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Types of Case-based Formats

The first type of case-based learning strategy used in instruction was developed at Harvard Medical School where students were presented patient cases by the professor for discussion in a whole-class setting. The method quickly spread to other medical schools and business schools were not far behind.

The approach is very similar to problem-based learning and has many of the same characteristics. When first instituted as a learning and teaching methodology, it involved mostly whole-class settings with the teacher presenting and heavily guiding the students through the case solution.  Now, however, there are a number of types of case-based learning approaches that can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom.

1) Lecture method - While the name itself may bring up visions of the conventional teacher-centered classroom, this case-based approach is a popular teaching tool. Case-based learning by this method involves people who impersonate well-known figures—scientists or historical figures, for example—and “teach” the class through a first-person presentation.

2) Whole class discussion method - There are many variations to this method, but basically they involve interaction between the teacher and the class in a more general way. Variations include role playing, debates, trials, and public hearings.

3) Small groups - This method utilizes small groups and a problem-based learning approach to discuss and agree on a “solution” to the case or situation. Students may be given information in stages (the interrupted case), or may be asked to take one position and then switch positions (the jigsaw approach).  As is characteristic of most cases in business or in ethics, there is often not one right answer.  

4) Individual case instruction - Cases can be studied by individual assignment and tasks are constructed to be more comprehensive than a standard “report” format. Students are usually required to research opposing views of a topic, defend them both, and then include his/her own opinion.

5) Mixed methods - Hybrid approaches that include more than one method to case-based learning are often very effective for increasing student learning  For example, a teacher may start with small groups and summarize and close the lesson with whole group discussions.

6) Direct case method - This method is widely used in medical schools and by teachers of anatomy and physiology where coverage of very specific material is crucial. A patient case with symptoms is described and students use their knowledge of human anatomy and physiology to diagnose the condition. Teachers present multiple cases while covering body systems with the more traditional lecture and laboratory activities.