Using Case Studies for Higher-Level Thinking

Science teacher David Russo from Madison Public Schools, Conn. is part of an innovation project to experiment with personalized learning throughout the year with Allison Zmuda.

As I stated in my previous blog post, I have recently converted my Human Biology class into a 100% student centered learning environment. Given the way my students are learning I didn’t think it was appropriate to administer traditional assessments at the end of each unit. I decided that my students would create websites using Google Sites to showcase what they had learned over the course of a unit. After each subsequent unit they would add to their websites, and at the end of my course they would have an electronic portfolio of everything they had learned in Human Biology.

“Pretty cool,” I thought! And for a number of years this was the culminating event at the end of each unit and I left it at that.

After working with Allison Zmuda I realized that, although each student was summarizing what they had learned via the assignments, activities, and labs they had completed, that’s all it was— a summary. There wasn’t much in the way of high-level thinking happening. She urged me to get my students to USE what they had learned in a more authentic way and suggested that I look into using case studies as a vehicle to accomplish this.

Using Case Studies to Encourage Higher-Level Thinking

If you are unsure of what a case study is, I describe them to my students like this:

“They are stories where something bad is going to happen to someone resulting in various injuries and symptoms. It is your job to analyze the details of the story and use the knowledge you have gained over the course of the current and/or previous units of study to explain what is going on with the injured/sick characters.”

The students are encouraged to use all of the materials they have generated over the course of the current and/or previous units as resources, especially their websites, to help them explain what the characters in the case studies are experiencing. Below is an example of one of the first case studies I assigned at the end of the Nervous System unit.

The Rope Swing

In the backyard of Steven’s house there is a large tree overhanging a lake. Hanging from this tree is a rope swing from which Steven and his friends can swing and launch themselves into the water. Steven has been doing this his whole life with no problems, but today was different. His friend Connor was over and, in an effort to show off, he decided he was going to attempt a flip in the air after releasing from the rope. This required more speed and a different launch angle so when he let go of the rope, he traveled farther through the air than he ever had before and landed in a section of the lake unknown to him.

He hit the water head first landing on a rock. He blacked out and didn’t remember anything after that.

Upon waking up in the hospital a number of days later, he was told that Connor had saved his life. Connor pulled him to shore, called 911, and attempted to stop the bleeding from Steven’s head until the paramedics arrived. His head was lacerated and his skull cracked on the left front side.

The vertebrae on the superior right portion of his spinal column were fractured which led to the severing of the ventral roots of various spinal nerves emerging from the right side of the vertebrae located in the neck and upper back. The damage also severed the dorsal roots of various spinal nerves emerging from the left side of the vertebrae located in the neck and upper back.

The spinal nerves in these regions of the spine are known to direct nerve plexuses to the shoulders, arms, and hands on their respective sides of the body. There was severe swelling in the inferior portion of his spinal cord concurrent with an inability to move or feel his legs.

Upon seeing his family Steven tried to speak, but found that forming words was quite difficult. Over time his speech issues resolved themselves and he regained the ability to walk. The issues with both of his arms were never resolved.

Analysis Questions

Most of these questions can be answered with the information you gathered over the course of this unit. Some questions may require further research to fully answer.

  1. What symptoms would Steven be experiencing in his right arm? Explain your answer.
  2. What symptoms would Steven be experiencing in his left arm? Explain your answer.
  3. Do you think the swelling in the inferior end of Steven’s spinal cord was connected to his inability to move or feel his legs? Why or why not? Explain your answer.
  4. What injury led to his inability to form words after his accident? Explain your answer.
  5. Why were Steven’s vision or ability to hear not adversely impacted by this accident? Explain your answer.
  6. Why do you think he regained the ability to speak and walk, but did not regain full arm function? Explain your answer.

At the end of each question I ask the students to explain their answers which, to be honest, is the most important part of their answer. Any student could stumble upon the correct answer to one of these questions, but asking them to explain how they arrived at their answer is where they have to really pull from the knowledge they have collected and learned. They have to prove to me that their answer is correct by supporting their conclusions with facts.

Now, I’m not just asking them to summarize what they have learned. I’m asking them to synthesize and apply their self-generated knowledge to novel situations, in turn providing them with the opportunity to achieve a much higher level of thinking.

I found this to be such a successful assignment that I decided to use a case study as the midterm exam for my Human Biology class. Moving forward, I plan to create case studies for all units of study and my hope is that they will, at some level, be cumulative.

This will hopefully provide my students with the opportunity to see how various body systems are interconnected and how, when one system is affected perhaps by an injury or illness, other seemingly unrelated body systems could be affected as a result.




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