Designing a Case-Based Collaborative Learning Case

Crafting a strong case requires not only selecting a problem for students to solve but also thinking through how students will solve this problem. Effective cases require a certain level of productive struggle from students. Effective CBCL case solutions are not merely fill-in-the-blank or, as Barbara Cockrill says, “Google-able.” Instead, instructors may strategically bury key information or include potentially relevant details to add complexity to the case. Often the hardest part of crafting a case is achieving, in Cockrill’s words, “desirable difficulty.”


Barbara Cockrill, Harold Amos Academy Associate Professor of Medicine

Student Group



Harvard Medical School


Homeostasis I

Group Size

40 students

Additional Details

First-year requisite

  • Identify and/or design cases in which answers are not straightforward, immediately evident, or easily searchable. This will better ensure that students are using each other as resources to apply the concepts they have learned.
  • Factor in timing when crafting cases. You might consider working through the case yourself to gauge how long each portion could take (just remember that activity will likely take longer for students who are learning this material for the first time). 
  • Be careful not to include so much information in the case that its coverage limits student discussion.
  • Consider segmenting cases so students are given new information in digestible chunks. When doing this, devise a structure that reflects the way professionals within your discipline might work through a problem of practice.
  • Jonassen and Hernandez-Serrano argue in favor of using stories to improve student problem-solving when designing case-based instruction (2002).
  • Stark and colleagues compared two case-based formats, example format versus feedback format, and assessed student diagnostic competence. While example format was effective under certain circumstances, feedback format more fully supported diagnostic competence (2011).