Summary: Case-studies and problem-based learning

Today we explored what it means to use ‘case studies’ and ‘problem-based learning’ (PBL) in our individual courses and across entire programs. These two terms represent different approaches to teaching although both embrace learning as an “active” rather than “passive” process. Some features that distinguish problem-based learning from case-based approaches to teaching include: the role of the instructor as guide;  PBL problems are unresolved; students determine what they need to learn in relation to the problem(s) they are studying and students develop self-regulation strategies.


Incorporating case studies into teaching

Mark is applying a case-study approach with 80 students in his undergraduate science course. He is planning to teach students the foundation and then use “cases” to assist students to apply the concepts, tools and ideas. His aim is to support students to learn by placing some of the responsibility for learning into the students’ hands. One question is “when to introduce a case-based approach” in the term? This instructional pattern is common in higher education and found in any disciplines. Go here for more information about using case studies in teaching.


Charlie described his experiences using problem-based learning (PBL) at McMaster University Medical School (who were the first medical school in Canada to apply PBL in the preparation of physicians). In PBL there are “no courses”. The key features of PBL include: i) unresolved problems; ii) principles are derived by faculty; iii) learners decide what they had to learn about, and iv) the role of the tutor as facilitator rather than content expert.

Charlie described how the instruction and problems were scaffolded meaning “as students became more capable we went towards real patients by the end of the program. Cases got more specific as we went along and testing was global”.  For instance, students had to learn to do an interview in 5 minutes. They would learn how to do the interview under supervision then conduct an interview.

All problems were generated by faculty and to ensure that the problems continued to provide the opportunity for student to learn the intended knowledge and skills, the problems were under continuous assessment by the faculty and the tutors. Students discussed in groups the solutions to the problems, and they had to watch real doctors perform.

Although a very powerful way to learn, it takes a lot of energy to create this model and to tweak it to make it work. We were teaching reasoning and metacognitive skills such as self-direction and problem solving rather than memorization of facts.

Evaluation of Learning

Triple Jump

1. Triple jump – give students a written problem that they have to begin to resolve in a specified time frame. Ask students to read the problem and then identify what they need to learn about the problem in order to resolve it. Some questions might include: What do you know about the problem, what do you wish to learn about the problem and what is your plan to address your learning needs about this problem?

2. Ask students to discuss these questions: Did you find out what you needed to? Did you have time? What more do you need? What’s next in your learning? How will you go about it?

3. Invite students to reconvene, report in and get feedback.

20 – stations

1.  We used programmed patients for this. Students conducted an examination and then they got feedback from the instructor and from the patient.

Build in self-evaluation for the students. Build in the critical side.