Case-Based Learning

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Module Summary

For more advanced learners, case-based learning is a method that enables learners to engage with real-world scenarios and real-world complexity. This module reviews some basics of creating case-based learning in online contexts for the following:

  • development of applied critical thinking through both non-fiction and fictional stories;
  • more sophisticated understandings of how phenomena instantiate in the real world (with real complexity and intended and unintended consequences);
  • experiential learning about how to engage in open inquiry for complex and unstructured challenges;
  • experiences of collaboratively and individually solving problems in structured ways, and
  • easier transition from academic learning to professional practice.


Learners will...

  • review what case-based learning involves
  • explore what learning cases are, how these are created, and what research is used to support the building of cases for online learning
  • think about necessary features of learning objectives and learning outcomes in case-based learning online (and how case-based learning is related to authentic assignments)
  • consider how cases are presented for online teaching and learning and why
  • review what makes an effective learning case in online learning

Module Pretest

1. What is case-based learning?

2. What are cases used in case-based learning? How are cases created? What is the required research to build cases for online learning?

3. What are common learning objectives related to case-based learning? Common learning outcomes? How is case-based learning related to authentic assignments?

4. How are cases presented for online teaching and learning? Why?

5. What aspects make for effective learning cases? Why?

Main Contents

1. What is case-based learning?

Case-based learning refers to educational “stories with a message” (Herreid, Nov. 1997).

Clyde Freeman Herreid provides eleven basic rules for case-based learning. They are the following:

”Tells a story.
Focuses on an interest-arousing issue.
Set in the past five years
Creates empathy with the central characters.
Includes quotations. There is no better way to understand a situation and to gain empathy for the characters
Relevant to the reader.
Must have pedagogic utility.
Conflict provoking.
Decision forcing.
Has generality.
Is short.” (“What is Case-Based Learning?” n.d.)

Cases may be factual summaries of real-world events. They may be fictional but partially derived from the real, as in “ripped from the headlines.” Or they may be wholly imaginary.

Case-based reasoning is taken from case-based learning. This involves problem-solving real-world challenges using knowledge gleaned from related past events. In such cases, they are viewed as “problem situation(s)” (Aamodt & Plaza, Mar. 1994). The challenge here is that particulars and specifics do matter, and analysts have to decide how much is transferable to new contexts and new ill-structured and open-ended problems.

The various professional domains (“verticals”) have their own respective standards for approaching analysis and decision-making. Professionals in academia, business, and government, keep collections of cases as a form of institutional memory. They also maintain inventories of ways to address particular challenges. The idea is that synthesizing new information with pre-existing ways to address challenges may enable contemporaneous and future problem-solving for complex issues. From databases of cases, people may retrieve particular cases that may seem relevant, reuse the cases for learning, revise cases as needed, for revised solutions and new learning (Zhao, Liu, Dong, Sun, & Ji, 2017, p. 267). The prior approach is known as the “R4” (“r to the fourth power”) methodological framework for “retrieve, reuse, refine, and retain” (Anthony & Ratsaby, 2015, p. 61).

2. What are cases used in case-based learning? How are cases created? What is the required research to build cases for online learning?

Cases may be non-fiction, ripped from the headlines but fictional, and wholly fictional. They are presented as stories, which are seen as something that people take to and enjoy naturally. These are seen as embodying particular real-world complexity and enable discussions over values, ethics, professional practices, problem-solving, and decision-making. Some cases may be fairly common and typical in a field, while others may be atypical or outliers.

Cases are created in a particular structured way for analysis and problem-solving. While some are presented fully in one sitting, others may be revealed incrementally over time, to capture real-world complexity (and unpredictability).

What is required research for building cases for online learning? In general, it helps to start with as much available information as possible (“saturation”), from formal research sources as well as the gray literature. For the uniqueness of the case, it also helps to conduct interviews with the main decision-makers from related real-world situations. In other words, those experts who have perspectives on cases should be included. There should also be pedagogical experts included, who can co-create activities and questions that may be engaged.

If the cases are to be delivered online, then it makes sense to bring various multimedia contents into play. (There are open-source case repositories online. Many of these cases also come with pedagogical materials.)

3. What are common learning objectives related to case-based learning? Common learning outcomes? How is case-based learning related to authentic assignments?

Learning objectives for cases relate to several areas:

(1) the particular problem-set(s) in the domain (2) the domain (3) the roles within the domain (4) the decision-making for the particular challenges (5) the bureaucracies, technologies, tools, and resources related to the decision-making (6) the professional standards, values, and ethics (7) the challenges and dilemmas and trade-offs in the particular contexts

Learning outcomes involved improving skills in critical thinking and decision-making for the particular applied context. Learners become more familiar with real-world complexity. They better understand the related terminology, technologies, professional roles, and decision-making. An important outcome is the development of “professional self-concept” (Kantar & Massouh, 2015, p. e8), which comes of learners simulating professional roles.

Case-based learning is related to “authentic” assignments in the sense that many of these are drawn from the real world and/or applied to real-world contexts.

4. How are cases presented for online teaching and learning? Why?

In terms of format, online cases are most commonly presented as text-based cases, augmented with videos and imagery. Others are experienced in virtual immersive worlds, with the respective learners intercommunicating through their respective digital avatars. In some of these, the avatars (learners) take on roles and engage in an unfolding situation.

In the same way that some multiple-choice assessment are interjected with distractors, cases may be filled with contradictory and irrelevant information. Part of the job of learners is to select out what is relevant in order to make decisions.

The “case method” may unfurl in various ways. One goes as follows:

1. “Identify the problem
2. Determine the nature of the problem or the learning issues in the case
3. Decide the importance and urgency of the situation
4. Analyze the situation quantitatively and qualitatively
5. Generate alternatives
6. Establish decision criteria
7. Select the preferred alternative and predict the outcome
8. Outline an action and implementation plan
9. Identify relevant missing information and
10. List the assumptions made during analysis” (Mauffette-Leenders, Erskine, & Leenders, 1997, as cited in Flynn & Klein, 2001, p. 74).

Sometimes, the problem-based learning process is used for case-based learning:

  • recognizing the problem in a problem scenario
  • generating relevant hypotheses about the problem and how to approach it
  • identifying the scope of the problem by defining on-ground facts
  • identifying what information is needed and pursuing that information
  • applying the new information to the problem, and
  • summarizing what is learned
  • abstracting what is learned for applicability to future similar situations

At heart, learners engage actively by “analyzing, discussing and solving real problems in a specific field of inquiry” (Carlson & Schodt, 1995, Doriswami & Towl, 1963; Erskine, Leenders, & Mauffette-Leenders, 1998; Gragg, 1954; Lawrence, 1953; Levin, 1995; Matejka & Cosse, 1981; McNair & Hersum, 1954; Tillman, 1995, as cited in Flynn & Klein, 2001, p. 71). These skills are seen as transferable to work places.

5. What aspects make for effective learning cases? Why?

At the core of case-based learning is case-based inference (Hüllermeier, 1999), in which new real-world problems may be informed by prior similar problem-solutions (solution sets). An effective case has to be relevant to the learning and the problem-solving in the real world.

What are some other aspects that make for effective learning cases? These cases are:

  • engaging
  • relevant
  • well researched, factual
  • clearly designed, written, and presented
  • thought-provoking
  • complex (as representations of the real world)
  • memorable
  • usable for learning, and
  • applicable for online deployment

While most online courses do not use that many cases for learning, it may be helpful for learners to organize different cases by relevant features to enhance the learning (Roelle, Hiller, Berthold, & Rumann, 2017, p. 1).


One of the best ways to understand case-based learning is to experience it with live learners and in a participatory way. The cases available online are “static,” and they are not applied in a live way to learners.

How To

There are various ways to create case-based learning and to offer it to learners. What works will depend on the domain, the instructor and his / her goals, the learners, the technologies, the available resources, and other factors. It would not really be fair to try to create a one-size-fits-all sort of method here.

Case-based learning has been applied even in K12. The main point is that the learners need precursor knowledge in order to engage. The learning objectives and learning outcomes are also adjusted to the particular learner age group.

Possible Pitfalls

Case-based learning does not fit all online learning contexts. There are assumptions of prior learning, to enable learners to have the information, decision-making, and skills, to engage in the case analysis.

Also, the instructor has to be fairly well trained in either adapting an existing case or creating their own…using it for effective teaching and learning…and then debriefing the case.

One published concern in the research literature is that when cases are used for assessment that they may be too general and complex for the local condition or context. In one case, the instructor had to write his own cases for assessments (Evans, 2016). In another critique, researchers have observed that cases can go off-track if the cases are not closely tied to workplace realities (Evans, 2016, p. 162).

Another critique about case-based learning is that case-based reasoning looks backwards to prior existing cases for anticipation of the future. While the past may be somewhat predictive, where the past is prologue, that is only so to a degree. This is not to say that there are not “black swan” events (Taleb, 2007, 2010).

Another research team has made this same point:

“The central problem in case based reasoning (CBR) is to infer a solution for a new problem-instance by using a collection of existing problem–solution cases. The basic heuristic guiding CBR is the hypothesis that similar problems have similar solutions. Recently, some attempts at formalizing CBR in a theoretical framework have been made, including work by Hüllermeier who established a link between CBR and the probably approximately correct (PAC) theoretical model of learning in his ‘case-based inference’ (CBI) formulation” (Anthony & Ratsaby, 2015, p. 61).

Module Post-Test

1. What is case-based learning?

2. What are cases used in case-based learning? How are cases created? What is the required research to build cases for online learning?

3. What are common learning objectives related to case-based learning? Common learning outcomes? How is case-based learning related to authentic assignments?

4. How are cases presented for online teaching and learning? Why?

5. What aspects make for effective learning cases? Why?


Aamodt, A. & Plaza, E. (1994, Mar.) Case-based reasoning: Foundational issues, methodological variations, and system approaches. AI Communications: 7(1), 39 – 59.

Anthony, M. & Ratsaby, J. (2015). A probabilistic approach to case-based inference. Theoretical Computer Sci3ence: 589 (2015), 61 – 75.

Evans, C. (2016). Re-thinking case-based assessments in business management education. The International Journal of Management Education: 14(2016), 161 – 166.

Flynn, A.E. & Klein, J.D. (2001). The influence of discussion groups in a case-based learning environment. Educational Technology Research and Development: 49(3), 71 – 86.

Herreid, C.F. (1997). What is a case? Bringing to science education the established teaching tool of law and medicine. Journal of College Science Teaching: 27(2), 92 – 94.

Hüllermeier, E. (1999). Exploiting similarity for supporting data analysis and problem solving In D.J. Hand, J.N. Kok, & M.R. Berthold (Eds): IDA ’99, LNCS 1642. 257 – 268. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from

Kantar, L.D. & Massouh, A. (2015). Case-based learning: What traditional curricula fail to teach. Nurse Education Today: 35 (2015), e8 – e14.

Roelle, J., Hiller, S., Berthold, K., & Rumann, S. (2017). Example-based learning: The benefits of prompting organization before providing examples. Learning and Instruction: 49(2017), 1 – 12.

Taleb, N.N. (2007, 2010). The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. New York: Random House.

“What is Case-Based Learning?” (n.d.) Centre for Teaching and Learning. Queen’s University. Retrieved July 31, 2017, from

Zhao, H., Liu, J., Dong, W., Sun, X., & Ji, Y. (2017). An improved case-based reasoning method and its application on fault diagnosis of Tennessee Eastman process. Neurocomputing: 249(2017), 266 – 276.

Extra Resources

“What is Case-Based Learning?” (n.d.). Centre for Teaching and Learning, Queen’s University. Retrieved July 27, 2017, from