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Case and Problem Based Learning

Case-Based Learning (CBL) or Problem-Based Learning (PBL) is a course design framework that:

  • Is a PROCESS-oriented and LEARNING-centered approach to teaching
      • Considered a "...move from words to actions," (Epstein, 2004)
  • Gained popularity after research identified graduates were unable to apply knowledge and skills effectively in subsequent employment
  • Research indicates students in such course designs are:
      • More motivated to learn
      • What they learn is more usable than the knowledge learned by students carrying out rote activities
      • Tend to better learn higher order thinking skills than do students in other learning situations (Blumenfeld, et al., 1991; Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt, 1993; Hmelo, 1995)
  • Is most effective when linked to course/program threshold concepts

Design Resources

CBL/PBL Framework

  • A pertinent/relevant problem or case is identified
      • This can be student or instructor created
      • Compliments/promotes course goals/threshold concepts
      • Must have the possibility for multiple options/solutions/outcomes
      • Requires accessing a diverse range of sources and resources
  • A brief discussion of the case/problem follows to clarify the student's roles and responsibilities, both individual and group, are clearly articulated, including:
      • Description of final product (rubric or a descriptive rating scale)
          • Written, verbal, animation, web-based, etc.
          • Sub-headings, other resources, etc.
  • Possible processes for addressing the problem and/or analyzing the case
  • What are designated as appropriate sources
  • Presentation of the analyses, conclusion(s), perspectives, etc.
      • Identify acceptable formats, etc.
  • Reflection of analyses, conclusions, etc.
      • Includes discussion about the group process and ways to be more effective in subsequent cases/problems

Key Design Principles

  • The quality of the case or problem is critical to the success of the learning experience
      • It should:
          • Be challenging, require significant effort to research and analyze
          • Require significant discussions to arrive at a group conclusion
          • Draw on and synthesize a broad range of knowkledge, skills, and capabilities
          • Have the possibility for multiple options/solutions/outcomes
  • Use student groups of 3-5 to maximize engagement and learning
  • The Instructor is
      • A key guide both in and out of class meetings
      • The source for the framework and starter resources
      • The final debrief/discussion facilitator
  • Appropriate amount of time needs to be provided for a successful completion of the assignment
      • In-class time should enable use of library, internet, and other pertinent sources
  • Debrief or reflection after the case/problem has been completed is critical to the success of the learning task
      • Discussing the decision-making processes, resource identification and use, challenges of the case/problem, and group dynamics

Course Design Process

  • Identify the threshold concepts skills and knowledge for the course
  • Determine assessment strategies
  • A practice experience should be included first to enable the students to gain a greater understanding of the process, ask experience-related questions, and work with peers
      • Mini-problem or mini-case
      • This should lead to a higher quality learning experience in subsequent more intense problem/case studies
  • Provide a broad framework of how to address the case or problem
      • define/clarify case/problem
      • use library to research case/problem or conduct research
      • identify and substantiate key stakeholders
      • identify and substantiate key issues
      • data analysis
      • conclusion/solution
      • references/sources
  • Sequence cases/problems either
      • Developmentally (simple to complex) or
      • To build on each other (knowledge, skills and concepts learned)
  • While both CBL and PBL tend to be discipline specific, PBL can also focus on the process and utilize cases beyond the focal discipline


Further Resources


Blumenfeld, P., Soloway, E., Marx, R., Krajcik, J., Guzdial, M., and Palincsar A. (1991). Motivation Project-based Learning: Sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist, vol. 26(3and4), 369-398.

Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. (1993). Anchored instruction and situated cognition revisited. Educational Technology, 33(3), 52-70

Epstein, R. (January 9, 2004). Learning from the problems of problem-based learning. BMC Medical Education, 4(1)

Hmelo, C. (1995). Problem-based learning: Development of knowledge and reasoning strategies. In Proceedings of the Seventeenth Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Hillsdale NJ: Erlbaum

Irby, D. (December, 1994). Three exemplary models of Case-Based Teaching. Academic Medicine, 69(12), 947-953

Nadershahi, N and Beck, L. (2013). An overview of Case-Based and Problem-Based Learning Methodologies for Dental Education. Journal of Dental Education, 77(10), 1300-1305


May 26, 2022