Create a Case Method Group Activity to Engage Students in Critical Thinking

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The case method group activity is an instructional design strategy that involves faculty members providing one or more case studies to which groups of students respond. The case(s) could be a real-life case or simulation. It could be description of key concept(s) applied, a story or scenario, an actual case study, a problem or mystery, a performance, a visual, or an example.

The case method in online learning as an intervention presents students with ill-structured, real-world derived problems with multiple solutions (Choi & Lee, 2009). In a group activity this case method has the potential to harnesses the effectiveness of collaborative learning (Kolb, 1984) and group activities provide a space for collaborative problem solving, fostering a constructivist learning environment with potential to build a community of learning (Jonassen, 1997). The teaching facilitator can influence learners’ engagement in and adoption of the activity by communicating the relative advantage of key features of the online environment (Karamanos & Gibbs, 2012), as well as mapping and intervening in the group interactions to keep students focused on the problem (Etmer & Koehler, 2014). This mapping creates a plan for instructors to scaffold (or build in techniques to progressively support students to greater levels of learning independence and effective group interactions). Introduction of scaffolds and learning resources, perhaps additional readings and activities, presented at later stages of problem solving were associated with deep meaningful learning and critical thinking (Choi & Lee, 2009).

Because the case reflects a real-life situation, as the group members interact with each other, they should uncover multiple solutions, perspectives, or methods of analyzing the situation, with no single right answer. This divergence is important to encourage for fostering deeper levels of learning and critical thinking (Choi & Lee, 2009). A guiding question for the lesson can offer some parameters for faculty to map and scaffold activities, guiding students’ interactions as they engage with others in their groups about the case. This guiding question should depend on the purpose of the instruction (University of Illinois, 2015). The process of a faculty member scaffolding activities should result in more than one individual or group deliverable associated with it and a corresponding timeline for each. Consider, too, whether each component will have a group or individual grade (Carnegie Mellon University, 2015).

Link to example artifact(s)

As an example of the case method group activity, a faculty member teaching an industrial/organizational psychology course divided the students into groups based on time zones and created a discussion forum for each group. They completed a learning team charter to establish their group covenant. The parameters for the group activity were well-defined: students completed a group charter to agree on expectations for each member’s contribution to the group, the faculty provided an explanation of the purpose of the group activity for learning the material and succeeding in the course. The faculty explicitly stated how the quality of interactions and ideas derived from the group conversation and supported with evidence could contribute to the success of individual assignments.

The faculty provided the same case scenario across each group discussion forum. The case described in writing a company whose strict hierarchy and “us” (management) versus “them” (workers) mentality had led to a dysfunctional workplace environment with punitive acts from management and passive aggressive behaviors from employees. The faculty prompted students to analyze the situation using management and leadership approaches and theories from the course as a group by midway through the course, brainstorm as a group solutions to remedy the situation by applying key course concepts from middle to the end of the course, and submit an individual solution to the problem the case presented as the final assignment.

The faculty member interacted with each group several times throughout the course in their discussion forums, guiding them to consider important motivational and management theories (like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and McGregor’s theory x and y) to analyze the behavioral dynamics of management and the employees in the case. Additionally, a rubric was associated with each component presented prior to the assignment to set expectations and utilized by the faculty member for grading. To assess critical thinking, elements from the AASU Value rubric were incorporated into the individual solution activity rubric (2017). Students were graded individually even though they were interacting as a group for their mid-course analysis of the scenario, as a group on the solution brainstorming activity for a group grade, and individually on their submissions of their individual solution to the case.

Students’ critical thinking improvements and favorable reaction provided good evidence for the success of the case scenario activities in this course. During the discussion, students often related the scenario to their own real-life experiences in workplace settings. As the discussions progressed, students began identifying these experiences with key concepts, referring and citing course content, and this habit transferred to their individual solutions to the case presented in their papers. Some students developed a clear thesis for their perspectives, recounting nuances of the situation in the scenario (such as the organizational structure and emerging management styles) to substantiate their position. Even fewer students gave multiple solutions and explained why one is better than another. Students generally responded positively to the course and case scenario format. They indicated that they appreciated the real-life examples from other students and expressed that the group discussion contributed development of their individual submissions. Satisfaction with the course, as indicated on students’ end-of-course reviews, was high to very high.

Applying this case method group activity strategy to other disciplines should result in similar success, strengthening students’ critical thinking skills. This strategy is definitely generalizable, as the aim is for students’ collaboration for achieving the course or module objective(s) associated with the activity/assignment (University of Illinois, 2015), guiding students to:

• Identify key concepts reflected by a case,
• Situate a case within a given system,
• Summarize or recapitulate a case,
• Generalize patterns or symbolic representations within a case,
• Generate plausible causes that result in a case,
• Analyze the components of a case,
• Assess or judge the appropriate application presented in a case scenario,
• Solve a problem that the case presents or that the faculty presents about the case
Any discipline where students would benefit cognitively from collaboration to achieve one of the above objectives could apply this strategy: create a case method group activity to engage students in critical thinking.

Individual Paper Case Study Rubric

Case Study Rubric for Group Collaboration Discussion

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2017). Critical thinking VALUE rubric. Retrieved from

Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center (2015). How can I assess group work? Retrieved from

Choi, I., & Lee, K. (2009). Designing and implementing a case-based learning environment for enhancing ill-structured problem solving: Classroom management problems for prospective teachers. Educational Technology Research and Development, 57(1), 99-129. doi:10.1007/s11423-008-9089-2

David, H. J. (1997). Instructional design models for well-structured and ill-structured problem-solving learning outcomes. Educational Technology Research and Development, 45(1). Retrieved from

Ertmer, P. A., & Koehler, A. A. (2014). Online case-based discussions: Examining coverage of the afforded problem space. Educational Technology Research and Development, 62(5), 617-636. doi:10.1007/s11423-014-9350-9

Jonassen, D. H. (1999). Designing constructivist learning environments. In C. M. Reigeluth Instructional-design theories and models: Volume II (pp. 215-239). Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Retrieved from

Karamanos, N., & Gibbs, P. (2012). A model for student adoption of online interactivity. Research in Post-Compulsory Education, 17(3), 321-334. doi: 10.1080/13596748.2012.700108

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. Retrieved from

University of Illinois. (2015). Online teaching activity index: Case study or case based index. Retrieved from


Major, A. 2017. Create a case method group activity to engage students in critical thinking. In Chen, B., deNoyelles, A., & Thompson, K. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning. Retrieved January 20, 2018 from

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