Science Education Needs Case Studies

My very first year teaching, I was humbled by a student in my animal physiology class at the University of Alaska.

By | February 28, 2005

<p>Figure 1</p>

Courtesy of SUNY, Buffalo

Herreid (center) uses case studies in class to generate lively discussions.

My very first year teaching, I was humbled by a student in my animal physiology class at the University of Alaska. I was talking about temperature regulation, ticking off the adaptations for low temperature survival, when suddenly an older student in a flannel shirt interrupted: "I wonder if that is how the rock rabbits survive the Alaskan winters?"

I was floored. This student had just done something I had never done: leave the classroom and textbooks to connect concepts to his own first-hand experiences in the wild, all in a flash. It was my first glimpse into a classroom where a science course was truly relevant, where students could learn science by actively discussing it instead of passively taking notes in lectures.

During the past fifteen years, in my undergraduate biology courses, I have been striving to replicate and expand that moment by actively involving students in discussions. More recently, as director of the NSF-funded National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, I have begun teaching others to do it as well.

The fact is, few science faculty are good at leading discussions. Most of us have never been in a class where the method was used. Students passively taking notes in a class are apt to be stunned, then incredulous, pasty-faced, and fearful when a habitual lecturer suddenly gets it into his head to ask a question smack dab in the middle of a discourse on mitochondrial DNA. But all is not lost. By developing and refining the case study method, I have found that it is possible to successfully lead discussions in undergraduate science courses.

Case studies were first taught in the law and business schools at Harvard in the early part of the 20th century. In science, too, using case studies in class discussions makes the classroom experience vigorous and more engaging than a lecture because students are involved in trying to put ideas into their own words. There are, of course, potential weaknesses. There is a chance that the discussion will be formless. There is more risk involved, too, because in a discussion you're relinquishing some control to your listeners.

Still, there are important ways to avoid these pitfalls. Using case studies to lead good discussions takes planning, but no more than a good lecture does. The first critical decision you make will be which case to use. More than 160 cases on numerous science topics such as chemistry, biology, pharmacy, and food sciences are available at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science website.1

For example, my biology department colleagues have used a case about Alzheimer's disease, in which a mouse is injected with amyloid protein to simulate memory loss; one that involves the issue of how prayer may affect the outcome of cardiovascular disease; and a case in which a mother must decide whether to enroll her son, who suffers from muscular dystrophy, in an experimental treatment.

A good case tells a story – either fictional or real – set in the past five years, and involves controversy. It creates empathy with the central character using dialogue, and is relevant to students. It serves a teaching function, and requires that dilemmas be solved. Finally, it has generalizability, and is short.

Once you've chosen the case and decided whether or not to have the students read it beforehand, it is time to plan your discussion strategy.

• Use a good fact-based opening question that doesn't scare students off.

• Involve as many students as possible.

• Use students' names whenever possible.

• Ask non-threatening questions.

• Control and structure the discussion. Don't let one person dominate the conversation, or let chaos reign.

• Write key points on the blackboard.

• Correct student error. You can encourage peers to correct each other by asking if anyone has any contrary evidence.

• Consider the physical design of the classroom. I strongly recommend the U-shaped seating arrangement, wherever possible.

• Find a way to conclude the case. Some faculty wind up their cases by summarizing what they have accomplished. Other instructors ask a student to do this. Sometimes you can ask the students to vote on the topic you've been discussing.

Leading discussions in science classes with case studies takes a strong commitment and hard work. But there is a lot of pressure now coming to bear on how to teach science more effectively.2 These kinds of strategies are making a huge difference: At workshops aross the U.S. on teaching with case studies, nearly 90% embraced the method in their own teaching and 92% report that their students are "more engaged" as a result, according to a survey conducted by the Survey Research Lab in the Department of Sociology, UB College of Arts and Sciences and educational consultants Ciurzck & Company. This revolution is about to happen.

Clyde Freeman Herreid ( is SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the State University of New York at Buffalo and director of the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.

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