Experiencing the case as a student team

Student collaboration is instrumental in effective CBCL classrooms. In contrast to impersonal lecture settings, small groups provide students with supportive, low-stakes environments to wrestle with course concepts and test out solutions before sharing their responses with the wider group. In Barbara Cockrill’s CBCL classroom, small groups of four are maintained through the entirety of the semester. The close relationships that students build with each other are sustained through norms that groups set for themselves. Cockrill reflects that this collaborative component is “almost always the top thing that a student will mention as really important part of this type of learning.”


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

  • Consider having students engage in CBCL in the same groups over an extended period of time. Strong peer relationships that have been built over time provide students with the support they need to deliberate and collaborate in a CBCL class.
  • Though you might allow students to create their own groups, consider designing groups yourself. This way you can be strategic and arrange collaborative teams so that each member brings specific strengths to the table.
  • Encourage students to develop norms within groups, as these can make groups more efficient and yield supportive learning spaces for students. Share examples of what strong group behavior has looked like in past semesters.
  • Benefits of working in groups are due to pooled knowledge, opportunities for explanation and argumentation, a decrease in memory load, and increased opportunities for observational learning (Nokes-Malach et al., 2015). 
  • Social interdependence theory posits that peer-interaction and relationships are central to learning (Johnson & Johnson, 2009).
  • While researchers warn that there are costs to collaborative learning, this instructional modality is effective when engaging in complex tasks (Kirschner et al., 2011)