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Considering Class Size

Initial Publication Date: December 31, 2003

Classes come in all sizes - 5, 50, 150, or 500 students with enrollments tending to be highest in beginning courses. The courses may be face to face or virtual. Different types of objectives can be accomplished by implementing case-based learning in different sized classes.

Large Class Size

In very large classes, cases can be introduced as short introductory experiences that initiate a topic, serve as an assesssment of prior knowledge, or they may lead into lab or recitation time. The case is briefly presented, perhaps as a short video segment. Choosing cases with a well defined problem space helps in large lecture settings.

Students in larger classes can do meaningful case work by forming smaller groups of up to 10 students if there is room to move around, or in very large classes they may form groups of 2-4 students sitting near one another. It helps to assign responsibility to individuals for reporting on the progress of short periods of work accomplished by these groups. It is possible to break up large classes into smaller groups, but the instructor needs a high tolerance for noise while a large group of students, working in near-neighbor groups, discusses a case. To help groups begin to develop investigations, sometimes additional instructional support may be necessary in large classes. This can be provided by faculty working in teams, graduate students (if available) and advanced undergraduate teaching assistants.

Peer interactions are enriched by the prior knowledge, experience and interests that the larger number of students bring to the process of investigative case based learning.

Small Class Size

In smaller classes, there is a real advantage for students in learning how to work together on cases and investigations. Group size can vary more, often in the range of 4-8, and it is easier for the instructor to get around to all groups and interact with each. Investigative case-based learning works well when further investigations in the lab or field are manageable for faculty and institutional resources. Student products required of the case learning experience are also not as limited as they are in large classes. Longer term individual case projects are more likely to be an option with smaller classes.

A number of undergraduate institutions have set up workshop or studio style introductory science courses that result in smaller sized classes designed specifically to take advantage of cooperative and collaborative learning in science. Such arrangements are well suited to ICBL.

Online Classes

In virtual classes, cases can be introduced electronically to individual students. It is helpful to promote the formation of student groups that will work together online. Using web-based simulations and models, web-accessible data sets and other web-based resources enable authentic investigative activity.

With the advent of broadband accessibility and new digital technologies like the Access Grid, classrooms in the future may routinely incorporate virtual learning strategies. Investigative cases will be useful in these distributed learning settings.