Grossman, R. W. (1994). Encouraging critical thinking using the case study method and cooperative learning techniques. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 5(1), 7-20.
Several workshops presented at the 1991 Lilly Conference on College Teaching* provided the inspiration for redesigning an introductory psychology course. This article shows how cooperative learning teams can be taught to analyze case studies. Further, by using alternative conceptual frameworks to analyze these cases, students are encouraged to think more critically about all the theories presented in the course. This approach should be applicable to a variety of other courses.
One of the major influences on my pedagogy early in my teaching career was Bloom's Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956), which helped me understand my goals as a teacher. I would not feel successful unless my students were able to show that they understood the course concepts by using them in a different context from the one in which they were presented. Bloom called this ìapplicationî learning (p. 120). It wasn't long, however, before I realized that it was very hard for most students to perform at the application level. Although I was committed to application learning, no more than 10% to 20% of my students were achieving this level of learning, and I was unable to increase the percentage throughout many years of teaching. I found this frustrating, even though students rated my courses highly.
Recently, I have seen a significant
increase in the percentage of students able to demonstrate application
learning in my introductory psychology course. The advance was
due, in part, to workshops I attended at the 1991 Lilly Conference
on College Teaching that led me to redesign the course. The theories
and techniques I used came mainly from three workshops: Craig
Nelson on critical thinking (my major focus), William Welty on
the case study method, and Barbara Millis on cooperative learning. The
following ideas should be applicable to a variety of courses.
The introductory psychology course at Kalamazoo College, like most such courses, presents to students the four main theoretical perspectives of traditional psychology: psychoanalytic, humanistic, behaviorist, and cognitive. Most introductory psychology courses use some combination of lecture and discussion. This particular course met in lecture sessions (60 to 100 students) three times a week and smaller discussion groups (20 students) twice a week.
The first theoretical framework that helped me better understand my students was the Perry scheme of moral and intellectual development (1970). Perry's research indicated that most entering college students use modes of thinking that inhibit their ability to grasp complex ideas and make it almost impossible for them to think critically about the ideas they are learning. In Nelson's workshop, he suggested that the Perry scheme outlines a series of thinking levels through which students must progress before they can understand modern science well enough to think critically about it. Each successive level requires students to deal with greater uncertainty. According to Nelson, we cannot teach students how to deal effectively with uncertainty if their worldviews do not allow for it. Typical entering college students have a dualistic worldview, the first level of Perry's scheme, through which everything is seen in black-white, either-orî and true-false dichotomies, and nothing is uncertain. To achieve critical thinking and deep understanding of modern scientific theories, students must progress from the dualistic position, through the multiplistic mode (in which all theories appear so uncertain that they have no more or less value than the students' own unexamined views), to the contextually relative position (from which students can see that, given a particular context and disciplinary criteria, some theories are better for dealing with uncertainty). The final mode in Perry's scheme is commitment in relativism (in which students critically use a discipline in appropriate areas and in ways consonant with their own values).
Perry's research suggested further that movement through these modes is existentially difficult. In fact, the evolution might be so challenging that some students attempt to retreat, temporize, or escape. Therefore, students need a balance of challenge and support to facilitate progression through these positions. My course, however, like most courses (and textbooks), was designed under the assumption that students enter the course able to function in the third, or contextually relative, mode. For example, in its first chapter, the text introduced the four main theoretical perspectives in psychology. Implicit in this presentation was the suggestion that all psychological data could be interpreted through any one of these perspectives and, most important, that students were expected to learn the strengths and limitations of each viewpoint. If Nelson and Perry were correct, the notion that more than one theory could be true was extremely challenging, and maybe impossible, for dualists to handle. Similarly, the idea that theories were more or less valid depending on the context was quite difficult for multiplists to comprehend. So, the course immediately confronted first-year students with high levels of uncertainty rather than offering support and pacing, their introduction to uncertainty.
To explain how the revisions worked, I will describe how the different approach helped students deal with one subject in introductory psychology that they typically stumble over: Freudian theory. Many students enter the course as dualists, looking for ìThe Truthî and tending to label all ideas either true or false. In Freud's theory, students often find one or two elements that seem wrong and then reject the whole theory without further consideration. Students cannot learn Freud's theory at the application level if they reject it out of hand.
The first change I made based on Nelson's ideas was to encourage students to approach Freud's theory as a ìdisciplinary gameî rather than to judge its truth or falsity (for Nelson, Perry's third mode-contextual relativism-is usefully thought of as learning to play disciplinary games). Contextual relativism seemed like a good level to try for, because Knefelkamp, Widick, and Parker's research (1978) and Nelson's experience suggested that if the material is structured properly, students can reason one or two levels higher than their habitual mode. Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule's research (1986) confirmed Perry's finding that the majority of college students matriculate in the dualistic and multiplistic modes. Thus, even if many of my students were dualistic, they would be able to function in the contextually relative mode if I gave them enough supportive structure.
Once I began encouraging students
to treat theory application as a game, I found they displayed
less resistance to new ideas. They appeared even to enjoy learning
to play the Freudian game. For the many students who previously
had been conflicted and anxious because of trying to evaluate
the truth or falsity of the theory, it seemed to be most helpful
to frame their task as finding the right answers according to
the Freudian context. The dualists were relieved to have an authority
figure instructing them not to look for the truth, but instead,
just to learn to play the Freudian game. Multiplist students
were willing to set their opinions aside temporarily to play by
Freud's rules. Both groups found this a more comfortable task.
I removed a second obstacle
to student learning by considering another of Nelson's emphases:
students' schemata. Students, contrary to popular assumption,
do not enter courses as blank slates. Based on pedagogical work
in physics by Arons (1990) and in college writing by Rose (1989),
Nelson recommended that we look for student beliefs or attitudes
that might conflict with the ideas presented in our courses.
Accordingly, I asked myself what aspects of Freud's theory are
the most troubling for students. One is his theory of instincts.
In particular, it was often impossible for students to see how
their feelings of love, especially for parents and friends, might
be derived from sexual desire. Instead of trying to defend Freud's
ideas, as I would have in the past, I began by acknowledging and
legitimizing their schemata, saying, for example:
Many of you will find this
part of Freud most difficult. It is really hard to see how your
feelings of love toward your mother or best friend might come
from the animalistic or sexual roots he proposed. I too found
this repulsive when I first heard it. Next week we will learn
a new theory by a group of psychologists who also found this aspect
of Freud to be untenable. For now, I just want you to learn to
play the Freudian game.
I also strove to follow Nelson's
critical advice that the instructor must get students to perceive
a conflict between their present schemata and the new ones introduced
in the course. As a cognitive psychotherapist, I knew that one
of the most efficient ways to begin challenging students' beliefs
was to work with any of their existing schemata that would not
conflict so much with Freud's theory. Aaron Beck, a prominent
cognitive therapist, often tries this approach with patients whose
depressive schemata are interfering with their ability to function
(see Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery , p. 52, for a clinical
example). Because students usually are able to see how sex and
love can become mixed up and intertwined in romantic relationships,
I began by saying:
I want you to know that the
older I get and the more I learn about the problems individuals
have with romantic relationships, the more Freud makes sense to
me. How many of you, for instance, have had a good friendship
that you later discovered had some sexual or romantic feelings
connected to it? How many of you have had to deal with someone
you thought was just a friend only to discover her or his feelings
had become romantic? Even though you might find Freud hard to
accept, you may find some specific instances in which he is relevant
Notice that this focus on schemata also served to move students toward contextual relativism in the Perry scheme. I was trying to get students to see that it was legitimate for a theory to be only partially correct or to be useful only in certain contexts.
A third perspective important to Nelson was the social constructionist viewpoint. He quoted Herman Blake, a founder of Oaks College, who suggested that students' successful adjustment to undergraduate education often requires a deep reacculturation. The social constructionist perspective emphasizes that learning the specialized dialogue of a discipline might lead to significant changes in students' worldviews, changes that make it difficult for students to fit into their home environment. An example from my own undergraduate years is that, to get an A in my first-year biology class, I had to act as if I believed in evolution, rather than the biblical account of creation taught by my fundamentalist religion. For my parents and all the friends who had supported me in my church, evolution was the work of the devil, and any thoughts about it were deemed sinful. Consequently, once I had considered evolution seriously, I could never be connected to my parents and friends in the same way. These meaningful changes in my social connectedness were brought about just by learning basic biology.
In introductory psychology, Freudian theory presents similar social challenges. Parents and peers often write off Freud as a joke who can be summed up simply by saying, ìEverything is sex.î To get students to consider Freud in any other way is to set them up for ridicule, if not rejection, from peers as well as parents. Because all disciplines face this problem to some degree, a main task from the social constructionist perspective is to give students social support as they acclimate to the conventions of a discipline. We should be mindful of the significant hidden consequences that may result from introducing students to the conventions and specialized dialogue of any discipline. The implications of this perspective led Nelson to add three elements to his model for teaching critical thinking:
1. Make tacit disciplinary conventions explicit. Ask yourself what implicit or hidden skills and concepts students need to solve the kinds of problems they will be given. For instance, a normally tacit convention in psychology is that the criteria for evaluating theories vary among subdisciplines. Experimental psychology tests its theories with laboratorycontrolled studies, whereas clinical theories are judged more on their usefulness in helping people change during psychotherapy.
2. Increase social support. As an example, Nelson described how Uri Treisman (Fullilove & Treisman, 1990) helped rural white and AfricanAmerican students learn to work in teams to succeed in calculus. These students had entered college believing that only weak students study together, but a structure that encouraged them to work in groups made a dramatic impact on their achievement in calculus.
3. Provide a metacognitive framework. Nelson used the term metacognition to signify thinking about thinking. That is, to learn how to think critically and to apply knowledge, we must reflect on our thought processes. Instead of looking for the single, unalterable truth or treating all theories as mere opinions, students must begin to see that some theories have distinct advantages over others, depending on the context. According to Nelson, one way to help bridge these changes in thinking is to present the Perry scheme to students. He contended that students can progress more easily if they have a rough road map and know that others traverse similar intellectual terrain.
In introductory psychology,
one of my hardest tasks was getting students to verbalize their
schemata. They were so concerned about giving right answers and
not embarrassing themselves that it was difficult to get them
to talk at all. To overcome this, I tried to draw students into
a dialogue about their answers, especially their ìwrongî
answers, but I found that meaningful discussion rarely occur-red.
In an attempt to foster the dialogue necessary to explore wrong
answers, I applied some ideas from two other workshops.
The case study method, as presented by Welty (1989), provided structures conducive to creating dialogue. In explaining the rationale behind the case study method, Welty pointed out that ìthere is a good deal of research, primarily from cognitive psychologists, suggesting that active, experiential learning is the most effectiveî (p. 41). He cautioned, however, that frequently, ìattempts at discussion degenerate into directionless bull sessions or meaningless debate in which facts are all wrong and the logic nonexistent.î Although some argue that faculty must relinquish all authority and control of discussion to truly empower students, Welty advocated an orderly transition from the lecture method. He pointed out that our institutions ìencourage students to be passive in classî (p. 43), making it necessary to work systematically toward active participation. The students' developmental level is another reason to effect a smooth transition. The Perry scheme suggests that students in the dualistic mode may require a lot of intervening structure to lessen their need for guidance from an authority figure. I found that dualists simply rejected my authority if discussions were totally open-ended, especially early in the course.
The case study method provides the structure needed to minimize the risk of discussion degeneration and to satisfy the dualists. In introductory psychology, I created cases for the most important concepts presented in each lecture, elaborating upon the best and most difficult application test questions that I wanted students to be able to answer. For example, during the first week, after presenting Freud's theories on instincts and defense mechanisms, I developed a case from a relevant multiple choke question involving an angry conversation between a husband and wife. I asked the students to analyze the husband's mental dynamics, from his unconscious, instinctual urges to the conscious feelings he communicates to his wife, showing how his defense mechanisms altered the impulses (Figure 1). Although this first case was fairly simple, it established the need for careful attention to case detail and for precise, step-by-step reasoning, both of which were required in analyzing more complex cases throughout the course. The case also was highly structured, with clear right and wrong answers.
Welty's focus on the practical
details of using the case study method proved valuable. As he
pointed out, it is essential to do careful preparation before
You will find that assignments
that were once familiar to you take on new meanings and new connections
with other parts of the world as a whole host of different, and
now inquiring, minds grapple with it . . . Nothing destroys the
attempt to communicate the necessity of reasoning from the facts
more than if the discussion leader can't keep the details straight.
(1989, p. 43).
He also stressed the importance of an appropriate physical setting, that is, seating students facing each other, providing them a writing surface, and allowing room for the instructor to move around. Arranging tables in a U shape worked best. My being constantly in motion greatly influenced the flow of discussion. I found, for example, that moving closer to students who seemed to be off task prompted them to participate more constructively.
Welty's emphasis on preparing
questions also was useful. At the beginning of the course, most
of my students seemed to be in the dualistic mode, or at least
they asked dualistic questions (in a 1992 workshop, Knefelkamp
often repeated, ìUnder stress we all regress,î so
maybe students who had already progressed to other modes reverted
to dualistic functioning because psychology was new to them).
The more ways I had of responding to student requests for the
right answers, the better. One way that worked was inviting students
to make their best guesses rather than to ask me for an answer.
Responses like, ìDoes anyone have that in their lecture
notes ?" or ìCan anyone find that in the case instructions?î
were useful in many situations. When a student did
John M., although he was working
very hard and trying his best to do a good job, made a serious
mistake at work today, for which he received a severe reprimand
from his boss. At dinnertime, John finds that his wife has prepared
his least favorite dinner, spinach and rutabaga casserole, and
he becomes angry. He yells, "God, I hate it when you fix
this stuff! Do you do it just to make me angry with you?"
Using the following format,
analyze the above example. Start with John's unconscious wish
to kill his boss, and end with his conscious statement to his
Unconscious impulse: 1. ____________ 2. ____________ 3.____________ (source) (aim) (object) Conflicting socially planted impulse: 4. "Good little boys don't_______ _______________________________________________________________________" Defense mechanism: SUBLIMATION Preconscious impulse: 5.____________ 6.____________ 7.____________ (source) (aim) (object) Conflicting impulse: 8. "Employees who want to keep their jobs don't _______________________________________________________________________" Defense mechanism: DISPLACEMENT Conscious impulse: 9.____________ 10.____________ 11.____________ (source) (aim) (object) Conflicting impulse: 12.______________________________________________ _______________________________________________________________________" Defense mechanism: RATIONALIZATION Conscious impulse:13.____________ 14.____________ 15.____________ (source) (aim) (object)
give a wrong answer, I would say, "That's interesting. What would we have to change to make that answer fit?"
Rewarding wrong answers was essential. Over time, I found that I could show how important wrong answers were by pointing out that they had provided the stimulus for our most interesting discussions. I also asked students to notice that wrong answers often gave me the opportunity to teach them thinking strategies that would help them arrive at correct answers on exams. Praising students highly and occasionally even awarding extra credit for interesting wrong answers or courageous risk taking worked wonders in promoting class discussion.
Welty's notions about using the blackboard also proved important. Because I wanted to examine wrong answers and the strategies (metacognitions) students employed in formulating answers, I found it helpful to write answers on the board. Before allowing the class to evaluate any set of answers, I asked, ìDoes anyone have an answer that is in some way different from those now on the board?î Having a variety of answers on the board also was useful for fostering controversy. As I learned from Rita Silver-man, Welty's colleague at the Center for Case Studies in Education at Pace University, highlighting controversy often energized class discussions.
At the end of a case analysis on which students had worked in groups, I engaged the class in a metacognitive discussion about how the various teams had approached problem solving. We found unsuccessful strategies as valuable to discuss as successful ones. The discussion also gave me an opportunity to acculturate students to the techniques that experts often use to deal with the more troublesome aspects of a case analysis. Again, the metacognitive dialogue was aided greatly by having all answers, and especially those that were wrong, on the board.
I began having students work
in groups because, even on case studies, they were often reluctant
to discuss their views. It may be something about my style, or
the students, or the small college environment (where everything
a student says gets back to the dorm), or some combination, but
I never achieved the lively class discussions that Welty seemed
to generate with ease. His answer to this problem (1989) was
to start discussions with leaderless groups.
According to Cooper's definition
(cited in Millis, 1991b), cooperative learning uses structures
that ensure student-student interdependence and emphasizes individual
accountability. Virtually all of a student's grade depends on
individually completed tests and papers, rather than undifferentiated
group grades for team work.
I found the principles of cooperative learning, as presented by Millis (1991b), helpful in structuring leaderless groups and getting a richer dialogue going. Having students work on cases in cooperative teams of four (the number Millis recommended as ideal) added a real spark to discussions. After students had started a dialogue among themselves in the small groups, team representatives shared with the whole class the teams' answers to the case study problems. Spreading the responsibility and having the support of their peers made a significant difference in students' willingness to offer their answers to the whole class.
Also, Millis's notion of the instructor as a ìguide on the sideî (1991b, p. 140) was more comfortable for me and my students than Welty's " moderator in the middle.î I think the suitability of either role may depend on the instructor's personality: I tend to be pensive and introverted, whereas Welty is warm and extroverted. Whatever the cause, my discussions thrived when I served as a guide and withered into silence when I was the central moderator. Although the table arrangement had to be changed somewhat from the U shape recommended by Welty (1989), 1 maintained the ability to move around to all the groups and to have access to the board, as he recommended.
Millis's emphasis on positive
interdependence and individual accountability was suited precisely
to my purposes in introductory psychology. I wanted students
to work together in learning to apply the lecture concepts, but
their accountability lay principally in being able to demonstrate
these skills on exams. So that the students would have a vested
interest in working together, I told them that all exam problems
would have the same format as the discussion problems and that
exams early in the course would have some questions taken directly
from the first group work session. I cannot overemphasize how
essential it was to tie group work directly to tests. To get
first- and second-year students to take cooperative learning seriously,
I had to make a clear connection between this activity and the
course evaluation system.
It was also worthwhile, as
Millis recommended, to have an extra case or two for the fast-working
groups to discuss. Often one or two groups that finished rapidly
used their leftover time to be bothersome to other groups. Giving
them an additional, more advanced case reduced this off-task behavior
dramatically. If not needed in class, the extra case could be
homework or a study session problem.
One of Nelson's most valuable contributions was to suggest teaching strategies that support students' transition to Perry's contextually relative mode so that they could comprehend the theories of our disciplines. He stated, for example, that to advance from the dualistic to the multiplistic mode, students first must recognize that uncertainty exists, and second, that it is widespread. To progress from the multiplistic to the contextually relative mode, students must have experiences that allow them to see the everchanging theoretical perspectives of the scientific disciplines as preferable, or at least useful, ways of dealing with this uncertainty.
As mentioned earlier, I found that students functioned mostly in the dualistic mode at the beginning of my course. By the end of the first week, they were engaged in what Nelson called precise thinking, his first distinct level of critical thinking (1989). To help students at this level recognize that uncertainty exists, Nelson suggested showing students that there is more than one way to explain a situation and more than one theory that can be used to understand a data set. Introductory psychology conveniently has four or five different conceptual frameworks that can be applied to the same data set.
The first opportunity to view the same example from more than one perspective came at the beginning of the second week of class. In Monday's lecture, students were introduced to the Rogerian, or humanistic, perspective. They had been assigned chapters to read in the book Dibs: In Search of Self (1964), in which Virginia Axline, a Rogerian therapist, gave an almost verbatim account of psychotherapy with an emotionally disturbed boy. In the next day's discussion class, we used a segment of the book as a case study to see how the concepts of Freudian psychoanalysis could be used to understand the data from Rogerian therapy. Students were surprised to find that Freudian concepts like abreaction, catharsis, insight, and some aspects of the Oedipus complex could be applied nicely to material that Axline had explained only in humanistic terms. During the ensuing discussion, we examined carefully how Axline's Rogerian concepts of reflection of feeling, incongruence, and getting in touch with one's organismic feelings applied equally well.
It should be noted that in each of these contexts, there were fairly clear right and wrong answers. The only uncertainty presented was that two theories could be used to explain the same observations. In subsequent weeks, we returned to this same material and analyzed it from behaviorist and cognitive viewpoints as well. Applying these successive views to the same case material gave students a chance to compare the perspectives critically. This practice occasionally made students realize not only that each of these perspectives had value, but also that their own views differed somewhat from all of the perspectives (see the ideas about the emergence of voice in Belenky et al., 1986, pp. 17-20 and 54-55). As early as the second week, a few students could verbalize the ways in which their views were different from both Freud's and Rogersî. When some could explain what evidence from the case led them to this realization, I knew that I had made genuine progress in promoting critical thinking.
By the sixth week of the course, students had used the Freudian, humanistic, behaviorist, and cognitive perspectives to analyze some of the same case material and were well introduced to the idea that uncertainty was characteristic of psychology. They were now ready to learn that uncertainty is widespread. In lecture, I presented examples of uncertainty and multiple theories from chemistry, physics, and mathematics. Like Nelson, I found it important to do this so that students would not conclude that psychology was the only ìsquishy" discipline. Pointing out to students that, when studying the atom in high school chemistry, they had switched from the planetary model to the orbital or shell theory helped them see that not only psychology uses more than one theory. Similarly, reviewing the wave and particle theories of light from physics brought to their attention the unresolved uncertainty in that discipline. To show the uncertain connection between mathematics and the ìabsolute truthî about reality, I used the example that two plus two do not equal four when combining water and alcohol.
Although we went on to look at other perspectives to complete a partial survey of the discipline, I did not attempt to take the students into the more advanced Perry modes or Nelson's upper levels of critical thinking (i.e., fostering an understanding of theory selection and the role of values). I did, in about the sixth week of the quarter, introduce Perry's scheme to the students so that they could locate and legitimize some of the worldview changes they were experiencing. I accomplished this by giving a lecture on and having students read Kurfiss's chapter on developmental theories (1988), in which she gave a brief review of Perry's modes and Belenky et al.'s (1986) ways of knowing.
I hope to encourage other
faculty to present the Perry scheme in their courses so that students
will have a road map of the cognitive changes we expect them to
make. The transition to active critical thinking in all disciplines
will be facilitated by such a unified approach. In fact, the
next phase of this innovation will be to build systematically
on the work done in first-year courses. I also would like to
see a focus on the presentation of alternative decision criteria
in the various disciplines and subdisciplines. If this can be
extended to the value differences between the humanities and natural
sciences, there is potential for more coherence and power in liberal
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*The 11th Annual Lilly Conference
on College Teaching was held at Miami University, November 15-17,