Facilitate students to apply disciplinary knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving skills in safe, real-life contexts.

Case, scenario, problem and inquiry-based learning are active learning strategies suitable for a face-to-face, online or hybrid environment. These approaches require students to apply their disciplinary knowledge, critical thinking and problem-solving skills in a safe, real-world context.

Case-based learning (CBL) presents students with a case or dilemma situated in an authentic context, which they are required to solve. Students are provided with background, situation and supporting data. They can work individually or as a group. The course coordinator takes on a facilitator’s role to guide learning rather than dictate answers.

Scenario-based learning (SBL) uses interactive scenarios based on the principles of situated learning theory (Lave & Wenger, 1991). It works by simulating real-world practice, provide safe opportunities to engage in situations that may be otherwise difficult for students to experience in their studies.

Problem-based learning (PBL) supports learning through an enquiry-guided method for students to solve a real-life problem. Students use ‘triggers’ derived from the problem to define their own learning outcome/objectives. There is a specific, guided methodology for implementing PBL.

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) encourages students to explore material, ask questions, and share ideas in small groups with guided learning. It uses a constructivist approach with the goal for students to make meaning, guided by the Course Coordinators.

Best practice

Case-based learning (CBL)

A case study is generally based on real situations (names and facts often changed to ensure anonymity). Many case studies include supporting data and documentation and require students to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution(s). The facilitator has an active role in shaping questions that will guide students in their learning.

Most effective cases:

  • are developed in line with defined learning objectives
  • have an educational purpose
  • are authentic and relevant
  • draw on common/typical scenarios
  • consider dilemmas to promote decision-making
  • add supporting data where necessary, and
  • have relatable characters, and some include the voice of characters (e.g. patients) to add drama and realism.

In facilitating case-based learning:

  1. Give students ample time to read and think about the case. You can provide the case before class.
  2. Introduce the case briefly and provide some guidelines for how to approach it.
  3. Create groups (ideally 3–6 students) and monitor them to ensure everyone is involved.
  4. Have groups present their solutions/reasoning.
  5. Ask questions for clarification and to move discussions to another level.
  6. Synthesise issues raised. Be sure to bring the various strands of the discussion back together at the end. Ask groups to summarise their findings and compare group responses. Help the whole class interpret and understand the implications of their solutions.

(Adapted from Case Studies, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University)

Scenario-based learning (SBL)

Scenarios put students in a simulated context to provide rich learning experiences.

When designing a scenario:

  1. Identify the learning outcomes. It is important to identify what you want students to achieve on completing the scenario and then work backwards from the learning outcomes to create the situation that will lead to this learning. 
  2. Decide on your format. Is your scenario delivered in face-to-face or online environments? What media (photographs, audio, video) and other resources will you need? If you use an online scenario, will you provide other supporting activities, such as wikis, discussion forums, etc.?
  3. Choose a topic. Remember that non-routine tasks lend themselves to scenario-based learning. Consider using ‘critical incidents’ and challenging situations that have occurred in your subject area.
  4. Identify the trigger event or situation. This will be the starting point of your scenario. As you create the scenario, identify decision points and key areas for feedback and student reflection. Creating a storyboard is an effective way to do this.
  5. Peer review your scenario. Ask colleagues to work through the scenario to ensure that it flows in the way you expect and achieves the outcomes you intended.

Problem-based learning (PBL)

Problem-based learning can be used to engage in active learning that challenges higher-order thinking in collaboration with peers.

There are various ways to plan, design and implement PBL in your classroom. The following resources may suit your context:

  • Wood (2007) identified a structure for incorporating PBL into the curriculum and emphasises that PBL will only be successful if the problems developed are of high quality.
  • Ganareo and Lyons (2015) outline key steps to design, implement and assess PBL to help develop twenty-first-century skills such as teamwork, digital literacy and problem-solving.
  • The ‘Seven Jump’ method (Gijselaers, 1995) used at Maastricht describes the key steps students go through to resolve a problem during PBL tutorial sessions.
'Jump' activities Timing
1. Clarify terms and concepts not readily comprehensible First meeting
2. Define the problem
3. Analyse the problem and offer tentative explanations
4. Draw up an inventory of explanations
5. Formulate learning objectives
6. Collect further information through private study Between meetings
7. Synthesise the new information and evaluate and test it against the original problem. Reflect on and consolidate learning. Second meeting

Inquiry-based learning (IBL)

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) encourages students to explore a specific topic, ask questions, and share ideas.

Heick identified four phases of Inquiry-Based Learning:

  1. Interaction: dive into engaging, relevant, and credible media forms to identify a ‘need’ or opportunity for inquiry.
  2. Clarification: summarising, paraphrasing, and categorising learning with teacher or expert support.
  3. Questioning: asking questions to drive continued, self-directed inquiry.
  4. Design: designing an accessible, relevant, and curiosity-driven action or product to culminate and justify inquiry.
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Technology considerations

When planning case, scenario, problem and inquiry-based learning, you need to consider the context of the learners and select technologies that support the steps you have planned.

  • Small group discussion in person or online (e.g. discussion boards, Zoom breakout rooms).
  • Identify relevant questions, (e.g. in person or through PadletUQ).
  • Research (e.g. journal articles, databases, search engines, Library Catalogue)
  • Face-to-face or online brainstorming (e.g. discussion boards, PadletUQ, Zoom breakout rooms, or mind map).
  • Spreadsheet software (e.g. Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets) for graphing and presenting data.
  • Presentation software (e.g. Microsoft PowerPoint, Adobe Spark, Prezi) for presenting investigation results.
  • Collaborate (e.g. Zoom if presenting online, or Microsoft Teams).

View centrally-supported active learning tools

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Case studies

Case study 1 – Case-based assessment for physiotherapy students

Dr Roma Forbes

Designed as a sequential case-based online and in-class approach, students are able to scaffold their clinical skills and reasoning through developing and implementing case-based assessment and management strategies.

Read more

Case study 2 – Condensed problem-based assignment

Associate Professor Adrian Cherney

Students are set discipline-specific problem-based exercises for completion during class. The objective is to craft a written response (1500 words) to the problem or use group collaboration to develop and deliver a 10–15 minute presentation proposing a solution.

Read more

View more case studies (UQ Assessment Ideas Factory)

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References and further reading

4 Phases of Inquiry-based Learning, Teachthought

Active & Inquiry-based Learning, Victoria University Melbourne Australia

Azer, S. A. (2007). Twelve tips for creating trigger images for problem-based learning cases. Medical Teacher, 29(2-3), 93-97. doi:10.1080/01421590701291444

Case-based Teaching and Problem-based Learning (University of Michigan, Centre for Research on Learning & Teaching)

Case Studies, Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University

Clark, R., (2009). Accelerating expertise with scenario-based learning. Learning Blueprint. Merrifield, VA: American Society for Teaching and Development.

Davis, B. (1993). Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Davis, C. & Wilcock, E. (2003). Teaching Materials Using Case Studies.

Enquiry-based learning (Griffith University)

Errington, E.P., (2003). Developing scenario-based learning: Practical insights for tertiary educators. Palmerston North, N.Z .: Dunmore Press. 9-20.

Ganareo, V., & Lyons, R. (2015). Problem-Based Learning: Six Steps to Design, Implement, and Assess.

Gijselaers, W. (1995). Perspectives on problem-based learning. In W. Gijselaers, D. Tempelaar, P. Keizer, J. Blommaert, E. Benard, & H. Kasper (Eds.), Educational Innovation in Economics and Business Administration (pp. 39-52). Netherlands: Springer.

Gossman, P., Stewart, T., Jaspers, M., & Chapman, B. (2007). Integrating web-delivered problem-based learning scenarios to the curriculum. Active Learning In Higher Education, 8(2), 139-153.

Journal of University Teaching and Learning Practice, 8(1), 0-17. Retrieved from http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1149&context=jutlp

Kindley, R. W. (2002). Scenario-based e-learning: a step beyond traditional e-learning. ASTD Magazine. Retrieved from http://www.astd.org/

Problem-Based Learning at Maastricht University

Retrieved from https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/course-design-ideas/problem-based-learning-six-steps-to-design-implement-and-assess/

Ribeiro, L. R. C. (2011). The Pros and Cons of Problem-Based Learning from the Teacher's Standpoint.

Savery, John R. (2006) Overview of Problem-based Learning: Definitions and Distinctions, Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning 1(1)

Schwartz, P., Mennin, S., & Webb, G. (2001). Problem-Based Learning: Case Studies, Experience and Practice (Eds.). London, UK: Kogan Page Limited.

Using Case Studies to Teach, Centre for Excellence and Innovation in Teaching, Boston University

Weimer, M. (2009). Problem-Based Learning: Benefits and Risks. Retrieved from http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/problem-based-learning-benefits-and-risks/

Wood, D. F. (2003). Problem-based learning. BMJ, 326, 328-330. doi: 10.1136/bmj.326.7384.328

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Community of Practice

If you want to know more about how you could implement active learning in your courses, consider joining the Blended and Active Learning Innovation Community of Practice (BALI CoP).

Need help?

ITaLI offers personalised support services across various areas including case, scenario, problem, inquiry-based learning.