Cased-based teaching to promote critical process thinking

There are two types of case study-focused teaching. The first is the common practice of using case studies for deeper and more nuanced thinking about larger topics using a specific case to illustrate it. The second, the subject of this post, is creating cases to highlight critical thinking, process-focused learning, and student growth.

This approach to teaching is common in production- or skills-based courses. In short, teachers create a learning module built on certain skills practiced within and presented as a case study. The case created in the module should include the following:

  • An introduction to what students will be doing, including objectives and skills explanation
  • Core assignments that will be included in the case study
  • A rubric
  • A reflection component at several places
  • A timeline of the case

The introduction provides context to the case. This means identifying (1) what the students will be making as a case study, (2) the skills students will be learning, and (3) the objectives based on those skills that students will become proficient in by the conclusion of the module. For example, the case could be a magazine spread that illustrates a social issue. The introduction to this case would include explaining the magazine spread, providing context to the social issue students are exploring, and sharing how and why this will give the students “on-the-job” skills.

The core assignments are activities that build students’ skills and allow them to reflect on their progress with the objectives. The projects are meant to contribute to the final case study product, not be separate or disconnected. By having these integrated assignments that build to and with the end project, students can implement and make more reflective efforts to understand their skills growth. Each activity or assignment contributes to the end product, which students will appreciate. Using our magazine example, the tasks or activities could include a story list, a written story, photographs, design elements, and design principles. The core assignments also have the final case project, the magazine spread for our example.

The rubric for the case should be presented to the students at the beginning of the module. Students should know where they are going, what they are doing, and how the various individual activities are being assessed. I prefer one document showcasing the rubrics for subsections and sub-assignments, but you can also provide unique rubric documents for each activity.

Students should be provided with opportunities to reflect on their process. Building this into your case throughout the learning module will build students’ critical thinking capacity about the case and their learning. A final reflection should review feedback, the rubric, and previous thoughts. Focus on getting students to think about why they did what they did, how they incorporated input, how they intend to move forward with the case, and what the case represents in their learning. In the example of the magazine spread, you may ask students how they integrated the different elements (design, writing, photography) and the process to make those decisions. You may ask why they chose a particular set of photos from their full memory card of images, which should include explaining why specific photos didn’t get selected — not just a reliance on what did. You may also ask students to reflect on what they need to do if they were to turn this spread into a published piece or how they would present this spread to a professional magazine for freelance work or a job interview.

The last piece is the timeline. You can do this like your syllabus or provide students with a project management-style timeline, such as a GANTT chart. The former is an instructor-focused approach where you decide the deadlines and what students will focus on each day. The latter is student-focused and represents more job-ready skills. In the project management approach, students know the end date, but they identify the days and times they will be working on the various components. I tend to use a combination so that students can locate specific deadlines based on the ones I provide, but they have the autonomy to provide how and when they will focus on the components of the case. I then included a reflection question about how they designed this timeline and why, and then a second reflection at the end asked them to reflect on their time management and how they used their GANTT chart.

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