What is Investigative Case Based Learning?

Initial Publication Date: December 31, 2003

The use of cases for teaching is as old as storytelling itself. It is instruction by the use of narratives - stories - about individuals facing decisions or dilemmas. Learners engage with the characters and circumstances of the story. They work to identify problems and to connect the meaning of the story to their own lives.

Cases have traditionally been used to teach decision making skills in professional education, as exemplified in the Harvard Business School case approach (Christensen and Hansen, 1987). More recently, cases have been used for learning medical science (Wilkinson and Feletti, 1989, Tosteson, et al., 1994) in a model called problem-based learning or PBL (Barrows and Tamblyn, 1980). PBL gives students opportunities to direct their own learning as they explore the science underlying realistically complex situations. Students work collaboratively to identify issues, to frame questions of interest to themselves, and then to identify additional information in answer to their questions.

Investigative Case-Based Learning (ICBL) (Waterman, 1998, Waterman and Stanley, 1998, Stanley and Waterman, 2000) is a variant of PBL that encourages students to develop questions that can be explored further by reasonable investigative approaches. Students then gather data and information for testing their hypotheses. They produce materials which can be used to persuade others of their findings. Students employ a variety of methods and resources, including traditional laboratory and field techniques, software simulations and models, data sets, internet-based tools and information retrieval methods.

Investigative cases draw from realistic situations in which scientific reasoning can be applied. Although the case defines a general area of geoscience under investigation, students generate specific questions to guide their study. Students investigate scientific problems that they find meaningful. In the process they also learn to:

  • locate and manage information;
  • develop reasonable answers to the questions;
  • use scientific inquiry strategies and methods
  • provide support for their conclusions, and;
  • work on decision making abilities.

Investigative case-based learning methods incorporate problem posing, problem solving, and peer persuasion (Peterson and Jungck, 1988, Jungck et al., 2000). Instructors as well as students are collaborators in this three phase process, often providing additional insights and defining potential strengths and weaknesses in the design of the problem statement and the investigation. The resolution (or clarification) of the problem and its presentation extend opportunities for student practice in utilizing and evaluating scientific approaches to problem solving.