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Thursday, 25 August 2016


We see IBL as a pedagogy which best enables students to experience the processes of knowledge creation. The core ingredients of an IBL approach that most researchers are in agreement with are:
  • learning is stimulated by inquiry, i.e. driven by questions or problems;
  • learning is based on a process of constructing knowledge and new understanding;
  • it is an 'active' approach to learning, involving learning by doing;
  • a student-centred approach to teaching in which the role of the teacher is to act as a facilitator;
  • a move to self-directed learning with students taking increasing responsibility for their learning; and
  • the development of skills in self-reflection.

Several modes of IBL are discussed in the literature. One framing we find useful is that of Staver and Bay (1987) who distinguish between structured, guided and open inquiry. Their definitions were particularly oriented towards problem solving, but we broaden their categories to allow exploration of issues. Thus we distinguish between:
  • structured inquiry – where teachers provide an issue or problem and an outline for addressing it
  • guided inquiry – where teachers provide questions to stimulate inquiry but students are self-directed in terms of exploring these questions
  • open inquiry – where students formulate the questions themselves as well as going through the full inquiry cycle as given in Figure 1.
*CBL (guided inquiry) over PBL (open inquiry)

The relationship between IBL, problem-based learning (PBL), and case-based learning (CBL) is less clear. Problem-based learning has a well developed literature base but like IBL, the definition of the term is contested and again there are a variety of approaches that fall under the umbrella term of PBL. All approaches may begin with a question, although open inquiry often starts with a general theme or issue from which students develop a particular question to be addressed. The timescale for IBL (over weeks or months) is typically much longer than for either PBL (hours to weeks) or CBL (minutes to hours). Whilst open inquiry promotes student choice in terms of the topic of learning, in PBL and CBL, the content and skills to be learned are usually far more prescribed. CBL and PBL are thus akin to structured and guided forms of IBL. In all approaches the teacher’s role is one of a facilitator. Given these relations between the three approaches, the research team decided that PBL was a more prescriptive form of IBL, and CBL a more focussed form of PBL, giving a nested hierarchy within the realm of active learning (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Proposed relation between inquiry-based learning (IBL), problem-based learning (PBL) and case-based learning (CBL). IBL, PBL and CBL fall in the realm of active learning; PBL is a subset of IBL and CBL is a subset of PBL (adapted from Spronken-Smith et al., 2008).

Herreid (2007) provides 11 basic rules for case-based learning.
  1. Tells an engaging Tstory.
  2. Focuses on an interest-arousing or controversial issue
  3. Set in the past five years
  4. Creates empathy with the central characters.
  5. Includes quotations. There is no better way to understand a situation and to gain empathy for the characters
  6. Relevant to the reader.
  7. Must have pedagogic utility.
  8. Conflict provoking.= Requires the reader/viewer to use information in the case to address the problem
  9. Decision forcing.= Requires the reader/viewer to think critically and analytically to address the problem
  10. Has generality.
  11. Is short, Brevity – has just enough information for a good analysis

Why Use Case-Based Learning?

To provide students with a relevant opportunity to see theory in practice. Real world or authentic contexts expose students to viewpoints from multiple sources and see why people may want different outcomes. Students can also see how a decision will impact different participants, both positively and negatively.
To require students to analyze data in order to reach a conclusion. Since many assignments are open-ended, students can practice choosing appropriate analytic techniques as well. Instructors who use case-based learning say that their students are more engaged, interested, and involved in the class.
To develop analytic, communicative and collaborative skills along with content knowledge. In their effort to find solutions and reach decisions through discussion, students sort out factual data, apply analytic tools, articulate issues, reflect on their relevant experiences, and draw conclusions they can relate to new situations. In the process, they acquire substantive knowledge and develop analytic, collaborative, and communication skills.
Many faculty also use case studies in their curriculum to teach content, connect students with real life data, or provide opportunities for students to put themselves in the decision maker's shoes.
Research has shown that case-based learning has been very successful at providing a context for abstract material. Cases also provide an ‘experience’ for students that can be transformed into learning through reflection or experimentation. Case-based learning has been linked with the effective development of critical thinking, problem solving, clinical reasoning and analysis, which in turn are characteristics of a deep approach to learning. It also can be used to facilitate a model of self-directed and reflective learning that serves students very well in future courses and careers. (Dunne and Brooks, 2004).

Designing Case Study Questions
Cases can be more or less “directed” by the kinds of questions asked—these kinds of questions can be appended to any case, or could be a handout for participants unfamiliar with case studies on how to approach one.
  • What is the situation—what do you actually know about it from reading the case? (Distinguishes between fact and assumptions under critical understanding)
  • What issues are at stake? (Opportunity for linking to theoretical readings)
  • What questions do you have—what information do you still need? Where/how could you find it?
  • What problem(s) need to be solved? (Opportunity to discuss communication versus conflict, gaps between assumptions, sides of the argument)
  • What are all the possible options? What are the pros/cons of each option?
  • What are the underlying assumptions for [person X] in the case—where do you see them?
  • What criteria should you use when choosing an option? What does that mean about your assumptions?

Managing Discussion and Debate Effectively
  • Delay the problem-solving part until the rest of the discussion has had time to develop. Start with expository questions to clarify the facts, then move to analysis, and finally to evaluation, judgment, and recommendations.
  • Shift points of view: “Now that we’ve seen it from [W’s] standpoint, what’s happening here from [Y’s] standpoint?” What evidence would support Y’s position? What are the dynamics between the two positions?
  • Shift levels of abstraction: if the answer to the question above is “It’s just a bad situation for her,” quotations help: When [Y] says “_____,” what are her assumptions? Or seek more concrete explanations: Why does she hold this point of view?”
  • Ask for benefits/disadvantages of a position; for all sides.
  • Shift time frame—not just to “What’s next?” but also to “How could this situation have been different?” What could have been done earlier to head off this conflict and turn it into a productive conversation? Is it too late to fix this? What are possible leverage points for a more productive discussion? What good can come of the existing situation?
  • Shift to another context: We see how a person who thinks X would see the situation. How would a person who thinks Y see it? We see what happened in the Johannesburg news, how could this be handled in [your town/province]? How might [insert person, organization] address this problem?
  • Follow-up questions: “What do you mean by ___?” Or, “Could you clarify what you said about ___?” (even if it was a pretty clear statement—this gives students time for thinking, developing different views, and exploration in more depth). Or “How would you square that observation with what [name of person] pointed out?”
  • Point out and acknowledge differences in discussion—“that’s an interesting difference from what Sam just said, Sarah. Let’s look at where the differences lie.” (let sides clarify their points before moving on).


  • Herreid, C. F. (2007). Start with a story: The case study method of teaching college science. NSTA Press.

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