( Goetz & LeCompte, 1981 ).

Data Collection

Two principal data collection methods were employed. First, unobtrusive measures were used to collect data from documents that were generated as a natural part of the class ( Denzin, 1978 ). These measures included observations of learner performance in small groups, mid-course evaluations, instructional activities, and proposals that resulted from the CEO simulation. Second, detailed field notes were compiled by both researchers throughout the course of the study. Semi-structured interviews. Interviews were used for the purpose of capturing the expression of opinions or beliefs of the respondents ( Merriam, 1988 ). With this method, the respondent and the interviewer allow dialogue to flow in an appropriate direction within the framework of the research ( Husband & Foster, 1987 ). Six learners were selected for interviews. Interviews were conducted by the graduate assistant (co-researcher) about six weeks after the quarter had ended and participants had received their grades. This approach encouraged respondents to be frank and forthcoming with their remarks. Informants were selected on the basis that they were "typical" of the learners in the class and represented each work group. In many cases, resulting data were positive about the class. However, several individuals expressed strong negative opinions. Special care was taken in the interviews to probe for deeper meaning in instances of both negative and positive information. Each interviewee was asked a similar set of preliminary questions in sessions lasting approximately 45 minutes. All interviews were tape-recorded and later transcribed. Member checking and triangulation. Following transcription of the interviews, informants were asked to review the transcripts and validate them as accurate representations of their views and opinions. In several cases, additional clarification was required from informants. These additional data were added to the transcripts and used to refine the interpretation of the transcripts. Data generated for this research were further triangulated by checking against other data sources ( Merriam, 1988 ). These sources included the midcourse evaluation, written student reflections from class activities, and the final CEO product.

Data Analysis

Data were analyzed using a five-step process. Independently, the two researchers (a) examined data from each case for probable congruence and incongruence with initial assumptions, and (b) compared each case according to the extent of congruence and incongruence with initial assumptions and the level of knowledge use. Collaboratively, the researchers then (c) scrutinized combined cases on levels of knowledge use by emergent categories, (d) prepared a narrative summary of categories resulting in drafts of reformulated assumptions, and (e) refined interpretation of the data concluding in reformulated assumptions. Data analysis proceeded using narrative matrix analysis techniques. Step one was accomplished as each researcher, working independently, read all transcriptions and coded each relevant verbalization while identifying emergent categories. Further, each relevant section was assigned to the best assumption and a preliminary estimate of congruence or incongruence with the studies' original assumptions. These notes were made in the margins of the transcripts along with other pertinent notes and comments. For steps two and three, matrices were created using the "tables" feature of WordPerfect 6.1. In step two, each researcher made preliminary assignments to categories relative to the learner's apparent application of acquired knowledge and skills, and one of the four original assumptions. Each researcher's preliminary assignments of data to categories were then combined and compared for agreement and disagreement Figure 1 Representative step two data analysis matrix. Case: Tracy Assumption #1: Learners who perceived the course as pertinent to their work/professional situation were more likely to use their knowledge to solve organizational problems in their workplace. Congruence Incongruence "He did have us integrate theories to try to come up with workable approaches to applying those theories." "Ahhh, I suppose it did in someways, but in other ways, I just don't think it addressed it all. People did talk about their particular work situations, but we really talked about kinda of fluffy ify kinds of stuff that -you know- sounded real idealistic and it's good to think about those things, but I really didn't see a lot of realistic stuff that could be applied back to individual work situations." ( Patton, 1990 ). Each relevant point of data was then discussed and consensus was achieved as to how the data were finally categorized. A representative matrix of the second step of analysis is presented in Figure 1. In step 3 of the data analysis, individual cases were combined. These data were also placed on a matrix prepared for each assumption. An example table from step 3 is provided in the form of Figure 2. Steps 4 and 5 were accomplished in narrative format with step 5 emerging from the results of step 4. In step 4, emergent categories were compared to their assumptions and more carefully examined in light of the supporting literature. Here, the researchers were searching for exceptions to the expected findings when compared to the assumptions ( Goetz & LeCompte, 1981 ). These data then were organized into a narrative discussion of confirmatory and nonconfirmatory findings, and then possible explanations were generated from the known professional literature. Step 5 consisted of an overall examination of the data generated in step 4 and the process of reformulation of the assumptions began. New assumptions emerged when the existing data failed to support the original assumptions ( Goetz & LeCompte, 1981 ). The results of steps 4 and 5 are presented in the next section.
In this section, each assumption is presented along with summary data that is either confirmatory or nonconfirmatory for that position. Near the end of this section, the unexpected findings that resulted from the analysis are presented and discussed. Assumption #1: Learners who perceived the course as pertinent to their work/professional situation were more likely to use their knowledge to solve organizational problems in their workplace.

Nonconfirmatory Finding: Knowledge Use for Different Purposes

When individual cases were combined in step 3, it became obvious that class members had many different reasons for taking the class. Learners had different expectations of what they wanted to learn and often held dissimilar beliefs about how to apply the material to their lives. As the data were analyzed in light of the Figure 2 Representative step 3 data analysis matrix. Case: Combined Cases Assumption #1: Learners who perceived the course as pertinent to their work/professional situation were more likely to use their knowledge to solve organizational problems in their workplace. Low Use Medium Use Hight Use Low Pertinence "[In other classes] …we talked about real stuff -what has really worked-we were challenged to actually go out and try things and see what would work and then come back and talk about [it] . ..So, I didn't get that from this particular class." "While I understand it a little bit more from the sense of organizational structure, thverall picture, I can understand a little bit more, but it's still kinda frustrating in the situation that we are in." Medium Pertinence "Well only in the sense that I've been more aware of how hierarchies work, how they operate." "Basically, I've just taken it-I've used it more in class…I do have a little more insight about how the organization that I work for [XXX] County, is set up and [organizational] thing[s] that have happened. Basically, I've tried to incorporate more in my teaching… " Hight Pertinence "Almost everyone in there had teaching experience …how a lot of things were very relevant … to see how a lot of these theories actually [worked] . When they would try to apply whether they worked or didn't work…" "I think being in that class made me become a part of that because I have been on board at [XXX] Tech for at least 21 years, but his class really inspired me..when you challenge an organization…you have to have your duck[s] in order, you have to be willing to go the distance…" different ways and levels at which people used the information, it became clearer why some learners chose to use the information to make instructional changes rather than directly trying to make more overt attempts at larger organizational changes. Tracy: "You come to realize..in your own little domain in your classroom, sometimes, you don't get that concerned about the big picture of how things are operated because…once that door is closed, you kind of feel empowered to do what you want to do, and then run your class the way that you want to run it."

Because different motivational factors were operating for each individual, it is not surprising that class members used the information in different ways ( Patton, 1990 ). Schon ( 1983 ) has stated:

when a practitioner sets a problem, he [or she] chooses and names the things he [or she] will notice…and selects things for attention and organizes them guided by an appreciation of the situation… Those who hold conflicting frames pay attention to different facts and make different sense of the facts they notice. ( pp. 4-5 ).

Confirmatory Finding: Learners Do Use Acquired Knowledge

The degree to which class members applied their acquired knowledge varied widely. Jean reported having a profound experience as a result of her participation. Jean: "The president in my school has certain ways of doing things. Another instructor brought a case against him, and I was called in to testify." Interviewer: "Tell me more about that." Jean: "And we testified…before a lawyer from the attorney general's office… the school [which is] thirty years old … has never hired a minority administrator. Yet, it hired some white administrators that only have a high school education and we have a minority person who has a doctorate…a deliberate attempt not to hire minorities [was made] so we brought this case before the attorney general. I think being in that class made me become a part of that…but this class really inspired me…you have to be willing to go the distance, and you have to know that what you're doing is correct, and is best for the institution…"

Jean made an important contribution to her organization because she expected that efforts made in this context would result in desirable outcome(s). These expectations also have instrumentality because there is the potential for favorable outcomes for other minority learners. Jean further believes that this will lead to other desirable conditions.

Interviewer: "So you think that some of the things we had to think about, organizational change , [were] instrumental in you taking a role in this case?" Jean: "Yes, it was very instrumental in me taking a role in that I think it is going to be good for the community, it's going to be good for the people we serve, and it's going to be good for the minority students on campus …"

Other learners used the course information to make changes in the culture of the classrooms where they interact with students every day. After much reflection, the researchers have come to accept these changes as limited evidence of low road learning transfer ( Detterman, 1993 ). Mackenzie reported:

"I thought [the instructor's teaching] technique was very very good. I have started using it in my own classroom. It makes you think and try to start putting things together… It's just a good way of teaching long term for long range effects."

When pressed about using the course information to help solve larger organizational problems beyond the door of his/her classroom, Mackenzie equivocated.

"Basically, I've just taken it … I do have a little more insight about how the organization that I work for… [a local school] , is set up and things that have happened…we've been asked to do a lot of information research and what we think we need to do to improve our program, but not much is going to come from that…I think they pretty much know what they are going to do anyway."

It is apparent that Mackenzie does not have strong expectations with regard to his/her ability to influence the emerging direction of the school. Several other learners reported making a contribution to their organization by adopting some of the instructional practices modeled in this class as the only way that they could safely make a difference.

The data were neither confirmatory nor nonconfirmatory. Several instances were observed where learners engaged at different levels of situatedness with the CEO simulation. Even allowing for individual differences, the simulation was simultaneously perceived by class members as both real and not real. Some learners perceived the biggest differences between the simulation and the real world to be the level of risk involved and the freedom to try new things without administrative or public backlash.

Tracy: "The idea of a group making a proposal was very realistic in the sense that in schools, and in vocational education, we are in the process of writing proposals for grants to get monies for programs. And for me it was probably more applicable than actually changing the organization. In a simulation, you don't have the public outcry, the backlash from the public, the administration, or whoever it is that you are trying to change. With a simulation, you are basically just putting it on paper, so everything looks nice, and everything seems possible."

While it is true that much of the content was about research in organizational behavior, the class did have a strong component of interpreting that literature in the context of everyday situations. Pat adds that this particular approach was not sufficiently authentic to engender strong expectations or connections between theoretical knowledge and the real life "tricks of the trade" that he/she expected to acquire from the class.

Pat: "[In other classes] we actually talked about real life applications for things and not so much theory about what might be…what could be…you know…what theories are out there…we talked about real stuff what has really worked. We were challenged to go out and try things and see what would work and then come back and talk about what worked and didn't work. I didn't get that from this particular class."

The third and fourth assumptions attempted to explore the utility of articulation and reflection instruction in activating student knowledge ( Brown et al., 1989 ). Although one might intuitively know that trust is an important factor in group learning, its extensive role was not at first appreciated by the researchers. Trust played an extensive role in enabling individuals and groups to construct new knowledge and extrapolate meaning from it. However, the chain of evidence was more complex than had been anticipated.

Confirmatory Finding: Articulation in an Environment of Trust

Learners were asked periodically to articulate the relationship between theory and real world practice through the use of probing questions. Tracy discusses articulation instructional methods as a way to activate knowledge and promote alternative ways of viewing an issue. "[the instructor's style of questioning] really stimulated a lot of class discussion, and got a lot of the students involved, and a lot of good verbal exchanges took place. And one student would take one side of an issue of motivation and someone who read the same article, would have a different perspective…and some good dialogue took place."

But, articulation depended heavily on the development of a culture of trust and safety among class members.

Mackenzie: "We were encouraged to discuss a lot of our ideas and thoughts and to ask questions. I never once felt that I couldn't ask questions or tell an opinion about something that somebody else said. I felt like we all respected each other and there was an atmosphere where there was open discussion and we could say whatever we felt."

Asking the right question at the right time further maximizes opportunities for learners to express their points of view. In discussing their knowledge, learners reveal their conceptions, reflect on them, and grow intellectually through the literal construction of knowledge that is new and meaningful to them ( Brooks & Brooks, 1993 ). "Teachers' ability to uncover students' conceptions is, to a large degree, a function of the questions and problems posed to students" ( p. 65 ).

Taylor: " The classroom atmosphere was relaxed, jovial, and yet at the same time, it was also challenging because [of] the instructor's method of pulling in the theory into the discussion, really caused everyone to think. You had to really be able to match the textbook information and the lecture information with the kinds of things that we were doing in the groups and in the discussions."

These complex actions can only take place in a class where learners (and teachers) are willing to risk being considered "wrong" and still be a valued member of the community. Scholarly exploration of ideas is also enhanced when considered in the context of their meaning to the scholar. That often requires periods of reflection.

The evidence here indicates that when articulation and reflection are considered separately, the instructional power of each technique may be diminished. This insight has led to a reformulation of Assumptions 2 and 3. When a trust foundation is established for articulation, new knowledge is often socially constructed ( Brooks & Brooks, 1993 ). By hearing the perspectives and experiences of others in a social context, learners often reflect on the meaning of learned information and its implications for their own practice.

Taylor: "Because of what you are doing, through the use of those higher learning skills, synthesis and evaluation, you just can't go to a textbook and pull something back out and then regurgitate it. You're having to take a very amorphous kind of a situation and coalesce all these different ideas, thoughts and philosophies, and beliefs, and pull [them] together into something that is sensible and is potentially usable."

Confirmatory Findings: Trust and Articulation Lead to Reflected Meaning

A purpose of this class was to encourage learners to question existing management practices. Articulation and reflective instructional methods helped learners see others' opinions and viewpoints and encouraged consideration of alternative views. A few individuals reported looking at their organizations differently resulting in an increased understanding of organizational practices. By having to create an organization, class members put themselves in the shoes of the administration and considered their reasons for doing things as well as the implications of those actions. In talking about the reflective classroom environment, Mackenzie stated: "The environment enhanced [motivation] by having the discussions and the creativity to challenge other people's viewpoints and challenge our own viewpoints." Others, such as Jean, shared this perspective: Jean: "It [the class discussions] made you think about the old way that you perceived things and gave you some other possibilities of looking at situations." Taylor spoke of how articulation led to his/her reflection on the meaning and application of course materials. Taylor: "The experience that we had in the class was that when one student brings up a particular set of circumstances…that will spark a thought in another student, and you have a chain reaction that occurs. That gives you a really wide spectrum of different possibilities…any time you can take a real life situation and apply it to an academic point then you will have a good transition, and that was the case here. That the information that we were receiving became meaningful when you could relate it to your everyday working situations."

In summary, articulation instructional strategies can provide many opportunities for learners to view their acquired knowledge from alternate viewpoints. In this context, articulation of ideas further enhances reflection on the meaning and application of information.

Findings That Emerged From the Analysis

As is common in qualitative research, several unanticipated themes emerged. In this case, these findings provide a rich context for deeper analysis and understanding of situated and collaborative learning.

Unnecessary Competition May Inhibit Trust Affecting Articulation and Reflection

Dividing the class into groups, each with their own CEO project, produced an element of perceived competition which served to simultaneously enhance and inhibit learning. Competition enhanced learning by providing motivation to form groups that were cohesive and which worked together to produce a quality project. One learner described competition as enhancing the quality of their project: Jean: "My group was competing with the other groups. Because our mind set said that we are going to deliver the better project, we competed as if it were going to be cash money, and we also wanted quality in the project."

Jean felt that competition with the other work groups added to the realism of the project. However, the negative side of competition emerged near the end of the quarter resulting in limited sharing of ideas and protected "turf." Competition inhibited the benefit of gaining different perspectives from others' viewpoints and restricted the sharing of information. Another way that competition inhibited the learning process was that the openness of work groups to new information declined dramatically near the end of the quarter. Tracy explained that:

"I wanted to work on the simulation. We got involved…in the project and applying some of the things that we learned in class, about how to change organizations, and that was more important than just getting new information and new material… and to be honest, I could have cared less about discussing new material."

In this case, the instructor had less power over individuals than did group members. The motivation to produce a quality project came from the individual and other group members rather than from the grade they would receive from the instructor. These conditions contributed to the perceived competition while significantly increasing tension among learners.

Initial Tension Resulting from the Ambiguity of the CEO Simulation

"I think the ambiguity of the project, has [its] pluses and cons. The cons first, I would say that because it is so ambiguous that you have an anxiety level that goes with this. It takes you out of the mainstream of your educational format that you are used to following which is basically listening to an instructor provide information and then you regurgitate that. This is a quantum leap from that. So there is a discomfort factor when you move away from that. The pro, of course, is that, in real life, you have the kinds of situations that we've experienced with the project, plus, in real life a lot of work that you do is ambiguous…So in terms of gaining valuable insight in real world situations, I think that class structure was very helpful and very positive." Schon ( 1983 ) agrees that "problems of real-world practice do not present themselves to practitioners as well-formed structures. Indeed, they tend not to present themselves as problems at all but as messy, indeterminate situations" ( p. 4 ). The ambiguity of the project did provide an authentic environment in which reflective thinking could occur. "Reflective thinking is called for when there is awareness of a real problem or when there is uncertainty about a solution. Reflective judgments are based on the evaluation and integration of existing data and theory into a solution about the problem at hand" ( King & Kitchener, 1994, p. 8 ). However, reflection and articulation often are enriched by ambiguous tensions found in ill-structured and complex instructional environments.

Implications For The Practice of Situated Learning/Teaching

Consistent with an analytic induction strategy, reformulated assumptions resulted from a comparison of data with the original presumptions. Following each reconstituted assumption, each of the major themes that have influenced their development is discussed. Reformulated Assumption #1: Unnecessary competition between groups may inhibit communication, and possibly restrict the application of acquired information.

Competition Among Learners

Competition played a negative role by inhibiting communication between CEO work groups. However, there is evidence to suggest that it accomplished a positive motivational function within the groups. Competition helped some groups become more cohesive and enhanced motivation for producing high-quality projects. The role that competition played in this research was difficult for the researchers to understand until their perspectives and roles as instructor and student were examined. Both researchers recognized the existence of competition, but placed different emphasis on it. From a learner's perspective, competition was a very strong theme historically present in schooling. From the instructor's perspective, competition was a background theme, minimized by the expectation that learners would cooperate rather than compete. Instructionally, natural competition may be used to enhance the reality or situatedness of an activity, as well as to form cohesive work groups. Yet, it is nearly impossible for competition in a school setting to be eliminated or easily controlled. Learners' past socialization experiences are too strong to be reversed in 10 weeks. Thus, competition should be expected and used in a positive manner. Reformulated Assumption #2: Contextualized learning expectancies are present within each individual. These expectancies can lead to self-empowerment resulting in more active use of knowledge.

Relationship of Situation and Learner Expectations

In the beginning, the researchers expected that realism and pertinence would lead to active use of course materials to resolve problems in the learner's workplace. After conducting this research, it was concluded that instructional simulations are often not situated enough to stimulate direct replication of acquired knowledge. Although several learners provided some evidence of having used the information, applications were typically determined by each individual's expectations for that knowledge. What emerged was a realization of the importance of understanding how the expectations of learners influence how they choose to use acquired information.

Situated Expectations are Potentially Transitory and AnxietyProducing

Teachers interested in adopting this type of teaching are encouraged to think of learner expectations as potentially transitory. The expectations of class participants shifted and evolved as the quarter progressed. Mackenzie described how his/her expectations changed. "At first, it was more like a project for a class. Then as we got into it, we started making it more personal and it became more like it would be a real project. We were meeting deadlines, we were going back and doing a lot of revisions, and I believe it changed from a view of just a project for a paper for a grade, [to] a real project."

Others suggested that as time grew short at the end of the quarter, they began to view the simulation as a project to be completed. At that time, learners' readiness for new ideas and concepts was severely restricted. Also, learners exhibited signs of stress at the beginning and end of class. Students who had never participated in this type of class were somewhat unsure about learning in such an ambiguous environment. They would ask, "What do I have to do to get an A?" As time went on, however, they began to develop trust in their co-learners as well as in the process.

During the later stages of the quarter, a different type of reality emerged. Time factors began to once again reshape learner expectations. Several reported that the simulation had become a project to be managed. During this stage, learning was also inhibited and anxiety again resurfaced. This project illustrated the importance of carefully designing educational experiences in order to allow trust to emerge as a culture of the class.

Connections: Trust-articulation-reflection

From these data, as learners were encouraged to discuss their newly acquired knowledge, they often reflected on its application to their personal situations. Articulation and reflection strategies seemingly are maximized in a culture where some level of trust among co-learners can be established. Articulation practices engender reflected meaning of information. When co-learners are encouraged to verbally make connections between theory and application, the initial steps may be taken that will lead to making acquired knowledge more active. These practices are supported in theory by Lave and Wenger's ( 1991 ) assertion that knowledge is socially constructed. In this way, learners are more directly connected to the information. Bransford and Vye ( 1989 ) also assert that these connections are motivating. Our research lends strong evidence with regard to the utility of learner motivation and reflected meaning when viewed through the lens of alternative perspectives on learning and teaching. In summary, this research describes a community of highly motivated learners. The motivation evolved from learner's selfempowerment in situated learning contexts where secure work groups, managed competition, and a culture for openness and exchange of ideas were nurtured in an environment of mutual trust and respect. These learning community values were not transmitted directly by the professor. They emerged for learners who assumed responsibility for their own learning and the welfare of their own learning community. The theme of trust is an element that emerged continuously throughout this research. When these learners exercised their right to pursue knowledge, they also came to respect these rights in others. This created an atmosphere where social and intellectual risks could be exercised. When learners' expectations were met within a realistic learning community, and a sufficient level of trust was achieved, a solid foundation for innovation and active learning was realized.
Schell is Associate Professor, Department of Occupational Studies, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia. Black is Assistant Professor, Department of Special Education, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii.
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Incorporate STEM journalism in your classroom

  • Exercise type: Comprehension

Drawn to a flame

  • Download Student Worksheet

Multiple images of a yellow brimstone butterfly are shown via motion capture. The insect is flying in circles, with its back pointing toward an illuminated tube light inside a flight arena at Imperial College London.

Directions for teachers:

To engage students before reading the article, have them answer the “Before Reading” questions as a warmup in class. Then, instruct students to read the online Science News article “ Insects flocking to artificial lights may not know which way is up ” and answer the “During Reading” questions. As an optional extension, instruct students to answer “After Reading” questions as a class discussion or as homework.

This article also appears in the February 24 issue of Science News . Science News Explores offers another version of the same article written at a middle-school reading level. Post this set of questions without answers for your students using this link .

Directions for students:

Answer the first set of questions as instructed by your teacher before reading the article. Then, read the online Science News article “ Insects flocking to artificial lights may not know which way is up ” and answer the remaining questions as directed by your teacher.

Before Reading

1. What do you observe about insect behavior at night when a light is turned on? What is a possible reason for this behavior? In one sentence, provide a possible theory.

Student answers will vary, but may say insects appear to be drawn to the light. A theory could be that they are attracted to the light because it is a heat source.

2. Imagine two moths flying around a lamp at night. Sketch a picture of the moths and lamp. Include in your sketch the orientation of the moth srelative to the lamp. In other words, are they facing toward the light, away from it or one in each direction?

Answers will vary, but the image should clearly show the moth’s orientation relative to the light.

3. Watch the video embedded in the Science News article. What do you observe about the orientation of the moths’ bodies to the light bulb? Was your original prediction from question 2 correct? What could this behavior tell you about the effects of artificial light on the moths? Explain.

When flying around the bulb, some moths appear to orient themselves with their backs toward the lightbulb. Others turn in circles and dive toward the ground or fly straight up.

During Reading

1. What does new data suggest about why certain insects appear “captivated” by light?

New data suggests insects lose their sense of up and down.

2. Describe one of the previous hypotheses regarding the behavior of flying insects around a nighttime light source.

There are three possible answers. (1) Light blinds the insects, trapping them near the light. (2) Insects see the light as a safe place to fly. (3) Insects mistake the light for the moon, which they could use for navigation.

3. Describe how insects naturally orient themselves relative to a light source according to this new study.

This new study indicates insects will naturally turn their backs to the light.

4. What advantage would this orientation provide to an insect flying in sunlight?

In sunlight, insects turn their backs to the light, which orients their feet toward the ground.

5.  What is an entomologist? Give an example of one from the article and explain how your example fits the definition.

An entomologist is a scientist who studies insects . Samuel Fabian was an entomologist in the study described in the article. He and his colleagues used cameras to track insect behavior around artificial lights.

6.  List two types of equipment used in this study.

Answers could include hanging lights, standing lights, a high-speed infrared camera, a white sheet, artificial lights or any other equipment mentioned in the article.

7. Surprising scientific findings often lead to more questions. What is one question that scientists now have as a result of the findings in this article?

Answers will be one of the following two options. (1) Do insects from different latitudes have different sensitivities to light pollution? (2) Can outdoor lights be altered to make them less attractive to flying insects?

After Reading

1. How important is it for a flying insect to gauge their location relative to the ground, such as how high they’re flying or whether they are facing upward or downward? Is accuracy important, somewhat important, or unnecessary? Explain your answer.

Answers will vary.

2. This study found that the light affected fruit flies less strongly than moths and dragonflies. Read through this article and find a potential reason for this difference. Explain your theory, being sure to describe how this reason could contribute to differences in light sensitivity.

Answers will vary, but many students will likely point to the fact that fruit flies are better at flying in the dark than moths and dragonflies. Students may go on to explain that this may mean fruit flies rely upon other senses or strategies for determining their orientation in 3-dimensional space.

Book cover

International Handbook of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning pp 463–478 Cite as

Case Studies in Theory and Practice

  • Timothy Koschmann 8 &
  • Baruch B. Schwarz 9  
  • First Online: 09 October 2021

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Part of the Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Series book series (CULS,volume 19)

What sets CSCL research apart is a principled commitment to learning in settings of collaboration. This commitment necessitates developing a foundational understanding of how participants build meaning together in practical situations. Case studies are a traditional means of investigating such matters. Researchers must be cognizant, however, of the assumptions underlying their approach. Historically, case studies have been undertaken within multiple disciplines and from a variety of theoretical perspectives. We provide here a set of examples in CSCL research. Questions that arise include: What is being construed as a “case?” How was it selected? What forms of contrast are built into the analysis and to what end? What is the role of time and sequence within the analysis? Does the study seek to alter the social phenomenon under investigation or merely document it faithfully? As case studies become a more prominent feature of CSCL research, we need to develop a keener appreciation of these issues.

  • Ethnography
  • Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT)
  • Critical Theory
  • Dialogic Theory
  • Actor-Network Theory (ANT)
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Conversation Analysis (CA)

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Further Readings

Button, Crabtree, Rouncefield, & Tolmie (2015) is a book-length examination of how to do ethnography in CSCW. Given that researchers and designers in CSCL grapple with many of the same issues as those who work in CSCW, this book is a good starting place for CSCL researchers who would like to adopt an ethnographic approach.

Erickson (1984) serves as a useful introduction to classical ethnography in anthropology.

McDermott (1976) is a beautifully constructed classroom ethnography. It’s findings are provocative and have withstood the passage of time.

Roschelle (1992) continues to serve as a paradigm for CSCL research. Though the technology is primitive by current standards, its careful attention to interaction in joint activity continues to be an inspiration for researchers today.

Stevens & Hall (1998) reference is one of the most widely cited ethnographies in the CSCL canon. It is rich example, one that demonstrates how case studies can be used to construct a contrastive analysis and one that examines practice at the worksite.

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Faculty of Informatics, Shizuoka University, Hamamatsu-shi, Shizuoka, Japan

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Koschmann, T., Schwarz, B.B. (2021). Case Studies in Theory and Practice. In: Cress, U., Rosé, C., Wise, A.F., Oshima, J. (eds) International Handbook of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning. Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning Series, vol 19. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-65291-3_25

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How Machine Learning Will Transform Supply Chain Management

  • Narendra Agrawal,
  • Morris A. Cohen,
  • Rohan Deshpande,
  • Vinayak Deshpande

case study for learning theory

Businesses need better planning to make their supply chains more agile and resilient. After explaining the shortcomings of traditional planning systems, the authors describe their new approach, optimal machine learning (OML), which has proved effective in a range of industries. A central feature is its decision-support engine that can process a vast amount of historical and current supply-and-demand data, take into account a company’s priorities, and rapidly produce recommendations for ideal production quantities, shipping arrangements, and so on. The authors explain the underpinnings of OML and provide concrete examples of how two large companies implemented it and improved their supply chains’ performance.

It does a better job of using data and forecasts to make decisions.

Idea in Brief

The problem.

Flawed planning methods make it extremely difficult for companies to protect themselves against supply chain disruptions.

A new approach, called optimal machine learning (OML), can enable better decisions, without the mystery surrounding the planning recommendations produced by current machine-learning models.

The Elements

OML relies on a decision-support engine that connects input data directly to supply chain decisions and takes into account a firm’s performance priorities. Other features are a “digital twin” representation of the entire supply chain and a data storage system that integrates information throughout the supply chain and allows for quick data access and updating.

The Covid-19 pandemic, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, trade wars, and other events in recent years have disrupted supply chains and highlighted the critical need for businesses to improve planning in order to be more agile and resilient. Yet companies struggle with this challenge. One major cause is flawed forecasting, which results in delivery delays, inventory levels that are woefully out of sync with demand, and disappointing financial performance. Those consequences are hardly surprising. After all, how can inventory and production decisions be made effectively when demand forecasts are widely off?

  • Narendra Agrawal is the Benjamin and Mae Swig Professor of Information Systems and Analytics at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business.
  • Morris A. Cohen is the Panasonic Professor Emeritus of Manufacturing & Logistics at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He is also the founder of AD3 Analytics, a start-up that developed the OML methodology for supply chain management.
  • Rohan Deshpande is a machine learning scientist at Cerebras Systems and a former chief technology officer at AD3 Analytics.
  • Vinayak Deshpande is the Mann Family Distinguished Professor of Operations at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School.

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Title: reinforcement learning as a parsimonious alternative to prediction cascades: a case study on image segmentation.

Abstract: Deep learning architectures have achieved state-of-the-art (SOTA) performance on computer vision tasks such as object detection and image segmentation. This may be attributed to the use of over-parameterized, monolithic deep learning architectures executed on large datasets. Although such architectures lead to increased accuracy, this is usually accompanied by a large increase in computation and memory requirements during inference. While this is a non-issue in traditional machine learning pipelines, the recent confluence of machine learning and fields like the Internet of Things has rendered such large architectures infeasible for execution in low-resource settings. In such settings, previous efforts have proposed decision cascades where inputs are passed through models of increasing complexity until desired performance is achieved. However, we argue that cascaded prediction leads to increased computational cost due to wasteful intermediate computations. To address this, we propose PaSeR (Parsimonious Segmentation with Reinforcement Learning) a non-cascading, cost-aware learning pipeline as an alternative to cascaded architectures. Through experimental evaluation on real-world and standard datasets, we demonstrate that PaSeR achieves better accuracy while minimizing computational cost relative to cascaded models. Further, we introduce a new metric IoU/GigaFlop to evaluate the balance between cost and performance. On the real-world task of battery material phase segmentation, PaSeR yields a minimum performance improvement of 174% on the IoU/GigaFlop metric with respect to baselines. We also demonstrate PaSeR's adaptability to complementary models trained on a noisy MNIST dataset, where it achieved a minimum performance improvement on IoU/GigaFlop of 13.4% over SOTA models. Code and data are available at this https URL .

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