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Case-based Learning

Last updated on 10 April 2024
In Case-based Learning (CBL) students analyse authentic cases in groups. For example, business problems, social phenomena or legal problems. Why is a certain service marketed successfully or not? Why does it seem that the divide in schools is growing? How does a judge reach a certain decision? The underlying idea of CBL is that authentic cases, cooperation, and interaction motivate students to learn actively.

CBL is a didactic approach in which students conduct lengthy and detailed research and make decisions about a single case or a series of cases. Students work on an authentic (real-life) phenomenon or problem, dive into the literature to analyse the case and answer questions about the case, and discuss and deepen their understanding together.

Depending on the domain:

  • CBL clarifies social processes and phenomena in sociology; 
  • CBL deepens students' knowledge of problems and strategies in economics or business administration;
  • CBL takes students through the creation and application of legal principles or ethics.

Students analyse the case individually or in small groups of two to six students. The cases are discussed in the working groups or lectures. The lecturer can ask more in-depth questions or put students to work in small groups (for example in buzz groups) to deepen knowledge and discuss new related problems. CBL is thus a specific form of the flipped classroom. The underlying idea of CBL is that authentic cases, collaboration, and interaction motivate students to learn actively.

Case study

The word 'case study' covers a wide range of problems for analysis, but most types include several basic elements. Most case studies are based on real events, or are a construction of events that could happen. They consist of a story about problems or conflicts that need to be solved. In addition, most case studies do not have one obvious or clear-cut solution. They are so-called 'ill-defined' or even 'wicked problems'.

The cases are adapted to the level of complexity that the students can handle. The cases are made by the teachers and prepare the students for future work practice. The information in a case study can be complex (including graphs, and relevant historical background material) or simple - a human story illustrating a difficult situation in which a decision has to be made.

In addition, there are forms of CBL in which real external stakeholders are involved in the case study. For example, the external client is available for questions to clarify the problem or to be present at the final presentation. Examples of this are the application of Community Service Learning at VU and the approach of, for example, the Master's programme in Marketing at the VU. In the latter course, students work on problems posed by Microsoft and FrieslandCampina, for example. 

The difference between CBL and Problem-Based Learning

A related educational form of Case-based learning is Problem-based learning (PBL). In PBL, students are often given more and smaller problems to deal with, the groups are larger and the manner of analysing and solving is much more structured than in CBL.

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VU Education Lab is part of VU Centre for Teaching & Learning.