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What the Case Study Method Really Teaches
- Nitin Nohria
Seven meta-skills that stick even if the cases fade from memory.
It’s been 100 years since Harvard Business School began using the case study method. Beyond teaching specific subject matter, the case study method excels in instilling meta-skills in students. This article explains the importance of seven such skills: preparation, discernment, bias recognition, judgement, collaboration, curiosity, and self-confidence.
During my decade as dean of Harvard Business School, I spent hundreds of hours talking with our alumni. To enliven these conversations, I relied on a favorite question: “What was the most important thing you learned from your time in our MBA program?”
- Nitin Nohria is the George F. Baker Jr. Professor at Harvard Business School and the former dean of HBS.
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Case Study-Based Learning
Enhancing learning through immediate application.
By the Mind Tools Content Team
If you've ever tried to learn a new concept, you probably appreciate that "knowing" is different from "doing." When you have an opportunity to apply your knowledge, the lesson typically becomes much more real.
Adults often learn differently from children, and we have different motivations for learning. Typically, we learn new skills because we want to. We recognize the need to learn and grow, and we usually need – or want – to apply our newfound knowledge soon after we've learned it.
A popular theory of adult learning is andragogy (the art and science of leading man, or adults), as opposed to the better-known pedagogy (the art and science of leading children). Malcolm Knowles , a professor of adult education, was considered the father of andragogy, which is based on four key observations of adult learners:
- Adults learn best if they know why they're learning something.
- Adults often learn best through experience.
- Adults tend to view learning as an opportunity to solve problems.
- Adults learn best when the topic is relevant to them and immediately applicable.
This means that you'll get the best results with adults when they're fully involved in the learning experience. Give an adult an opportunity to practice and work with a new skill, and you have a solid foundation for high-quality learning that the person will likely retain over time.
So, how can you best use these adult learning principles in your training and development efforts? Case studies provide an excellent way of practicing and applying new concepts. As such, they're very useful tools in adult learning, and it's important to understand how to get the maximum value from them.
What Is a Case Study?
Case studies are a form of problem-based learning, where you present a situation that needs a resolution. A typical business case study is a detailed account, or story, of what happened in a particular company, industry, or project over a set period of time.
The learner is given details about the situation, often in a historical context. The key players are introduced. Objectives and challenges are outlined. This is followed by specific examples and data, which the learner then uses to analyze the situation, determine what happened, and make recommendations.
The depth of a case depends on the lesson being taught. A case study can be two pages, 20 pages, or more. A good case study makes the reader think critically about the information presented, and then develop a thorough assessment of the situation, leading to a well-thought-out solution or recommendation.
Why Use a Case Study?
Case studies are a great way to improve a learning experience, because they get the learner involved, and encourage immediate use of newly acquired skills.
They differ from lectures or assigned readings because they require participation and deliberate application of a broad range of skills. For example, if you study financial analysis through straightforward learning methods, you may have to calculate and understand a long list of financial ratios (don't worry if you don't know what these are). Likewise, you may be given a set of financial statements to complete a ratio analysis. But until you put the exercise into context, you may not really know why you're doing the analysis.
With a case study, however, you might explore whether a bank should provide financing to a borrower, or whether a company is about to make a good acquisition. Suddenly, the act of calculating ratios becomes secondary – it's more important to understand what the ratios tell you. This is how case studies can make the difference between knowing what to do, and knowing how, when, and why to do it.
Then, what really separates case studies from other practical forms of learning – like scenarios and simulations – is the ability to compare the learner's recommendations with what actually happened. When you know what really happened, it's much easier to evaluate the "correctness" of the answers given.
When to Use a Case Study
As you can see, case studies are powerful and effective training tools. They also work best with practical, applied training, so make sure you use them appropriately.
Remember these tips:
- Case studies tend to focus on why and how to apply a skill or concept, not on remembering facts and details. Use case studies when understanding the concept is more important than memorizing correct responses.
- Case studies are great team-building opportunities. When a team gets together to solve a case, they'll have to work through different opinions, methods, and perspectives.
- Use case studies to build problem-solving skills, particularly those that are valuable when applied, but are likely to be used infrequently. This helps people get practice with these skills that they might not otherwise get.
- Case studies can be used to evaluate past problem solving. People can be asked what they'd do in that situation, and think about what could have been done differently.
Ensuring Maximum Value From Case Studies
The first thing to remember is that you already need to have enough theoretical knowledge to handle the questions and challenges in the case study. Otherwise, it can be like trying to solve a puzzle with some of the pieces missing.
Here are some additional tips for how to approach a case study. Depending on the exact nature of the case, some tips will be more relevant than others.
- Read the case at least three times before you start any analysis. Case studies usually have lots of details, and it's easy to miss something in your first, or even second, reading.
- Once you're thoroughly familiar with the case, note the facts. Identify which are relevant to the tasks you've been assigned. In a good case study, there are often many more facts than you need for your analysis.
- If the case contains large amounts of data, analyze this data for relevant trends. For example, have sales dropped steadily, or was there an unexpected high or low point?
- If the case involves a description of a company's history, find the key events, and consider how they may have impacted the current situation.
- Consider using techniques like SWOT analysis and Porter's Five Forces Analysis to understand the organization's strategic position.
- Stay with the facts when you draw conclusions. These include facts given in the case as well as established facts about the environmental context. Don't rely on personal opinions when you put together your answers.
Writing a Case Study
You may have to write a case study yourself. These are complex documents that take a while to research and compile. The quality of the case study influences the quality of the analysis. Here are some tips if you want to write your own:
- Write your case study as a structured story. The goal is to capture an interesting situation or challenge and then bring it to life with words and information. You want the reader to feel a part of what's happening.
- Present information so that a "right" answer isn't obvious. The goal is to develop the learner's ability to analyze and assess, not necessarily to make the same decision as the people in the actual case.
- Do background research to fully understand what happened and why. You may need to talk to key stakeholders to get their perspectives as well.
- Determine the key challenge. What needs to be resolved? The case study should focus on one main question or issue.
- Define the context. Talk about significant events leading up to the situation. What organizational factors are important for understanding the problem and assessing what should be done? Include cultural factors where possible.
- Identify key decision makers and stakeholders. Describe their roles and perspectives, as well as their motivations and interests.
- Make sure that you provide the right data to allow people to reach appropriate conclusions.
- Make sure that you have permission to use any information you include.
A typical case study structure includes these elements:
- Executive summary. Define the objective, and state the key challenge.
- Opening paragraph. Capture the reader's interest.
- Scope. Describe the background, context, approach, and issues involved.
- Presentation of facts. Develop an objective picture of what's happening.
- Description of key issues. Present viewpoints, decisions, and interests of key parties.
Because case studies have proved to be such effective teaching tools, many are already written. Some excellent sources of free cases are The Times 100 , CasePlace.org , and Schroeder & Schroeder Inc . You can often search for cases by topic or industry. These cases are expertly prepared, based mostly on real situations, and used extensively in business schools to teach management concepts.
Case studies are a great way to improve learning and training. They provide learners with an opportunity to solve a problem by applying what they know.
There are no unpleasant consequences for getting it "wrong," and cases give learners a much better understanding of what they really know and what they need to practice.
Case studies can be used in many ways, as team-building tools, and for skill development. You can write your own case study, but a large number are already prepared. Given the enormous benefits of practical learning applications like this, case studies are definitely something to consider adding to your next training session.
Knowles, M. (1973). 'The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species [online].' Available here .
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Using Case Studies to Teach
Why Use Cases?
Many students are more inductive than deductive reasoners, which means that they learn better from examples than from logical development starting with basic principles. The use of case studies can therefore be a very effective classroom technique.
Case studies are have long been used in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences, but they can be used in any discipline when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations. Cases come in many formats, from a simple “What would you do in this situation?” question to a detailed description of a situation with accompanying data to analyze. Whether to use a simple scenario-type case or a complex detailed one depends on your course objectives.
Most case assignments require students to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution to an open-ended problem with multiple potential solutions. Requirements can range from a one-paragraph answer to a fully developed group action plan, proposal or decision.
Common Case Elements
Most “full-blown” cases have these common elements:
- A decision-maker who is grappling with some question or problem that needs to be solved.
- A description of the problem’s context (a law, an industry, a family).
- Supporting data, which can range from data tables to links to URLs, quoted statements or testimony, supporting documents, images, video, or audio.
Case assignments can be done individually or in teams so that the students can brainstorm solutions and share the work load.
The following discussion of this topic incorporates material presented by Robb Dixon of the School of Management and Rob Schadt of the School of Public Health at CEIT workshops. Professor Dixon also provided some written comments that the discussion incorporates.
Advantages to the use of case studies in class
A major advantage of teaching with case studies is that the students are actively engaged in figuring out the principles by abstracting from the examples. This develops their skills in:
- Problem solving
- Analytical tools, quantitative and/or qualitative, depending on the case
- Decision making in complex situations
- Coping with ambiguities
Guidelines for using case studies in class
In the most straightforward application, the presentation of the case study establishes a framework for analysis. It is helpful if the statement of the case provides enough information for the students to figure out solutions and then to identify how to apply those solutions in other similar situations. Instructors may choose to use several cases so that students can identify both the similarities and differences among the cases.
Depending on the course objectives, the instructor may encourage students to follow a systematic approach to their analysis. For example:
- What is the issue?
- What is the goal of the analysis?
- What is the context of the problem?
- What key facts should be considered?
- What alternatives are available to the decision-maker?
- What would you recommend — and why?
An innovative approach to case analysis might be to have students role-play the part of the people involved in the case. This not only actively engages students, but forces them to really understand the perspectives of the case characters. Videos or even field trips showing the venue in which the case is situated can help students to visualize the situation that they need to analyze.
Case studies can be especially effective if they are paired with a reading assignment that introduces or explains a concept or analytical method that applies to the case. The amount of emphasis placed on the use of the reading during the case discussion depends on the complexity of the concept or method. If it is straightforward, the focus of the discussion can be placed on the use of the analytical results. If the method is more complex, the instructor may need to walk students through its application and the interpretation of the results.
Leading the Case Discussion and Evaluating Performance
Decision cases are more interesting than descriptive ones. In order to start the discussion in class, the instructor can start with an easy, noncontroversial question that all the students should be able to answer readily. However, some of the best case discussions start by forcing the students to take a stand. Some instructors will ask a student to do a formal “open” of the case, outlining his or her entire analysis. Others may choose to guide discussion with questions that move students from problem identification to solutions. A skilled instructor steers questions and discussion to keep the class on track and moving at a reasonable pace.
In order to motivate the students to complete the assignment before class as well as to stimulate attentiveness during the class, the instructor should grade the participation—quantity and especially quality—during the discussion of the case. This might be a simple check, check-plus, check-minus or zero. The instructor should involve as many students as possible. In order to engage all the students, the instructor can divide them into groups, give each group several minutes to discuss how to answer a question related to the case, and then ask a randomly selected person in each group to present the group’s answer and reasoning. Random selection can be accomplished through rolling of dice, shuffled index cards, each with one student’s name, a spinning wheel, etc.
Tips on the Penn State U. website: http://tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/cases/
If you are interested in using this technique in a science course, there is a good website on use of case studies in the sciences at the University of Buffalo.
Dunne, D. and Brooks, K. (2004) Teaching with Cases (Halifax, NS: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education), ISBN 0-7703-8924-4 (Can be ordered at http://www.bookstore.uwo.ca/ at a cost of $15.00)
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Cases are narratives, situations, select data samplings, or statements that present unresolved and provocative issues, situations, or questions (Indiana University Teaching Handbook, 2005). The case method is a participatory, discussion-based way of learning where students gain skills in critical thinking, communication, and group dynamics. It is a type of problem-based learning . Often seen in the professional schools of medicine, law, and business, the case method is now used successfully in disciplines such as engineering, chemistry, education, and journalism. Students can work through a case during class as a whole or in small groups.
In addition to the definition above, the case method of teaching (or learning):
- Is a partnership between students and teacher as well as among students.
- Promotes more effective contextual learning and long-term retention.
- Involves trust that students will find the answers.
- Answers questions not only of “how” but “why.”
- Provides students the opportunity to “walk around the problem” and to see varied perspectives.
(Bruner, 2002, and Christensen, Garvin, and Sweet, 1991)
What is the value of the case method?
Bruner (1991) states that the case method:
- Is effective: It employs active learning, involves self-discovery where the teacher serves as facilitator.
- Builds the capacity for critical thinking: It uses questioning skills as modeled by the teacher and employs discussion and debates.
- Exercises an administrative point of view: Students must develop a framework for making decisions.
- Models a learning environment: It offers an exchange and flow of ideas from one person to another and achieves trust, respect, and risk-taking.
- Models the process of inductive learning-from-experience: It is valuable in promoting life-long learning. It also promotes more effective contextual learning and long-term retention.
- Mimics the real world: Decisions are sometimes based not on absolute values of right and wrong, but on relative values and uncertainty.
What are some ways to use the case method appropriately?
Choose an appropriate case
Cases can be any of the following (Indiana University Teaching Handbook, 2005):
- Finished cases based on facts; these are useful for purposes of analysis.
- Unfinished open-ended cases; where the results are not clear yet, so the student must predict, make suggestions, and conclusions.
- Fictional cases that the teacher writes; the difficulty is in writing these cases so they reflect a real-world situation.
- Original documents, such as the use of news articles, reports, data sets, ethnographies; an interesting case would be to provide two sides of a scenario.
Develop effective questions
Think about ways to start the discussion such as using a hypothetical example or employing the background knowledge of your students.
Get students prepared
To prepare for the next class ask students to think about the following questions:
- What is the problem or decision?
- Who is the key decision-maker?
- Who are the other people involved?
- What caused the problem?
- What are some underlying assumptions or objectives?
- What decision needs to be made?
- Are there alternative responses?
Set ground rules with your students
For effective class discussion suggest the following to your students:
- Carefully listen to the discussion, but do not wait too long to participate.
- Collaboration and respect should always be present.
- Provide value-added comments, suggestions, or questions. Strive to think of the class objective by keeping the discussion going toward constructive inquiry and solutions.
- Try to refrain from being the “sage on the stage” or a monopolizer. If you are, students are merely absorbing and not engaging with the material in the way that the case method allows.
- Make sure the students have finished presenting their perspective before interjecting. Wait and check their body language before adding or changing the discussion.
- Take note of the progress and the content in the discussion. One way is by using the board or computer to structure the comments. Another way, particularly useful where there is a conflict or multiple alternatives, is the two-column method. In this method, the teacher makes two columns: “For and Against” or “Alternative A and Alternative B.” All arguments/comments are listed in the respective column before discussions or evaluations occur. Don't forget to note supportive evidence.
- In addition to the discussion method, you can also try debates, role-plays, and simulations as ways to uncover the lesson from the case.
- If you decide to grade participation, make sure that your grading system is an accurate and defensible portrayal of the contributions.
In conclusion, cases are a valuable way for learning to occur. It takes a fair amount of preparation by both the teacher and the students, but don't forget these benefits (Bruner, 2002):
- The teacher is learning as well as the students. Because of the interactive nature of this method, the teacher constantly “encounters fresh perspective on old problems or tests classic solutions to new problems.”
- The students are having fun, are motivated and engaged. If done well, the students are working collaboratively to support each other.
Where can I learn more?
- Case Studies, Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University
- Case-based Teaching, Center for Research on Teaching and Learning, University of Michigan
- Barnes, L. B., Christensen, C. R., & Hansen, A. J. (1994). Teaching and the case method (3rd ed.). Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
- Boehrer, J., & Linsky, M. (1990). Teaching with cases: Learning to question. In M. D. Svinicki (Ed.), New Directions for Teaching and Learning: No. 42, The changing face of college teaching . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
- Bruner, R. (2002). Socrates' muse: Reflections on effective case discussion leadership . New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Christensen, C. R., Garvin, D. A., & Sweet, A. (Eds.). (1991). Education for judgment: The artistry of discussion leadership . Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
- Indiana University, Bloomington, Campus Instructional Consulting. (n.d.). Teaching with the case method. In Indiana University Teaching Handbook . Retrieved June 23, 2010, from http://www.teaching.iub.edu/wrapper_big.php?section_id=case
- Mitchell, T., & Rosenstiel, T. (2003). Background and tips for case study teaching . Retrieved June 23, 2010, from http://www.journalism.org/node/1757
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What is case-based learning.
Using a case-based approach engages students in discussion of specific scenarios that resemble or typically are real-world examples. This method is learner-centered with intense interaction between participants as they build their knowledge and work together as a group to examine the case. The instructor's role is that of a facilitator while the students collaboratively analyze and address problems and resolve questions that have no single right answer.
Clyde Freeman Herreid provides eleven basic rules for case-based learning.
- Tells a story.
- Focuses on an interest-arousing issue.
- Set in the past five years
- Creates empathy with the central characters.
- Includes quotations. There is no better way to understand a situation and to gain empathy for the characters
- Relevant to the reader.
- Must have pedagogic utility.
- Conflict provoking.
- Decision forcing.
- Has generality.
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.
Teaching Strategies for Case-Based Learning
By bringing real world problems into student learning, cases invite active participation and innovative solutions to problems as they work together to reach a judgment, decision, recommendation, prediction or other concrete outcome.
The Campus Instructional Consulting unit at Indiana University has created a great resource for case-based learning. The following is from their website which we have permission to use.
Formats for Cases
- “Finished” cases based on facts: for analysis only, since the solution is indicated or alternate solutions are suggested.
- “Unfinished” open-ended cases: the results are not yet clear (either because the case has not come to a factual conclusion in real life, or because the instructor has eliminated the final facts.) Students must predict, make choices and offer suggestions that will affect the outcome.
- Fictional cases: entirely written by the instructor—can be open-ended or finished. Cautionary note: the case must be both complex enough to mimic reality, yet not have so many “red herrings” as to obscure the goal of the exercise.
- Original documents: news articles, reports with data and statistics, summaries, excerpts from historical writings, artifacts, literary passages, video and audio recordings, ethnographies, etc. With the right questions, these can become problem-solving opportunities. Comparison between two original documents related to the same topic or theme is a strong strategy for encouraging both analysis and synthesis. This gives the opportunity for presenting more than one side of an argument, making the conflicts more complex.
Managing a Case Assignment
- Design discussions for small groups. 3-6 students are an ideal group size for setting up a discussion on a case.
- Design the narrative or situation such that it requires participants to reach a judgment, decision, recommendation, prediction or other concrete outcome. If possible, require each group to reach a consensus on the decision requested.
- Structure the discussion. The instructor should provide a series of written questions to guide small group discussion. Pay careful attention to the sequencing of the questions. Early questions might ask participants to make observations about the facts of the case. Later questions could ask for comparisons, contrasts, and analyses of competing observations or hypotheses. Final questions might ask students to take a position on the matter. The purpose of these questions is to stimulate, guide or prod (but not dictate) participants’ observations and analyses. The questions should be impossible to answer with a simple yes or no.
- Debrief the discussion to compare group responses. Help the whole class interprets and understand the implications of their solutions.
- Allow groups to work without instructor interference. The instructor must be comfortable with ambiguity and with adopting the non-traditional roles of witness and resource, rather than authority.
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.
Select Books available through the Queen's Library
Crosling, G. & Webb, G. (2002). Supporting Student Learning: Case Studies, Experience and Practice from Higher Education. London: Kogan Page
Edwards, H., Smith, B., & Webb, G. (Eds.) (2001). Lecturing: Case Studies, Experience and Practice. London: Kogan Page.
Ellington, H. & Earl, S. (1998). Using Games, Simulations and Interactive Case Studies. Birmingham: Staff and Educational Development Association
Wassermann, S. (1994). Introduction to Case Method Teaching: A Guide to the Galaxy. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.
Bieron, J. & Dinan, F. (1999). Case Studies Across a Science Curriculum. Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, Canisius College in Buffalo, NY.
Walters. M. R. (1999). Case-stimulated learning within endocrine physiology lectures: An approach applicable to other disciplines. Advances in Physiology Education, 276, 74-78.
Websites and Online Case Collections
The Center for Teaching Excellence at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in New Jersey offers a wide variety of references including 21 links to case repositories in the Health Sciences.
The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science provides an award-winning library of over 410 cases and case materials while promoting the development and dissemination of innovative materials and sound educational practices for case teaching in the sciences.
Houghton and Mifflin provide an excellent resource for students including on analyzing and writing the case.
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Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains †
- Appendix 1: Example assessment questions used to assess the effectiveness of case studies at promoting learning
- Appendix 2: Student learning gains were assessed using a modified version of the SALG course evaluation tool
Following years of widespread use in business and medical education, the case study teaching method is becoming an increasingly common teaching strategy in science education. However, the current body of research provides limited evidence that the use of published case studies effectively promotes the fulfillment of specific learning objectives integral to many biology courses. This study tested the hypothesis that case studies are more effective than classroom discussions and textbook reading at promoting learning of key biological concepts, development of written and oral communication skills, and comprehension of the relevance of biological concepts to everyday life. This study also tested the hypothesis that case studies produced by the instructor of a course are more effective at promoting learning than those produced by unaffiliated instructors. Additionally, performance on quantitative learning assessments and student perceptions of learning gains were analyzed to determine whether reported perceptions of learning gains accurately reflect academic performance. The results reported here suggest that case studies, regardless of the source, are significantly more effective than other methods of content delivery at increasing performance on examination questions related to chemical bonds, osmosis and diffusion, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA structure and replication. This finding was positively correlated to increased student perceptions of learning gains associated with oral and written communication skills and the ability to recognize connections between biological concepts and other aspects of life. Based on these findings, case studies should be considered as a preferred method for teaching about a variety of concepts in science courses.
The case study teaching method is a highly adaptable style of teaching that involves problem-based learning and promotes the development of analytical skills ( 8 ). By presenting content in the format of a narrative accompanied by questions and activities that promote group discussion and solving of complex problems, case studies facilitate development of the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of cognitive learning; moving beyond recall of knowledge to analysis, evaluation, and application ( 1 , 9 ). Similarly, case studies facilitate interdisciplinary learning and can be used to highlight connections between specific academic topics and real-world societal issues and applications ( 3 , 9 ). This has been reported to increase student motivation to participate in class activities, which promotes learning and increases performance on assessments ( 7 , 16 , 19 , 23 ). For these reasons, case-based teaching has been widely used in business and medical education for many years ( 4 , 11 , 12 , 14 ). Although case studies were considered a novel method of science education just 20 years ago, the case study teaching method has gained popularity in recent years among an array of scientific disciplines such as biology, chemistry, nursing, and psychology ( 5 – 7 , 9 , 11 , 13 , 15 – 17 , 21 , 22 , 24 ).
Although there is now a substantive and growing body of literature describing how to develop and use case studies in science teaching, current research on the effectiveness of case study teaching at meeting specific learning objectives is of limited scope and depth. Studies have shown that working in groups during completion of case studies significantly improves student perceptions of learning and may increase performance on assessment questions, and that the use of clickers can increase student engagement in case study activities, particularly among non-science majors, women, and freshmen ( 7 , 21 , 22 ). Case study teaching has been shown to improve exam performance in an anatomy and physiology course, increasing the mean score across all exams given in a two-semester sequence from 66% to 73% ( 5 ). Use of case studies was also shown to improve students’ ability to synthesize complex analytical questions about the real-world issues associated with a scientific topic ( 6 ). In a high school chemistry course, it was demonstrated that the case study teaching method produces significant increases in self-reported control of learning, task value, and self-efficacy for learning and performance ( 24 ). This effect on student motivation is important because enhanced motivation for learning activities has been shown to promote student engagement and academic performance ( 19 , 24 ). Additionally, faculty from a number of institutions have reported that using case studies promotes critical thinking, learning, and participation among students, especially in terms of the ability to view an issue from multiple perspectives and to grasp the practical application of core course concepts ( 23 ).
Despite what is known about the effectiveness of case studies in science education, questions remain about the functionality of the case study teaching method at promoting specific learning objectives that are important to many undergraduate biology courses. A recent survey of teachers who use case studies found that the topics most often covered in general biology courses included genetics and heredity, cell structure, cells and energy, chemistry of life, and cell cycle and cancer, suggesting that these topics should be of particular interest in studies that examine the effectiveness of the case study teaching method ( 8 ). However, the existing body of literature lacks direct evidence that the case study method is an effective tool for teaching about this collection of important topics in biology courses. Further, the extent to which case study teaching promotes development of science communication skills and the ability to understand the connections between biological concepts and everyday life has not been examined, yet these are core learning objectives shared by a variety of science courses. Although many instructors have produced case studies for use in their own classrooms, the production of novel case studies is time-consuming and requires skills that not all instructors have perfected. It is therefore important to determine whether case studies published by instructors who are unaffiliated with a particular course can be used effectively and obviate the need for each instructor to develop new case studies for their own courses. The results reported herein indicate that teaching with case studies results in significantly higher performance on examination questions about chemical bonds, osmosis and diffusion, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA structure and replication than that achieved by class discussions and textbook reading for topics of similar complexity. Case studies also increased overall student perceptions of learning gains and perceptions of learning gains specifically related to written and oral communication skills and the ability to grasp connections between scientific topics and their real-world applications. The effectiveness of the case study teaching method at increasing academic performance was not correlated to whether the case study used was authored by the instructor of the course or by an unaffiliated instructor. These findings support increased use of published case studies in the teaching of a variety of biological concepts and learning objectives.
This study was conducted at Kingsborough Community College, which is part of the City University of New York system, located in Brooklyn, New York. Kingsborough Community College has a diverse population of approximately 19,000 undergraduate students. The student population included in this study was enrolled in the first semester of a two-semester sequence of general (introductory) biology for biology majors during the spring, winter, or summer semester of 2014. A total of 63 students completed the course during this time period; 56 students consented to the inclusion of their data in the study. Of the students included in the study, 23 (41%) were male and 33 (59%) were female; 40 (71%) were registered as college freshmen and 16 (29%) were registered as college sophomores. To normalize participant groups, the same student population pooled from three classes taught by the same instructor was used to assess both experimental and control teaching methods.
The four biological concepts assessed during this study (chemical bonds, osmosis and diffusion, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA structure and replication) were selected as topics for studying the effectiveness of case study teaching because they were the key concepts addressed by this particular course that were most likely to be taught in a number of other courses, including biology courses for both majors and nonmajors at outside institutions. At the start of this study, relevant existing case studies were freely available from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) to address mitosis and meiosis and DNA structure and replication, but published case studies that appropriately addressed chemical bonds and osmosis and diffusion were not available. Therefore, original case studies that addressed the latter two topics were produced as part of this study, and case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors and published by the NCCSTS were used to address the former two topics. By the conclusion of this study, all four case studies had been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the NCCSTS ( http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/ ). Four of the remaining core topics covered in this course (macromolecules, photosynthesis, genetic inheritance, and translation) were selected as control lessons to provide control assessment data.
To minimize extraneous variation, control topics and assessments were carefully matched in complexity, format, and number with case studies, and an equal amount of class time was allocated for each case study and the corresponding control lesson. Instruction related to control lessons was delivered using minimal slide-based lectures, with emphasis on textbook reading assignments accompanied by worksheets completed by students in and out of the classroom, and small and large group discussion of key points. Completion of activities and discussion related to all case studies and control topics that were analyzed was conducted in the classroom, with the exception of the take-home portion of the osmosis and diffusion case study.
Data collection and analysis
This study was performed in accordance with a protocol approved by the Kingsborough Community College Human Research Protection Program and the Institutional Review Board (IRB) of the City University of New York (CUNY IRB reference 539938-1; KCC IRB application #: KCC 13-12-126-0138). Assessment scores were collected from regularly scheduled course examinations. For each case study, control questions were included on the same examination that were similar in number, format, point value, and difficulty level, but related to a different topic covered in the course that was of similar complexity. Complexity and difficulty of both case study and control questions were evaluated using experiential data from previous iterations of the course; the Bloom’s taxonomy designation and amount of material covered by each question, as well as the average score on similar questions achieved by students in previous iterations of the course was considered in determining appropriate controls. All assessment questions were scored using a standardized, pre-determined rubric. Student perceptions of learning gains were assessed using a modified version of the Student Assessment of Learning Gains (SALG) course evaluation tool ( http://www.salgsite.org ), distributed in hardcopy and completed anonymously during the last week of the course. Students were presented with a consent form to opt-in to having their data included in the data analysis. After the course had concluded and final course grades had been posted, data from consenting students were pooled in a database and identifying information was removed prior to analysis. Statistical analysis of data was conducted using the Kruskal-Wallis one-way analysis of variance and calculation of the R 2 coefficient of determination.
Teaching with case studies improves performance on learning assessments, independent of case study origin
To evaluate the effectiveness of the case study teaching method at promoting learning, student performance on examination questions related to material covered by case studies was compared with performance on questions that covered material addressed through classroom discussions and textbook reading. The latter questions served as control items; assessment items for each case study were compared with control items that were of similar format, difficulty, and point value ( Appendix 1 ). Each of the four case studies resulted in an increase in examination performance compared with control questions that was statistically significant, with an average difference of 18% ( Fig. 1 ). The mean score on case study-related questions was 73% for the chemical bonds case study, 79% for osmosis and diffusion, 76% for mitosis and meiosis, and 70% for DNA structure and replication ( Fig. 1 ). The mean score for non-case study-related control questions was 60%, 54%, 60%, and 52%, respectively ( Fig. 1 ). In terms of examination performance, no significant difference between case studies produced by the instructor of the course (chemical bonds and osmosis and diffusion) and those produced by unaffiliated instructors (mitosis and meiosis and DNA structure and replication) was indicated by the Kruskal-Wallis one-way analysis of variance. However, the 25% difference between the mean score on questions related to the osmosis and diffusion case study and the mean score on the paired control questions was notably higher than the 13–18% differences observed for the other case studies ( Fig. 1 ).
Case study teaching method increases student performance on examination questions. Mean score on a set of examination questions related to lessons covered by case studies (black bars) and paired control questions of similar format and difficulty about an unrelated topic (white bars). Chemical bonds, n = 54; Osmosis and diffusion, n = 54; Mitosis and meiosis, n = 51; DNA structure and replication, n = 50. Error bars represent the standard error of the mean (SEM). Asterisk indicates p < 0.05.
Case study teaching increases student perception of learning gains related to core course objectives
Student learning gains were assessed using a modified version of the SALG course evaluation tool ( Appendix 2 ). To determine whether completing case studies was more effective at increasing student perceptions of learning gains than completing textbook readings or participating in class discussions, perceptions of student learning gains for each were compared. In response to the question “Overall, how much did each of the following aspects of the class help your learning?” 82% of students responded that case studies helped a “good” or “great” amount, compared with 70% for participating in class discussions and 58% for completing textbook reading; only 4% of students responded that case studies helped a “small amount” or “provided no help,” compared with 2% for class discussions and 22% for textbook reading ( Fig. 2A ). The differences in reported learning gains derived from the use of case studies compared with class discussion and textbook readings were statistically significant, while the difference in learning gains associated with class discussion compared with textbook reading was not statistically significant by a narrow margin ( p = 0.051).
The case study teaching method increases student perceptions of learning gains. Student perceptions of learning gains are indicated by plotting responses to the question “How much did each of the following activities: (A) Help your learning overall? (B) Improve your ability to communicate your knowledge of scientific concepts in writing? (C) Improve your ability to communicate your knowledge of scientific concepts orally? (D) Help you understand the connections between scientific concepts and other aspects of your everyday life?” Reponses are represented as follows: Helped a great amount (black bars); Helped a good amount (dark gray bars); Helped a moderate amount (medium gray bars); Helped a small amount (light gray bars); Provided no help (white bars). Asterisk indicates p < 0.05.
To elucidate the effectiveness of case studies at promoting learning gains related to specific course learning objectives compared with class discussions and textbook reading, students were asked how much each of these methods of content delivery specifically helped improve skills that were integral to fulfilling three main course objectives. When students were asked how much each of the methods helped “improve your ability to communicate knowledge of scientific concepts in writing,” 81% of students responded that case studies help a “good” or “great” amount, compared with 63% for class discussions and 59% for textbook reading; only 6% of students responded that case studies helped a “small amount” or “provided no help,” compared with 8% for class discussions and 21% for textbook reading ( Fig. 2B ). When the same question was posed about the ability to communicate orally, 81% of students responded that case studies help a “good” or “great” amount, compared with 68% for class discussions and 50% for textbook reading, while the respective response rates for helped a “small amount” or “provided no help,” were 4%, 6%, and 25% ( Fig. 2C ). The differences in learning gains associated with both written and oral communication were statistically significant when completion of case studies was compared with either participation in class discussion or completion of textbook readings. Compared with textbook reading, class discussions led to a statistically significant increase in oral but not written communication skills.
Students were then asked how much each of the methods helped them “understand the connections between scientific concepts and other aspects of your everyday life.” A total of 79% of respondents declared that case studies help a “good” or “great” amount, compared with 70% for class discussions and 57% for textbook reading ( Fig. 2D ). Only 4% stated that case studies and class discussions helped a “small amount” or “provided no help,” compared with 21% for textbook reading ( Fig. 2D ). Similar to overall learning gains, the use of case studies significantly increased the ability to understand the relevance of science to everyday life compared with class discussion and textbook readings, while the difference in learning gains associated with participation in class discussion compared with textbook reading was not statistically significant ( p = 0.054).
Student perceptions of learning gains resulting from case study teaching are positively correlated to increased performance on examinations, but independent of case study author
To test the hypothesis that case studies produced specifically for this course by the instructor were more effective at promoting learning gains than topically relevant case studies published by authors not associated with this course, perceptions of learning gains were compared for each of the case studies. For both of the case studies produced by the instructor of the course, 87% of students indicated that the case study provided a “good” or “great” amount of help to their learning, and 2% indicated that the case studies provided “little” or “no” help ( Table 1 ). In comparison, an average of 85% of students indicated that the case studies produced by an unaffiliated instructor provided a “good” or “great” amount of help to their learning, and 4% indicated that the case studies provided “little” or “no” help ( Table 1 ). The instructor-produced case studies yielded both the highest and lowest percentage of students reporting the highest level of learning gains (a “great” amount), while case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors yielded intermediate values. Therefore, it can be concluded that the effectiveness of case studies at promoting learning gains is not significantly affected by whether or not the course instructor authored the case study.
Case studies positively affect student perceptions of learning gains about various biological topics.
Finally, to determine whether performance on examination questions accurately predicts student perceptions of learning gains, mean scores on examination questions related to case studies were compared with reported perceptions of learning gains for those case studies ( Fig. 3 ). The coefficient of determination (R 2 value) was 0.81, indicating a strong, but not definitive, positive correlation between perceptions of learning gains and performance on examinations, suggesting that student perception of learning gains is a valid tool for assessing the effectiveness of case studies ( Fig. 3 ). This correlation was independent of case study author.
Perception of learning gains but not author of case study is positively correlated to score on related examination questions. Percentage of students reporting that each specific case study provided “a great amount of help” to their learning was plotted against the point difference between mean score on examination questions related to that case study and mean score on paired control questions. Positive point differences indicate how much higher the mean scores on case study-related questions were than the mean scores on paired control questions. Black squares represent case studies produced by the instructor of the course; white squares represent case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors. R 2 value indicates the coefficient of determination.
The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis that teaching with case studies produced by the instructor of a course is more effective at promoting learning gains than using case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors. This study also tested the hypothesis that the case study teaching method is more effective than class discussions and textbook reading at promoting learning gains associated with four of the most commonly taught topics in undergraduate general biology courses: chemical bonds, osmosis and diffusion, mitosis and meiosis, and DNA structure and replication. In addition to assessing content-based learning gains, development of written and oral communication skills and the ability to connect scientific topics with real-world applications was also assessed, because these skills were overarching learning objectives of this course, and classroom activities related to both case studies and control lessons were designed to provide opportunities for students to develop these skills. Finally, data were analyzed to determine whether performance on examination questions is positively correlated to student perceptions of learning gains resulting from case study teaching.
Compared with equivalent control questions about topics of similar complexity taught using class discussions and textbook readings, all four case studies produced statistically significant increases in the mean score on examination questions ( Fig. 1 ). This indicates that case studies are more effective than more commonly used, traditional methods of content delivery at promoting learning of a variety of core concepts covered in general biology courses. The average increase in score on each test item was equivalent to nearly two letter grades, which is substantial enough to elevate the average student performance on test items from the unsatisfactory/failing range to the satisfactory/passing range. The finding that there was no statistical difference between case studies in terms of performance on examination questions suggests that case studies are equally effective at promoting learning of disparate topics in biology. The observations that students did not perform significantly less well on the first case study presented (chemical bonds) compared with the other case studies and that performance on examination questions did not progressively increase with each successive case study suggests that the effectiveness of case studies is not directly related to the amount of experience students have using case studies. Furthermore, anecdotal evidence from previous semesters of this course suggests that, of the four topics addressed by cases in this study, DNA structure and function and osmosis and diffusion are the first and second most difficult for students to grasp. The lack of a statistical difference between case studies therefore suggests that the effectiveness of a case study at promoting learning gains is not directly proportional to the difficulty of the concept covered. However, the finding that use of the osmosis and diffusion case study resulted in the greatest increase in examination performance compared with control questions and also produced the highest student perceptions of learning gains is noteworthy and could be attributed to the fact that it was the only case study evaluated that included a hands-on experiment. Because the inclusion of a hands-on kinetic activity may synergistically enhance student engagement and learning and result in an even greater increase in learning gains than case studies that lack this type of activity, it is recommended that case studies that incorporate this type of activity be preferentially utilized.
Student perceptions of learning gains are strongly motivating factors for engagement in the classroom and academic performance, so it is important to assess the effect of any teaching method in this context ( 19 , 24 ). A modified version of the SALG course evaluation tool was used to assess student perceptions of learning gains because it has been previously validated as an efficacious tool ( Appendix 2 ) ( 20 ). Using the SALG tool, case study teaching was demonstrated to significantly increase student perceptions of overall learning gains compared with class discussions and textbook reading ( Fig. 2A ). Case studies were shown to be particularly useful for promoting perceived development of written and oral communication skills and for demonstrating connections between scientific topics and real-world issues and applications ( Figs. 2B–2D ). Further, student perceptions of “great” learning gains positively correlated with increased performance on examination questions, indicating that assessment of learning gains using the SALG tool is both valid and useful in this course setting ( Fig. 3 ). These findings also suggest that case study teaching could be used to increase student motivation and engagement in classroom activities and thus promote learning and performance on assessments. The finding that textbook reading yielded the lowest student perceptions of learning gains was not unexpected, since reading facilitates passive learning while the class discussions and case studies were both designed to promote active learning.
Importantly, there was no statistical difference in student performance on examinations attributed to the two case studies produced by the instructor of the course compared with the two case studies produced by unaffiliated instructors. The average difference between the two instructor-produced case studies and the two case studies published by unaffiliated instructors was only 3% in terms of both the average score on examination questions (76% compared with 73%) and the average increase in score compared with paired control items (14% compared with 17%) ( Fig. 1 ). Even when considering the inherent qualitative differences of course grades, these differences are negligible. Similarly, the effectiveness of case studies at promoting learning gains was not significantly affected by the origin of the case study, as evidenced by similar percentages of students reporting “good” and “great” learning gains regardless of whether the case study was produced by the course instructor or an unaffiliated instructor ( Table 1 ).
The observation that case studies published by unaffiliated instructors are just as effective as those produced by the instructor of a course suggests that instructors can reasonably rely on the use of pre-published case studies relevant to their class rather than investing the considerable time and effort required to produce a novel case study. Case studies covering a wide range of topics in the sciences are available from a number of sources, and many of them are free access. The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) database ( http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/ ) contains over 500 case studies that are freely available to instructors, and are accompanied by teaching notes that provide logistical advice and additional resources for implementing the case study, as well as a set of assessment questions with a password-protected answer key. Case study repositories are also maintained by BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium ( http://www.bioquest.org/icbl/cases.php ) and the Science Case Network ( http://sciencecasenet.org ); both are available for use by instructors from outside institutions.
It should be noted that all case studies used in this study were rigorously peer-reviewed and accepted for publication by the NCCSTS prior to the completion of this study ( 2 , 10 , 18 , 25 ); the conclusions of this study may not apply to case studies that were not developed in accordance with similar standards. Because case study teaching involves skills such as creative writing and management of dynamic group discussion in a way that is not commonly integrated into many other teaching methods, it is recommended that novice case study teachers seek training or guidance before writing their first case study or implementing the method. The lack of a difference observed in the use of case studies from different sources should be interpreted with some degree of caution since only two sources were represented in this study, and each by only two cases. Furthermore, in an educational setting, quantitative differences in test scores might produce meaningful qualitative differences in course grades even in the absence of a p value that is statistically significant. For example, there is a meaningful qualitative difference between test scores that result in an average grade of C− and test scores that result in an average grade of C+, even if there is no statistically significant difference between the two sets of scores.
In the future, it could be informative to confirm these findings using a larger cohort, by repeating the study at different institutions with different instructors, by evaluating different case studies, and by directly comparing the effectiveness of the case studying teaching method with additional forms of instruction, such as traditional chalkboard and slide-based lecturing, and laboratory-based activities. It may also be informative to examine whether demographic factors such as student age and gender modulate the effectiveness of the case study teaching method, and whether case studies work equally well for non-science majors taking a science course compared with those majoring in the subject. Since the topical material used in this study is often included in other classes in both high school and undergraduate education, such as cell biology, genetics, and chemistry, the conclusions of this study are directly applicable to a broad range of courses. Presently, it is recommended that the use of case studies in teaching undergraduate general biology and other science courses be expanded, especially for the teaching of capacious issues with real-world applications and in classes where development of written and oral communication skills are key objectives. The use of case studies that involve hands-on activities should be emphasized to maximize the benefit of this teaching method. Importantly, instructors can be confident in the use of pre-published case studies to promote learning, as there is no indication that the effectiveness of the case study teaching method is reliant on the production of novel, customized case studies for each course.
This article benefitted from a President’s Faculty Innovation Grant, Kingsborough Community College. The author declares that there are no conflicts of interest.
† Supplemental materials available at http://jmbe.asm.org
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Case Method Teaching and Learning
What is the case method? How can the case method be used to engage learners? What are some strategies for getting started? This guide helps instructors answer these questions by providing an overview of the case method while highlighting learner-centered and digitally-enhanced approaches to teaching with the case method. The guide also offers tips to instructors as they get started with the case method and additional references and resources.
On this page:
What is case method teaching.
- Case Method at Columbia
Why use the Case Method?
Case method teaching approaches, how do i get started.
- Additional Resources
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For support with implementing a case method approach in your course, email [email protected] to schedule your 1-1 consultation .
Case method 1 teaching is an active form of instruction that focuses on a case and involves students learning by doing 2 3 . Cases are real or invented stories 4 that include “an educational message” or recount events, problems, dilemmas, theoretical or conceptual issue that requires analysis and/or decision-making.
Case-based teaching simulates real world situations and asks students to actively grapple with complex problems 5 6 This method of instruction is used across disciplines to promote learning, and is common in law, business, medicine, among other fields. See Table 1 below for a few types of cases and the learning they promote.
Table 1: Types of cases and the learning they promote.
For a more complete list, see Case Types & Teaching Methods: A Classification Scheme from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.
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Case Method Teaching and Learning at Columbia
The case method is actively used in classrooms across Columbia, at the Morningside campus in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the School of Business, Arts and Sciences, among others, and at Columbia University Irving Medical campus.
Professor Mary Ann Price on Using Case Study Method to Place Pre-Med Students in Real-Life Scenarios
Professor De Pinho on Using the Case Method in the Mailman Core
Case method teaching has been found to improve student learning, to increase students’ perception of learning gains, and to meet learning objectives 8 9 . Faculty have noted the instructional benefits of cases including greater student engagement in their learning 10 , deeper student understanding of concepts, stronger critical thinking skills, and an ability to make connections across content areas and view an issue from multiple perspectives 11 .
Through case-based learning, students are the ones asking questions about the case, doing the problem-solving, interacting with and learning from their peers, “unpacking” the case, analyzing the case, and summarizing the case. They learn how to work with limited information and ambiguity, think in professional or disciplinary ways, and ask themselves “what would I do if I were in this specific situation?”
The case method bridges theory to practice, and promotes the development of skills including: communication, active listening, critical thinking, decision-making, and metacognitive skills 12 , as students apply course content knowledge, reflect on what they know and their approach to analyzing, and make sense of a case.
Though the case method has historical roots as an instructor-centered approach that uses the Socratic dialogue and cold-calling, it is possible to take a more learner-centered approach in which students take on roles and tasks traditionally left to the instructor.
Cases are often used as “vehicles for classroom discussion” 13 . Students should be encouraged to take ownership of their learning from a case. Discussion-based approaches engage students in thinking and communicating about a case. Instructors can set up a case activity in which students are the ones doing the work of “asking questions, summarizing content, generating hypotheses, proposing theories, or offering critical analyses” 14 .
The role of the instructor is to share a case or ask students to share or create a case to use in class, set expectations, provide instructions, and assign students roles in the discussion. Student roles in a case discussion can include:
- discussion “starters” get the conversation started with a question or posing the questions that their peers came up with;
- facilitators listen actively, validate the contributions of peers, ask follow-up questions, draw connections, refocus the conversation as needed;
- recorders take-notes of the main points of the discussion, record on the board, upload to CourseWorks, or type and project on the screen; and
- discussion “wrappers” lead a summary of the main points of the discussion.
Prior to the case discussion, instructors can model case analysis and the types of questions students should ask, co-create discussion guidelines with students, and ask for students to submit discussion questions. During the discussion, the instructor can keep time, intervene as necessary (however the students should be doing the talking), and pause the discussion for a debrief and to ask students to reflect on what and how they learned from the case activity.
Note: case discussions can be enhanced using technology. Live discussions can occur via video-conferencing (e.g., using Zoom ) or asynchronous discussions can occur using the Discussions tool in CourseWorks (Canvas) .
Table 2 includes a few interactive case method approaches. Regardless of the approach selected, it is important to create a learning environment in which students feel comfortable participating in a case activity and learning from one another. See below for tips on supporting student in how to learn from a case in the “getting started” section and how to create a supportive learning environment in the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia .
Table 2. Strategies for Engaging Students in Case-Based Learning
Approaches to case teaching should be informed by course learning objectives, and can be adapted for small, large, hybrid, and online classes. Instructional technology can be used in various ways to deliver, facilitate, and assess the case method. For instance, an online module can be created in CourseWorks (Canvas) to structure the delivery of the case, allow students to work at their own pace, engage all learners, even those reluctant to speak up in class, and assess understanding of a case and student learning. Modules can include text, embedded media (e.g., using Panopto or Mediathread ) curated by the instructor, online discussion, and assessments. Students can be asked to read a case and/or watch a short video, respond to quiz questions and receive immediate feedback, post questions to a discussion, and share resources.
For more information about options for incorporating educational technology to your course, please contact your Learning Designer .
To ensure that students are learning from the case approach, ask them to pause and reflect on what and how they learned from the case. Time to reflect builds your students’ metacognition, and when these reflections are collected they provides you with insights about the effectiveness of your approach in promoting student learning.
Well designed case-based learning experiences: 1) motivate student involvement, 2) have students doing the work, 3) help students develop knowledge and skills, and 4) have students learning from each other.
Designing a case-based learning experience should center around the learning objectives for a course. The following points focus on intentional design.
Identify learning objectives, determine scope, and anticipate challenges.
- Why use the case method in your course? How will it promote student learning differently than other approaches?
- What are the learning objectives that need to be met by the case method? What knowledge should students apply and skills should they practice?
- What is the scope of the case? (a brief activity in a single class session to a semester-long case-based course; if new to case method, start small with a single case).
- What challenges do you anticipate (e.g., student preparation and prior experiences with case learning, discomfort with discussion, peer-to-peer learning, managing discussion) and how will you plan for these in your design?
- If you are asking students to use transferable skills for the case method (e.g., teamwork, digital literacy) make them explicit.
Determine how you will know if the learning objectives were met and develop a plan for evaluating the effectiveness of the case method to inform future case teaching.
- What assessments and criteria will you use to evaluate student work or participation in case discussion?
- How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the case method? What feedback will you collect from students?
- How might you leverage technology for assessment purposes? For example, could you quiz students about the case online before class, accept assignment submissions online, use audience response systems (e.g., PollEverywhere) for formative assessment during class?
Select an existing case, create your own, or encourage students to bring course-relevant cases, and prepare for its delivery
- Where will the case method fit into the course learning sequence?
- Is the case at the appropriate level of complexity? Is it inclusive, culturally relevant, and relatable to students?
- What materials and preparation will be needed to present the case to students? (e.g., readings, audiovisual materials, set up a module in CourseWorks).
Plan for the case discussion and an active role for students
- What will your role be in facilitating case-based learning? How will you model case analysis for your students? (e.g., present a short case and demo your approach and the process of case learning) (Davis, 2009).
- What discussion guidelines will you use that include your students’ input?
- How will you encourage students to ask and answer questions, summarize their work, take notes, and debrief the case?
- If students will be working in groups, how will groups form? What size will the groups be? What instructions will they be given? How will you ensure that everyone participates? What will they need to submit? Can technology be leveraged for any of these areas?
- Have you considered students of varied cognitive and physical abilities and how they might participate in the activities/discussions, including those that involve technology?
Student preparation and expectations
- How will you communicate about the case method approach to your students? When will you articulate the purpose of case-based learning and expectations of student engagement? What information about case-based learning and expectations will be included in the syllabus?
- What preparation and/or assignment(s) will students complete in order to learn from the case? (e.g., read the case prior to class, watch a case video prior to class, post to a CourseWorks discussion, submit a brief memo, complete a short writing assignment to check students’ understanding of a case, take on a specific role, prepare to present a critique during in-class discussion).
Andersen, E. and Schiano, B. (2014). Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide . Harvard Business Press.
Bonney, K. M. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains†. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education , 16 (1), 21–28. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846
Davis, B.G. (2009). Chapter 24: Case Studies. In Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass.
Garvin, D.A. (2003). Making the Case: Professional Education for the world of practice. Harvard Magazine. September-October 2003, Volume 106, Number 1, 56-107.
Golich, V.L. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. International Studies Perspectives. 1, 11-29.
Golich, V.L.; Boyer, M; Franko, P.; and Lamy, S. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. Pew Case Studies in International Affairs. Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Heath, J. (2015). Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide. The Case Center, UK.
Herreid, C.F. (2011). Case Study Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. No. 128, Winder 2011, 31 – 40.
Herreid, C.F. (2007). Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science . National Science Teachers Association. Available as an ebook through Columbia Libraries.
Herreid, C.F. (2006). “Clicker” Cases: Introducing Case Study Teaching Into Large Classrooms. Journal of College Science Teaching. Oct 2006, 36(2). https://search.proquest.com/docview/200323718?pq-origsite=gscholar
Krain, M. (2016). Putting the Learning in Case Learning? The Effects of Case-Based Approaches on Student Knowledge, Attitudes, and Engagement. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 27(2), 131-153.
Lundberg, K.O. (Ed.). (2011). Our Digital Future: Boardrooms and Newsrooms. Knight Case Studies Initiative.
Popil, I. (2011). Promotion of critical thinking by using case studies as teaching method. Nurse Education Today, 31(2), 204–207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2010.06.002
Schiano, B. and Andersen, E. (2017). Teaching with Cases Online . Harvard Business Publishing.
Thistlethwaite, JE; Davies, D.; Ekeocha, S.; Kidd, J.M.; MacDougall, C.; Matthews, P.; Purkis, J.; Clay D. (2012). The effectiveness of case-based learning in health professional education: A BEME systematic review . Medical Teacher. 2012; 34(6): e421-44.
Yadav, A.; Lundeberg, M.; DeSchryver, M.; Dirkin, K.; Schiller, N.A.; Maier, K. and Herreid, C.F. (2007). Teaching Science with Case Studies: A National Survey of Faculty Perceptions of the Benefits and Challenges of Using Cases. Journal of College Science Teaching; Sept/Oct 2007; 37(1).
Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass.
Teaching with Cases , Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Features “what is a teaching case?” video that defines a teaching case, and provides documents to help students prepare for case learning, Common case teaching challenges and solutions, tips for teaching with cases.
Promoting excellence and innovation in case method teaching: Teaching by the Case Method , Christensen Center for Teaching & Learning. Harvard Business School.
National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science . University of Buffalo.
A collection of peer-reviewed STEM cases to teach scientific concepts and content, promote process skills and critical thinking. The Center welcomes case submissions. Case classification scheme of case types and teaching methods:
- Different types of cases: analysis case, dilemma/decision case, directed case, interrupted case, clicker case, a flipped case, a laboratory case.
- Different types of teaching methods: problem-based learning, discussion, debate, intimate debate, public hearing, trial, jigsaw, role-play.
Resources available to support your use of case method: The University hosts a number of case collections including: the Case Consortium (a collection of free cases in the fields of journalism, public policy, public health, and other disciplines that include teaching and learning resources; SIPA’s Picker Case Collection (audiovisual case studies on public sector innovation, filmed around the world and involving SIPA student teams in producing the cases); and Columbia Business School CaseWorks , which develops teaching cases and materials for use in Columbia Business School classrooms.
Center for Teaching and Learning
The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers a variety of programs and services for instructors at Columbia. The CTL can provide customized support as you plan to use the case method approach through implementation. Schedule a one-on-one consultation.
Office of the Provost
The Hybrid Learning Course Redesign grant program from the Office of the Provost provides support for faculty who are developing innovative and technology-enhanced pedagogy and learning strategies in the classroom. In addition to funding, faculty awardees receive support from CTL staff as they redesign, deliver, and evaluate their hybrid courses.
The Start Small! Mini-Grant provides support to faculty who are interested in experimenting with one new pedagogical strategy or tool. Faculty awardees receive funds and CTL support for a one-semester period.
Explore our teaching resources.
- Blended Learning
- Contemplative Pedagogy
- Inclusive Teaching Guide
- FAQ for Teaching Assistants
CTL resources and technology for you.
- Overview of all CTL Resources and Technology
- The origins of this method can be traced to Harvard University where in 1870 the Law School began using cases to teach students how to think like lawyers using real court decisions. This was followed by the Business School in 1920 (Garvin, 2003). These professional schools recognized that lecture mode of instruction was insufficient to teach critical professional skills, and that active learning would better prepare learners for their professional lives. ↩
- Golich, V.L. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. International Studies Perspectives. 1, 11-29. ↩
- Herreid, C.F. (2007). Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science . National Science Teachers Association. Available as an ebook through Columbia Libraries. ↩
- Davis, B.G. (2009). Chapter 24: Case Studies. In Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. ↩
- Andersen, E. and Schiano, B. (2014). Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide . Harvard Business Press. ↩
- Lundberg, K.O. (Ed.). (2011). Our Digital Future: Boardrooms and Newsrooms. Knight Case Studies Initiative. ↩
- Heath, J. (2015). Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide. The Case Center, UK. ↩
- Bonney, K. M. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains†. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education , 16 (1), 21–28. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846 ↩
- Krain, M. (2016). Putting the Learning in Case Learning? The Effects of Case-Based Approaches on Student Knowledge, Attitudes, and Engagement. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 27(2), 131-153. ↩
- Thistlethwaite, JE; Davies, D.; Ekeocha, S.; Kidd, J.M.; MacDougall, C.; Matthews, P.; Purkis, J.; Clay D. (2012). The effectiveness of case-based learning in health professional education: A BEME systematic review . Medical Teacher. 2012; 34(6): e421-44. ↩
- Yadav, A.; Lundeberg, M.; DeSchryver, M.; Dirkin, K.; Schiller, N.A.; Maier, K. and Herreid, C.F. (2007). Teaching Science with Case Studies: A National Survey of Faculty Perceptions of the Benefits and Challenges of Using Cases. Journal of College Science Teaching; Sept/Oct 2007; 37(1). ↩
- Popil, I. (2011). Promotion of critical thinking by using case studies as teaching method. Nurse Education Today, 31(2), 204–207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2010.06.002 ↩
- Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. ↩
- Herreid, C.F. (2006). “Clicker” Cases: Introducing Case Study Teaching Into Large Classrooms. Journal of College Science Teaching. Oct 2006, 36(2). https://search.proquest.com/docview/200323718?pq-origsite=gscholar ↩
Students’ learning sustainability – implicit, explicit or non-existent: a case study approach on students’ key competencies addressing the SDGs in HEI program
International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education
ISSN : 1467-6370
Article publication date: 21 January 2022
Issue publication date: 19 December 2022
This study aims to understand better the student awareness and knowledge on how the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are used in higher education institutions (HEIs) to motivate students’ learning on sustainability. It is essential to consider students’ understanding of sustainability at the end of their studies to assess whether they feel prepared to apply sustainability in their daily work life.
The study has a quantitative case study design, and the specific method used is an online survey with masters’ students using the university student platform EvaSys. The study assesses approaching how students perceive the overall education integrating sustainability into programs and curricula.
The results showed that work-integrated learning (WIL) projects learning and real-life experiences as part of their studies enhanced the students’ understanding of sustainability. Moreover, the study showed that integrating an understanding of the SDGs in teaching offers universities a way to frame students’ key competencies in ways that allow them to develop their interpersonal competencies as ambassadors for sustainability in their future work life.
This study supports the argument that WIL and real-life university experiences enhance students’ key competencies critical for sustainability.
The pedagogical approach advanced in this paper addresses how WIL and real-life experiences might develop students’ key competencies on sustainability. This approach indicates that working with SDGs in teaching encourages students to promote their interpersonal competencies for sustainability.
- University social responsibility (USR)
- Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
- Higher education institutions (HEIs)
- Work-integrated Learning (WIL)
Alm, K. , Beery, T.H. , Eiblmeier, D. and Fahmy, T. (2022), "Students’ learning sustainability – implicit, explicit or non-existent: a case study approach on students’ key competencies addressing the SDGs in HEI program", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education , Vol. 23 No. 8, pp. 60-84. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-12-2020-0484
Emerald Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2021, Karin Alm, Thomas H. Beery, David Eiblmeier and Tarek Fahmy.
Published by Emerald Publishing Limited. This article is published under the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY 4.0) licence. Anyone may reproduce, distribute, translate and create derivative works of this article (for both commercial and non-commercial purposes), subject to full attribution to the original publication and authors. The full terms of this licence may be seen at http://creativecommons.org/licences/by/4.0/legalcode
Sustainability is an increasingly important topic worldwide, with awareness of this topic growing since the 2016 Agenda 2030 publication by the United Nations ( Boyon, 2019 ). Universities have shown an increased interest in the idea of integrating sustainability into programs and course core curriculum. The Sustainable Development Solutions Network ( SDSN, 2020 ) has highlighted universities’ essential role in delivering SDGs, arguing that none will be fully achieved without university contributions in education, research, innovation, and leadership. Universities can facilitate progress, bridging research efforts and community needs to develop a more sustainably oriented society. In addition to students’ education and preparation, sustainability in higher education institutions (HEIs) also focuses on the sustainable operation of university facilities and communities. This effort toward the sustainable management of university facilities serves a dual function, as universities may act as living labs or institutional role models for students ( Lozano et al. , 2011 ). The private sector will benefit if university graduates carry sustainability awareness, skills and values into their professions. Relatedly, the private sector sees increasing importance in alignment with the SDGs of Agenda 2030 ( Scheyvens et al. , 2016 ). Not surprisingly, there is a growing awareness of sustainability’s importance, specifically, Agenda 2030 within HEIs ( Filho et al. , 2019 ; GUNi, 2020 ; Shiell et al. , 2020 ). University programs and sustainability researchers are increasingly investigating how best to prepare students to integrate sustainability into future professional efforts ( Junghanns and Beery, 2020 ) and considering how program outcomes in HEIs align with the actual learning processes ( Redman et al. , 2021 ).
Lozano et al. (2017) argue that integrating sustainable development (SD) into the programs and curricula will also create meaningful SD learning outcomes. Hence, the development of students’ system-thinking demands new pedagogical ideas and transdisciplinary approaches promoting students learning by addressing experimental, interactive, and real-life cases ( Lozano et al. , 2017 ). In HEIs, the integration of the SDGs and Agenda 2030 draws attention from the wider society. Ultimately, the implementation of sustainability issues in HEIs has become significant because it creates awareness of environmental challenges, supports knowledge about sustainability and raises critical thinking among students. Rapid urbanization, climate change and loss of biodiversity across different scales and continents increase the critical task of HEIs to empower future generations on SD ( Caniglia et al. , 2018 ).
Given the potential role of HEIs in the transition to a more sustainable society, the purpose of this research is to understand better the student awareness and knowledge on how the SDGs are employed in HEIs. Further, it is interesting to understand how the SDGs may enhance students’ key competencies on sustainability. The sub-purpose is to ascertain the level of awareness and understanding about sustainability that students have by the completion of their studies at one Swedish University (Kristianstad University, hereafter HKR). To further help us understand students’ knowledge on SDGs, the following research questions were posed: How do work integrated learning (WIL) , known as “ verksamhets-förlagd utbildning ” VFU in Swedish) and real-life experiences used as teaching methods support graduates’ abilities to apply their knowledge of the SDGs and sustainability to their future work-life? Moreover, What is the level of master students’ key competencies for sustainability throughout the four faculties of HKR?
These research questions may help us identify the best practices for sustainability pedagogy in each program. Such an analysis might be helpful for universities and faculties that can learn from each other and potentially improve the sustainability contents of their programs and curricula. A literature review and conceptual framework on sustainability outcomes were used to explore the research questions and provide a foundation for a survey. The survey investigated students’ understanding and application of the SDGs. The survey provided researchers with valuable data, which was then analyzed by using descriptive and correlative analysis to reveal information and insights about the sustainability knowledge of HKR students.
Ávila et al. (2019) elaborate on how universities must move forward to overcome barriers to implementing the Agenda 2030 in HEIs. According to their research, HEIs play a vital role in transforming SD in society and stress that the main barriers to implementing sustainability in HEIs’ systems are a lack of continuity of actions and resistance to changes ( Ávila et al. , 2019 ). HEIs’ systems should have all the resources needed to develop innovative sustainable solutions: science, technology, highly educated researchers, teaching staff and motivated students ( Ávila et al. , 2019 ). Sonetti et al. (2019) claim that universities always must take the role of significant contributors addressing SD and implementing SDGs in HEIs. In this way, integrating SD in HEIs goes beyond developing course curricula, educating new generations of leaders for future change and practices of SD in teaching to grasp behavioral change. A basic example of this opportunity can be found in the sustainable waste-water treatment education proposals explored in Junghanns and Beery (2020) . Their study focuses on how innovative HEIs’ programming may serve achievement targets of SDG 6 Clean Water and Sanitation. Another example, Brundiers et al. (2010) emphasize HEIs’ sustainability and addresses the associated complex problems. Their study at Arizona State University (ASU) argued that real-world learning opportunities could be used to help develop a problem-solving mindset. This effort by universities to develop innovative ways to grow students’ capabilities for SD has also resulted in university-to-university collaborations. For example, the AGERA project ( GVM, 2020 ) was funded by the Swedish Government agency Vinnova which administers state funding for research and development. The effort is a collaboration of seven universities across Sweden to create a framework for integration and alignment of the Agenda 2030 SDGs in university operations and programming.
University social responsibility
Another aspect of moving forward toward implementation of the Agenda 2030 in HEIs is University Social Responsibility (USR), as emphasized by Bokhari (2017) , “sustainable development cannot be achieved in isolation from the close relationship between higher education and its institutions-namely universities-and society” (p. 1). Sánchez et al. (2013) define USR as “the capacity of the university to disseminate and implement a body of principles and general and specific values, by means of four key processes—management, teaching, research, and community engagement to respond to the needs of the university community, and in this framing, their “country” as a whole” (p. 710). Looking at USR from a citizenship perspective, USR is defined by Vasilescu et al. (2010) , as “the need to strengthen civic commitment and active citizenship; it is about volunteering, about an ethical approach, developing a sense of civil citizenship by encouraging the students, the academic staff to provide social services to their local community or to promote ecological, environmental commitment for local and global sustainable development” (p. 4178). Furthermore, USR is also explained by Lo et al. (2017 , p. 40) as “a policy of ethical quality of the performance of the university community (students, faculty and administrative employees) via the responsible management of the educational, cognitive, labor and environmental impacts produced by the University, in an interactive dialogue with society to promote a sustainable human development.” Based on these definitions, it can be noticed that USR encourages universities to incorporate ethical, environmental, social values and principles into their primary functions, and this can only be achieved by adopting a stakeholder’s perspective (i.e. satisfying the expectations and needs of the stakeholders) ( Jorge and Pena, 2017 ). Hence, training, research, management and community engagement must be implemented ( Table 1 ).
Wiek et al. (2011) argue that universities could facilitate internal change for a transition toward sustainability through increased student awareness and note that this requires a specific set of competencies and skills. Redman et al. (2021) argue that to enable students and to build their understanding of sustainability, teachers and instructors need both the right tools and methods, as well as the right framework to ground their teachings on. This approach is supported by Rieckmann (2012) , who states that developing proficiency in key competencies enables people to participate actively and responsibly in modern society. The literature review emphasizes the role of students as problem solvers, change agents and transition managers ( Lozano et al. , 2017 ; Caniglia et al. , 2018 ; Jorge and Pena, 2017 ; Bokhari, 2017 ; Ávila et al. , 2019 ). Building upon the strength of the students’ role, Wiek et al. (2011) provide such a framework for understanding students’ key competencies. This framework uses the context of sustainability as “a functionally linked complex of knowledge, skills, and attitudes that enable successful task performance and problem-solving” (p. 204). As can be seen in Figure 1 , their model is based on students’ five key sustainability competencies: systems-thinking competence, anticipatory competence, normative competence, strategic competence and interpersonal competence.
The selection of these five competencies is further strengthened by Rieckmann (2012) , who defines systemic thinking, anticipatory competence and critical thinking as the most important abilities. Pálsdóttir and Jóhannsdóttir (2021) highlighted the importance of the five competencies in their investigation of the extent to which the five key sustainability competencies are integrated into the University of Iceland curriculum. The Icelandic study showed differential integration across competencies and university faculties and assessed the University’s world ranking and a sense of the pressing sustainability problems humanity faces. Furthermore, Brundiers et al. (2020) highlighted the importance of the five key competencies in today’s research and further refined and complimented them to show a hierarchy within them and broaden their scope. Combining the five competencies makes it possible to create methods for developing programs and course curriculums to structure them as efficiently as possible regarding the needed learning outcomes of sustainability-related classes.
The first competence, system-thinking, involves analyzing complex systems across different domains (society, environment, economy) within a local and global context. It also includes skills such as comprehending, empirically verifying and articulating their structure, cause–effect relations, perceptions, motives, decisions and regulations. Thus, students should be able to cope with cascading effects, feedback loops related to sustainability issues and problem-solving. According to Rieckmann (2012) , increasing complexity, risks and uncertainties in today’s globalized world are the main challenges, highlighting the importance of system-thinking competence.
The second competence, the anticipatory competence, is “the ability to collectively analyze, evaluate, and craft rich pictures related to sustainability issues and sustainability problem-solving frameworks” ( Wiek et al. , 2011 , pp. 207–209). It assumes the ability to consider qualitative and quantitative information and then evaluate, articulate and break down their structure into critical components. Additionally, this competence also prepares students to cope with unintended harmful consequences and integrational equity. Further, anticipatory competence describes “the ability to craft integrates creative and constructive skills” ( Wiek et al. , 2011 , pp. 207–209).
The third competence is normative competence and includes the student’s ability to “collectively map, specify, apply, reconcile, and negotiate sustainability values, principles, goals, and targets” (Wiek et al. , p. 209). However, this competence goes beyond these skills and encompasses the overall goal of developing a critical view and scrutinizing the sustainability of current and future states of social-ecological systems.
The fourth is strategic competence, which involves students’ ability “to collectively design and implement interventions, transitions, and transformative governance strategies toward sustainability” ( Wiek et al. , 2011 , p. 210). Thus, it can be described as the skill to get things done efficiently and systematically. It also includes buzzwords such as feasibility and effectiveness in what is done. Therefore, students need to identify barriers and carriers and form alliances to challenge current positions and solve logistical problems. Thus, a robust understanding of the real world.
The fifth and final competence is interpersonal competence. Wiek et al. (2011) define interpersonal competence as one that completes the framework. Interpersonal competence involves the student’s ability “to motivate, enable, and facilitate collaborative and participatory sustainability research and problem-solving” (p. 211). It requires a high degree of communication, collaboration and negotiation. The student must develop an ability for outreach and collaboration with stakeholders. Additionally, it is about thinking and acting across cultural boundaries, thus strengthening trans-cultural thinking, facilitating diversity across cultures and valuing individuals and communities. Also, leadership (self and others) is a skill that might be relevant for this. These skills are also a necessity for the other four competencies. Reaching this final competence is complicated as it involves all the other competencies, challenging the pedagogical setting.
The five competencies form a set of fundamental competencies. However, Wiek et al. (2011) emphasize that students could not be expected to acquire all competencies on an equally high level but rather find the right balance according to the students’ assets. Therefore, it is suggested that they expect students to develop in-depth expertise in one or two key competencies and a solid understanding of the others. For instance, while students of a technical faculty need more robust competencies in contesting, anticipating and developing multidimensional approaches to problems, students of managerial faculties might have more focus on a critical perception of the world ( Mazur et al. , 2021 ). Both sides, however, need competencies in cooperation.
Furthermore, the sufficiency of knowledge also depends on the level of the academic program; a master’s student might be expected to acquire a more profound understanding and expertise of these critical competencies than undergraduates ( Wiek et al. , 2011 ). Wiek et al. (2011) problematize the importance of understanding students’ awareness about sustainability at the end of their studies and preparedness to implement their knowledge in their daily work life. HEIs can offer the curricula and the teaching and learning environment to generate and transfer sustainability awareness to future generations. Thus, a part of sustainability education involves incorporating SD into teaching and curricula and taking on the challenge of raising student awareness and agency. The learning environment may support and enable the interpersonal growth of students’ key competencies on sustainability.
Integrating pedagogical approaches with sustainable development competencies
Lozano et al. (2017) note an urgent need to move from researching and developing SD integration objectives/aims to actual SD integration into university curricula; they note that while there has been significant growth in the literature regarding competencies for SD, the attempts to link pedagogical approaches and competencies have been limited. Filho et al. (2019) recently noted systematic efforts to increase SD objectives/aims integration into university curriculum as one way to address this limitation. An example of recent action to address this need can be seen through a course for university faculty at the University Jaume I of Castellon (Spain) ( Expósito and Sánchez, 2020 ). This training course for higher education faculty provides education for SD (ESD) skills and competencies and is designed to help academics reorient their curricula to align with the SD goals of the United Nations’ Agenda 2030. A useful framework to support academics attempting to adjust their curricula is the three pedagogical categories linked with appropriate pedagogical approaches found in Lozano et al. (2017) ( Table 2 ).
Lozano et al. (2017) argued that two of the three pedagogical categories, universal and environmental education pedagogies, provide good coverage of the system thinking competency. The anticipatory thinking competency requires a mix of the three pedagogy categories to provide the best possible coverage; the suggested pedagogies approaches were case studies, lecturing, problem-based learning, participatory action research, traditional ecological knowledge, eco-justice and supply chain analysis. The other two mentioned competencies were strategic competence and interpersonal competence. Strategic competence also requires a mix of the three pedagogical categories and suggested specific case studies, lecturing and problem-based learning approaches. Furthermore, as in the universal category, all the approaches were deemed useful in the community and social justice category. Finally, place-based environmental education and supply chain analysis is needed to provide the best competence coverage in the environmental education category.
Lozano et al. (2017) argue that a diversity of approaches could help develop a range of competencies, enhancing student capacities to think and learn. “These pedagogical approaches are non-exclusive, with some overlap in techniques among them and a clear potential to use two or more of these educational strategies synergistically” (p.6). Different methods could and must be used in various settings and teaching methods adapted to the conditions where it takes place, highlighting the diversity in approach as crucial for students to take an active part. Relatedly, Lozano et al. (2017) argue that working with real-life case studies has proven to be one of the methods that could enhance students’ active learning for SD. Real-life case studies conducted for a company or an organization may foster students’ analytical reflection that promotes critical thinking for SD. Similarly, SDSN (2020) emphasized the development of courses directed to real-world collaborative projects. Caniglia et al. (2018) enlarge the real-life idea to a global scale and argue that future generations must be prepared to address (un)sustainability across different scales and contexts. They raise the question of what kind of curricula and teaching-learning environments should be used in transnational collaborations to prepare students in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world.
Real-world learning opportunities
Dealing with actual sustainability problems takes students beyond theoretical understanding, helping them develop practical competencies ( Brundiers and Wiek, 2010 ). Brundiers and Wiek (2010) label these “wicked” problems and emphasize how educators must help students generate workable solutions to create a better society. They argue that one way is working together with different stakeholders. They suggest that students then learn different forms of understanding to learn how to cope with conflicting perceptions. Brundiers and Wiek (2010) address SD challenges by defining the problem jointly with stakeholders toward a robust and relevant outcome in students learning processes.
According to Brundiers et al. (2010) , “literature on education for sustainable development call for pedagogical innovations that provide interactive, experiential, transformative and real-world learning” (p. 309). This focus on practical learning also requires a reorientation and development in course curriculums to meet this goal. Brundiers et al. (2010) argue that students must be exposed to real-world settings in communities, businesses and governments put three dominant models to real-world learning formats: project-based learning, service learning and internships. Project-based learning includes students collaborating with partners to develop a solution approach supervised by the faculty and stakeholders. Service-learning is about students learning while giving, e.g. in a community, to support social innovation and change. Internships develop a student’s professional working experiences (students gain) while assisting or supporting professional progress (students give).
As an essential societal institution, universities play a significant role in advancing the SDGs in teaching and course curricula ( Bokhari, 2017 ). In light of the challenges thriving towards a progressive society, universities are increasingly required to not only rely on being strong-willed but universities also need to involve with real society and provide students with incentives to participate linking students to practical field application, for USR to take place ( Bokhari, 2017 ). These real-world learning opportunities are designed to help students increase their understanding of sustainability problems and complement their competencies in applying problem-solving approaches while collaborating with non-academic experts and other stakeholders ( Brundiers et al. , 2010 ). This “real world” approach fosters the role of HEIs as a change agent, integrating transdisciplinary case studies on regional, urban and sustainable organizational transitions into research and the curriculum. According to Bokhari (2017) , alongside student engagement, the faculty, other stakeholders and community participants will also learn and benefit.
Specifically, this research intended in this study to use the conceptual framework by Wiek et al. (2011) , which examined how integrating sustainability in HEIs’ teaching could facilitate students’ key competencies for internal change to support a transition toward SD. The following section present the methods employed in this study, which align with the research’s purpose.
Case study approach
The motivation for focusing on HKR is the faculty’s growing interest in aligning curriculum with the SDGs and the 2030 Agenda. For example, HKR has participated in the AGERA project. AGERA is a joint project between Swedish Universities to develop new ways of evaluating and following up the effects of collaboration regarding SD on campus and in university programs ( AGERA, 2020 ). HKR is also a member of the UN Global Compact. This SD emphasis is in line with the SD issues on global and at local levels. UN Global Compact and the SDGs have an important and central role as a fundament for further concepts and actions in achieving Agenda 2030 at HKR. Furthermore, HKR works actively within UN-based initiative PRME (The Principles for Responsible Management Education) and has signed up as PRME Champions for the second time 2020/2021. HKR has also recently joined the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).
HKR works with the Kristianstad model for work placement, an internship program labeled WIL in line with the engagements. WIL is organized in close cooperation with the private and public sectors, and students are affiliated with an organization within business and industry or public administration during their studies. The work involves case studies through real-life learning by collaborating with the WIL organization, and students use literature to understand, interpret and analyze the real-life setting. The combination of relevant literature and the student’s learning experience enables a straightforward collaboration between research, education and work-life, following Brundiers et al. (2010) real-life practices in teaching. The study focused on student learning outcomes regarding sustainability after their HKR university studies and whether students feel prepared to implement their knowledge in their daily work life. A case study approach has been used with a quantitative methodology to obtain basic descriptive statistics to obtain a generalizable sample across a sizable population of university students. The focus on one university integrating WIL (authentic context) into teaching and students’ active learning attempted to generate an in-depth understanding of sustainability outcomes at HKR ( Crowe et al. , 2011 ). For most study programs, the HKR offers WIL projects to enable the students to further their knowledge about sustainability by immediately applying it in a real-life setting, cooperating with different companies and organizations. Thus, a case study approach is appropriate in this situation, based mainly on uncertainty regarding the phenomenon (sustainability education outcomes across many campus programs) and the context, HKR and WIL ( Yin, 2009 ).
Within the case study approach, a survey to obtain descriptive statistics was deemed the most efficient way to gain insight into the phenomena of interest. The method choice is also based on the hope that results and analysis may illuminate important trends and patterns in HKR student experiences and learning outcomes ( Amos, 2016 ). It is hoped that such information may then have value beyond the specific context of HKR.
This study investigates the master’s students’ sustainability knowledge and awareness upon completing their studies at HKR. HKR is a small Swedish university offering 50 educational programs. In the year 2019, HKR had 14.829 undergraduate students, 71% women and 29% men. The university awarded 1443 diplomas to its students. The survey was aimed at master’s students at HKR based on the assumption that they could be expected to have a more profound understanding of sustainability and the five competencies framework than undergraduate students ( Wiek et al. , 2011 ). The participant sample of master’s students consisted of all second cycle students (graduate students) at the university in the 2019 fall semester; these faculties are the Faculty of Business, Faculty of Health and Science, Faculty of Education and Faculty Natural Science. In total, the survey was sent out to 742 students across all faculties at the HKR. The researchers only collected the empirical data relevant to the study’s specific purpose, and the data was collected following the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), which aims to protect the rights of the participant’s data ( GDPR, 2020 ). [AQ2]
Part A: Demographics and control questions were measured using four single-choice format questions. For example, these included students’ study level, department and program and students’ place of study (distance or campus) ( Appendix 2 ).
Part B: General knowledge on sustainability, survey questions included one closed yes/no question, two single-choice questions and one question using a five-point Likert scale (1 = “I completely disagree” to 5 = “I fully agree”).
Part C and the five competencies were measured as followed:
System-thinking was measured with four items and a bipolar scale ranging from 1 to 5 ( Johnson and Christensen, 2008 ).
Anticipatory competency was measured with four items using a five-point Likert scale was used ranging from 1 = “I completely disagree” to 5 = “I fully agree.”
Normative competency was measured using four items using a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 = “I completely disagree” to 5 = “I fully agree.”
Strategic competency was measured with four items using a five-point Likert scale ranging from 1 = “I completely disagree” to 5 = “I fully agree.”
Interpersonal competence with four items using a five-point Likert as well-scale ranging from 1 = “I completely disagree” to 5 = “I fully agree.”
All items were formulated based on the framework of Wiek et al. (2011) . The research team conducted an iterative process of drafting the items, discussing and reviewing. While not a pilot test per se , draft items were presented to a group of HKR graduate students to test their understanding and comfort with the questions. Data was collected online using the EvaSys survey management tool, and the tool automatically consolidated all data in an Excel spreadsheet. The first step in the analysis was to evaluate each question’s results in relative frequencies. Correlations between survey items were also considered.
The survey was sent to 742 students, and 30 responses were returned, resulting in a response rate of 4%. In part A, the survey participants were described based on the percentage of the study. The sample group ( n = 30) was described as full-time or part-time studying participants based on 70% of this group indicating that they study at a rate of 100% (full-time studies), whereas one quarter (26.7%) were studying part-time and about 3% had a study rate of 15%. Three-quarters (76.7%) of the participants studied on campus, whereas 23.3% studied remotely.
Participants’ general knowledge of sustainability
Q2.1: Here, the participants were asked about their familiarity with the SDGs. 93.3% were familiar with the SDGs, whereas 6.7% were not familiar with the SDGs.
Q2.2: This question concerned the participant’s engagement in sustainability issues (e.g. in a job, volunteer activities, university or household), 30% were deeply involved, whereas 30% reported engaging regularly and 13.3% did not engage at all while the rest 26.7% only occasionally participates in such events and activities.
Q2.3: This question concerned SDGs frequencies in classes. 33.3% stated it to be part of more than four classes during their education. Another 33.3% stated that they experienced SDGs in three-quarters of their classes, 23.3% stated they identified SDGs in one-third of their classes and 10% of the participants answered that the SDGs were not an identifiable part of their classes, and finally, these results indicate and support a broad distribution of the SDGs in various classes and could be described as a fair result.
Q2.4: This question focused on the learning environment on campus: “Aside from course experiences and research on campus, how would you describe your university’s performance in terms of sustainable practices? (e.g., green campus initiatives, energy consumption, ethics, labor conditions of employees).” 22.2% stated the performance as high, 59.3% evaluated the performance as satisfactory, and 18.5% rated the university’s performance as insufficient, and 0% none of the participants rated this as non-existent. [AQ3]
Q2.5: In this question, participants were asked about their perception and rating regarding the statement: “Do you believe sustainability is important for your future work career?” Using the Likert scale 1-5 (1 = completely disagree and 5 = fully agree), the participants’ average score was 4.6. These results indicate an awareness of the importance of sustainability in their future work life.
Participants’ scores on five key competencies in sustainability
In this part of the survey, the questions focused on the five key competencies: system-thinking, anticipatory, normative, strategic and interpersonal competence. Each of these competencies was evaluated using the Likert scale, and each competence was tested through four different survey questions. The system-thinking competence measures the participants’ ability to analyze systems affected by local and global contexts ( Appendix 4 ). The results showed that participants agree that sustainability must be viewed globally and that both the organizations and the government have sustainability responsibilities. In total, one-third of the participants think that sustainability is affected by every individual and that sustainability is not only a topic for those responsible for significant emissions.
The anticipatory competence aims to measure “the ability to analyze, evaluate collectively, and craft rich ‘pictures’ related to sustainability” ( Wiek et al. , 2011 , pp. 207–209). The results showed that participants anticipate a strong role for sustainability with an average 4.7/5 score. Participants see a responsibility to act sustainably, 4.7/5 average score. There was also a 4.7/5 score on the question of the importance of educating students for sustainable futures. A slightly lower average score of 4.3/5 regarding their expectations future innovation and new technologies to play a crucial role in reaching SD ( Appendix 4 ).
The normative competence aims to unveil the participants’ ability to “collectively map, specify, apply, reconcile and negotiate sustainability values, principles, goals, and targets” ( Wiek et al. , 2011 , p. 209). Looking at the overview of the results in this competence, it becomes clear that the participants rate themselves high in the normative competence, especially regarding statements such as the importance of the ecological aspect of sustainability ( Appendix 4 ). The participants scored an average of 4.3/5 on the question of whether Sweden is working towards sustainability. A score of 4/5 was the result of the question of how encouraged participants feel about introducing and implementing new sustainable ideas and concepts in their future workplace. The question of whether the ecological aspect of sustainability is the most important for the future received a 3.9/5 score. The highest score in the normative competence (4.4/5) was in response to the idea of people acting as sustainably as possible in their private life.
The strategic competence describes and analyses the participants’ skills to identify barriers and carriers of sustainability and business to solve strategic and logistical problems ( Appendix 4 ). While participants scored 3.4/5 in the question of whether sustainability affects all industries equally, a much higher 4.6/5 was scored in response to the question of organizations working together to fulfill future sustainability goals. Scores of 4.2 and 4.3/5 were recorded regarding government and organizations’ perceived role in achieving SD goals.
Interpersonal competence is the final competence and builds on the other four competencies students have developed ( Appendix 4 ). It describes the participants’ ability to actively think across cultural borders and incorporate different views into their own opinion. Participants scored 4.2, 4.3 and 4.4/5 on the self-perception questions of sustainable leadership abilities, the ability to discuss sustainability and the ability to work in diverse groups, respectively. A slightly lower 4/5 was the average score for the question of the capability of participants to make use of their education in sustainability to solve problems.
This study shows that master students rely on their self-respect to understand sustainability. The participants in this study scored high, especially regarding confidence concerning taking responsibility in their future work career. This confidence was especially noted in the student’s normative competence . Based on the analysis, it was determined that master students have good self-confidence regarding sustainability. The argument is strengthened as master students at HKR scored high for the strategic competence : the normative competence and strategic competence rating might indicate that students have relatively high self-confidence in making strategic actions decisions. In support of the idea of sustainability as multifaced, the analysis showed that students’ competencies in system thinking involving the local versus global context scored high. As many as 84.6% of the students showed awareness about how sustainability concerned development globally. Students’ future thinking involving students’ anticipatory competence , thinking ahead scored high 71.1%. The scores on students’ anticipatory competence indicate unity in opinions and awareness of sustainability topics worldwide. The results emphasize that sustainability will be a long-term issue that affects one generation after another and must be carefully considered by each generation. The analysis showed that the master students seemed to trust their achieved skills, which made them confident in sustainability judgment-related issues. One explanation for this could be connecting all competencies, which gave students skills by a more professional and comprehensive look. In that way, the students’ interpersonal competencies could, as argued by Wiek et al. (2011) , be developed as suggested by Brundiers et al. (2010) through WIL-projects real-world learning practices advancing SDGs practice, which could bring forward a combination of skills for students’ competencies to be developed. Hence, the pedagogical methods used indicated that students’ competencies were explored and developed through WIL. Therefore, it is argued that addressing teaching methods used for developing programs and course curriculum will pave the way for the needed learning outcomes of sustainability-related classes.
Working with WIL supports the idea of Caniglia et al. (2018) that educating students in sustainability remained important as our findings showed that WIL and real-life experiences could contribute to empowering future generations on SD. Hence, it appears that master students at HKR may feel well prepared using their competencies interchangeably for sustainability problem-solving. Despite the low response rate, this study could guide further research on methods employed for integrating SDGs in HEIs.
This research aimed to understand better student awareness and knowledge on how the SDGs are used in HEIs to motivate students’ learning on sustainability. Just as Pálsdóttir and Jóhannsdóttir (2021) highlighted the importance of the five competencies in their investigation into University of Iceland curriculum, the five competencies are deemed to support a transition toward sustainability. It is essential to consider students’ understanding of sustainability at the end of their studies to understand whether they feel prepared to apply sustainability in their daily work life. The findings of this study do not, however, as suggested, approve of students’ competencies on SD being non-existent. Concordant with the findings, it is argued that students learning managed to explore and develop skills for SD. Moreover, based on the analysis, it is further argued that using the key competencies and specific questioning of students’ awareness of sustainability seems to indicate that implicit and explicit learning regarding sustainability is happening on campus. Just as Pálsdóttir and Jóhannsdóttir (2021) highlighted the importance of the five competencies in their investigation into University of Iceland curriculum, the five competencies are deemed to support a transition toward sustainability. Unfortunately, it was not justifiable to compare the different levels of knowledge throughout the four university faculties to identify possible best practices at different faculties due to the low response rate. Perhaps, such a mix is valuable given the highly dynamic quality of sustainability, with problem-solving identified as an important skill. This research indicates a strong possibility that most HKR master students seem self-confident and prepared to practice SD and the implementation of the SGDs in their future work life. Nonetheless, the study supports the previously made assumptions of a basic understanding of sustainability among final-year master students to develop their interpersonal competence ( Wiek et al. , 2011 ). The study has also shown that WIL enhanced real-world learning opportunities following Brundiers et al.’s (2010) argument engages students in the learning process. Therefore, it is assumed that the WIL project and its real-life experience environment at HKR foster and enhance the master students’ understanding of sustainability and enhance students’ competencies for sustainability identified by Wiek et al. (2011) . As students prepare to enter the world of work, their employers increasingly require a mindset attuned to sustainability and familiarity with the SDGs and how they can be integrated into core business models.
The findings showed that real-life experiences enhanced the master students’ understanding of sustainability as part of their studies. Moreover, the study showed that integrating an understating for the SDGs in teaching offers universities a way to frame students’ key competencies to allow students to develop their interpersonal competencies to serve as ambassadors for SD in their future work life. This study strengthens the argument that WIL practices at universities enhance students’ reflective and crucial competencies for SD. The master students showed profound understanding and expertise in the five competencies; this study thereby supports Wiek et al. ’s (2011) argument, in which they conclude that master students are expected to acquire a more profound understanding and expertise of these crucial competencies than undergraduates who are only expected to develop in-depth expertise in one or two key competencies and understanding of the others. Notwithstanding, this study only involves master students at the graduate level as the participants; their argument can be deemed valid to provide examples as the master students in this study have shown a profound understanding of the five key competencies for SD. Overall, this analysis will contribute to enhanced performance in combining students’ different competencies and developing their interpersonal competencies on sustainability ( Wiek et al. , 2011 ). Based on the analysis, this study provides a sound basis and first insights for understanding how WIL practices in HEIs support students for approaching sustainability and advancing their knowledge on SDGs in their future work life. Finally, it is suggested that this study provides a base for future research. A next step could be to roll out this study on a broader scope within the university and use more effective response rate techniques to engage more students.
This paper argues that master students, through WIL practices experience, are educated to rely on their self-confidence for understanding sustainability. Students’ real-life experiences in education might contribute to students’ confidence concerning taking responsibility for sustainability in their future work careers. The results showed that the master students seemed to trust their achieved SDG skills, which made them confident in sustainability judgment-related issues. By engaging in WIL-projects and real-life experiences, students are educated to develop their interpersonal competencies interchangeably for sustainability problem-solving.
Limitations of the study
pre-notification sent by email/post, survey structure (name and email with a clear research subject heading;
a professional invitation via email/post; and
a reminder to be sent to all students after half of the response time has passed.
Additionally, Saleh and Bista (2017) identified that students are less likely to respond during holidays, summer, the beginning of the school year or the end of the school year. Therefore, it is stressed that further survey research be performed at the beginning of the day and preferably in the middle of the semester/school year to increase response rates.
More broadly, one university has been evaluated to get a comprehensive view of sustainability in HEIs, especially the student’s skills in terms of the five competencies. Valuable and interesting information has been gathered and has paved the way for future research. Based on this study’s experience, using survey format tools in a HEI environment must be carefully considered to trigger students’ participation ( Park et al. , 2019 ). Moreover, it could be useful to study the relevance of the WIL-project method using a qualitative approach to capture an in-depth understanding of real-world learning opportunities. Additionally, it would be helpful to collaborate these ideas with other universities; as noted, the AGERA project in Sweden provides a HEI sustainability education community that could be used to consider these questions from campus to campus. Furthermore, it is crucial to study how to maximize students’ response rate when conducting an online survey for future research in this area. Researchers need to understand the specific needs of reaching students as participants, build awareness among students and emphasize that feedback is needed and valued; students need to know concerns will be considered and acted upon ( Sid Nair et al. , 2008 ).
A layered set of competencies in academic sustainability education, linking basic competencies and key competencies in sustainability, as well as recognizing interpersonal competence as cross-cutting key competence in sustainability
Participants’ scores: system-thinking competence
Participants’ scores: anticipatory competence
Participants’ scores: normative competence
Participants’ scores: strategic competence
Participants’ scores: interpersonal competence
Key elements in the adoption of a stakeholder perspective
Source : Lozano et al. (2017)
Participants’ scores on Wiek et al. ’s (2011) five key competencies in sustainability:
The questions focused on the five key competencies: system-thinking, anticipatory, normative, strategic, and interpersonal competence. Each of these competencies was evaluated using the Likert scale, and each competence was tested through four different survey questions. (Figures A1, A2, A2 and A4)
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Thank you to Nora Schulke. As part of the Work Integrated Learning student project, Nora contributed to the data collection used in this study.
About the authors.
Karin Alm is a lecturer in marketing and sustainability at Kristianstad University (Sweden) where she is the academic leader and coordinator for Principles for Responsible Management Education and teaches international marketing, corporate social responsibility, business ethics and sustainability. Karin is also engaged in teaching for sustainable development on pedagogical courses for university teacher. Karin’s research has resulted in publications focusing on corporate social responsibility, sustainable retailing and sustainability in higher education and the impact of sustainability in business and society.
Thomas H. Beery is an associate professor at Kristianstad University with extensive experience within the broad fields of environmental education and environmental social science research. Key topics in Tom’s research include connectedness to nature, climate change behavior and ecosystem services. Tom teaches outdoor and environmental education components in a number of teacher training programs as well as in the Landscape Science program at Kristianstad University.
David Eiblmeier graduated the M.A. program International Business at the University of Applied Sciences Landshut (HAW Landshut, Germany) including a semester as exchange student at Kristianstad University in 2020. After graduation, David went back to working at an international chemical corporation as Market Analyst with a focus on Western Europe.
Tarek Fahmy graduated the MSc program in International Business and Marketing at Kristianstad university at the summer of 2020. After graduation, Tarek started working in the marketing and sales field, with his latest position being Sales Manager and Digital Strategist.
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