Science Stories: Using Case Studies to Teach Critical Thinking

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What is the origin of human language? Are there other universes? What are dreams?

Case Based Learning - Resources for Teaching - LibGuides at Singapore Polytechnic Library

What causes gravity? How do we store and retrieve memories? Or the really hard one: What makes a good case study? We have wondered about that last one for years. We are not without hints. Almost 40 years ago, John Bennett and Balaji Chakrvarthy writing for the Harvard Business School Bulletin wrestled with the same question and tried to get at the answer by interviewing faculty and students. Reasonable though these suggestions were, there was no strong evidence to support this view until Herreid, Schiller, Herreid, and Wright surveyed case teachers associated with the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science NCCSTS about the characteristics of their favorite case.

But it is important to emphasize that we are only presenting the subjective notions of case teachers on these issues. And more to the point, we have yet to determine what differences in learning can occur when different case designs are used.

Resources for Teaching: Case Based Learning

The first point that jumps out from the data is how much variability there is in the answers, and for the most part there are no drastic differences in the answers from K—12 versus higher education teachers. In personal conversations, community college colleagues say this is because they have so many courses to teach that it is difficult to develop innovative approaches that require extra time. Also, faculty development opportunities are more limited for them. Below are the questions and the key points from the survey.

What is the ideal class size to teach using a case study? Clearly, small groups of students in a class allow a variety of different case methods to be used. Interestingly, it is common in law and business schools for case studies to be taught in classes with 70 students using the discussion method.

Teaching Critical Thinking through Art with the National Gallery of Art - SmithsonianX on edX

Of course, the use of personal response systems, clickers, now makes cases possible in the largest classes by the use of clicker cases. Ten questions on preferences We posed a series of questions asking faculty to rank how important various factors were in the design of their ideal case study. For each of these factors the participant could choose one of the following terms: essential, very important, important, somewhat important, or not important. Rather than presenting each graph separately, we have chosen to summarize the data in a single figure.

This is possible because the Survey Monkey analysis tool provides a single weighted average score for each question.

General Materials

It is evident that critical thinking is judged to be the single most important factor for the majority of teachers, with an average score of 1. The least important characteristic in the list is that the case be short one to two pages. Figure 1 shows that none of the characteristics were deemed unimportant. But in the voting there were always some faculty who declared a characteristic was not important or said that they would have preferred that we asked a different sort of question as, for example, the teacher who commented: The single most important essential element of cases for me is not listed here.

The most important thing is that the story FEEL real. Fictional accounts that feel real can be more effective than true events if the story is written effectively.


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It is not about the case BEING real or fictionalized events; it is about the subjective interpretation. What is the ideal length of a case? Looking at the NCCSTS collection, we note that the cases range from one to 15 pages in length, with the average length being about five pages. Apparently, their passions got the better of them. How much time should the case take to run in the classroom? We are sure there would be general agreement that cases running over several classes had better be good to warrant that kind of investment of class time.


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  • Indeed, there are instances we know of where cases can stretch over several weeks. What is the ideal number of questions to ask at the end of a case or end of a section to stimulate discussion? Most case studies embed questions within the text, either at the end or as breaks in the story line e. We asked teachers about the ideal number for these questions. Are the best case studies open ended with no right or wrong answer or closed ended with a correct answer?

    How faculty answer this question in part seems to depend on how wedded they are to the notion that their primary goal is to pass along facts and principles to students. Coming from a strong lecture tradition, some instructors maintain this concern even when teaching with the case method.


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    • So they favor cases focusing on delivering facts and thus they like closedended cases. Anatomy and physiology teachers are typical examples. We can sympathize with their plight. They do indeed have a large amount of information to cover in their courses. Upper level classes depend on them. Their students may have to take national exams. And all of us want prehealth students to know this information; they will be our nurses, physicians, dentists, and medical technicians of the future.

      Here questions are asked at the end of brief scenarios.

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      All of the questions have correct answers that emphasize facts and principles that the students glean from the literature or lecture. This workshop is offered through A collaboration between Dr. To register for this session, please visit www. Case Studies have been used to teach students in law and business schools for over a hundred years. These cases are stories with an educational message. Case study instruction has been used in medicine under the terminology of Problem Based Learning where each patient is a case to be diagnosed and treated. They are not simply narratives for entertainment.

      They are stories to educate" Herreid, , p. By this definition, a case study is two things: a story and a strategy to drive learning. Although the story typically comes from a narrative purposefully written for the classroom, such as the case studies in the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science collection, other types of stories could be used, including newspaper articles, news broadcasts, oral stories, songs and poems, and online videos.

      Given that a large proportion of current students report enjoying learning via digital media, educators must embrace the many sources of science stories available online.