Just in case: An implementation of case studies in the classroom

By Joe Rineer

I teach science at the Owens campus.  I am currently teaching three different levels of anatomy and physiology.  I taught high school science for the past 10 years until I was lucky enough to step into my current position at Del Tech.  When I was in high school, one of the biggest concepts they drilled into us was that we must prepare students for college.  In order to be ready for college, the students must build their critical thinking and problem solving skills.  It is all about higher order thinking.  However, when I arrived here and classes began last semester, I noticed it was actually quite the opposite.  Much to my dismay, I became a didactic teacher again.  Students were required to memorize and regurgitate the information on a test so that I would know what they know.  It became glaringly clear to me that these students were not comprehending the material; they were just good at gaming the system through memorization and regurgitation, which unfortunately is a very common method of learning in the K-12 system.

While speaking with my mentor in the nursing program, I asked him what the biggest problem the nursing students were having.  He replied, “They are lacking critical thinking skills.”  I immediately thought deja-vu.  He then informed me that their program revolves around clinical applications and performance-based assessments.  So, that got my brain working again.  How could I make my students better prepared to go into their respective programs with the skill set they need to perform well.  Something in the class had to change.

I began using small case studies to begin each of the body systems.  The students would have a test for the previous unit and then they would be given the case study.  At first,  I didn’t realize that the questions that went with the prepared case studies were too leading.  They revealed the information in a step by step manner that inevitably ended with the students coming to the same conclusions.  Sounds like a perfect plan; now that have all got the same information locked away and they understand it.  Wrong!  This was almost as effective as me standing in class lecturing the whole time- no critical thinking involved.  So how could I change this?

Let me hit the “way back” button to discuss how I arrived at a possible solution.  I am a nerd when it comes to new teaching strategies and techniques and so I geeked out on the whole standards-based grading idea.  One of the leaders in the learning communities of the Interweb is a fellow by the name of Dan Meyer.  He does some very powerful things with his math curriculum.  In fact, if you have ever been to a grocery store and wondered, “Which line will be the fastest?” this is your guy.  He had his students do a project which answers the question and landed him on the news for his students analysis.  Genius!  Anywho,  another blog site I visit regularly had a link of Dan Meyer giving a TED talk.  The gist is that he finds the questions he wants to ask the students from the book and then removes some of the information from the question which removes the step by step procedures.  He presents the last question in a series of questions and then has his students determine what they need to know in order to find the answer.  The students have to do a little digging before they can try answer the question.

So, I thought I would give the ol’ college try and use it with my case studies.  The students, after wiping off the bewildered expressions, began at a snail’s pace to head in the right direction.  After many, many wrong answers, one of the groups started to find the right track.  After a while the class was having a discussion about the topic and what they were finding.  There were a couple of non-heated discussions about who was right and wrong.  I began to think as I was sitting and listening to the students have their discussion that if they only knew which questions they needed to answer, I would be out of a job.  They had developed into a fully functioning, critical-thinking,self-directed learning team.  They were actually teaching each other.  Now, of course it did not go as seamlessly the next time or the time after that, but if there is even a remote chance of developing the course around this type of learning I am all in.

So here’s to a better developed curriculum and instructional strategies.  Cheers.

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