The Social Dynamics of Teaching with Case Studies:
How My Students Rediscovered the Joy of Learning
This article details the personal history of how a New Testament
and church history professor abandoned traditional teaching methods
as he became captivated by the Harvard Case Study Method and went
on to create dozens of Case Studies designed to facilitate the interactive
learning of his college and seminary students. The advantages and
disadvantages of this methodology are examined, with special attention
being given to the needs of adult learners who find all significant
learning to be deep, personal, and transformative. The article illustrates
how the author orientates his students to readjust their learning
style to take advantage of a self-discovery mode of learning. Details
are provided as to how the Guardian Angel and Learning Partner function
to facilitate cooperative learning and the sharing of satisfaction
beyond the classroom.
Teaching with Case Studies results in a nine-fold increase in the interaction
between students in the classroom. Students respond enthusiastically because
Case Studies enables them to do deep thinking, and everyone comes into class
with something to contribute. Adult learners, more especially, learn best with
Case Studies because they thrive when they are figuring things out for themselves
and going at their own pace.
How It All Got Started
Former graduates regularly return to tell me, "You were my best teacher."
They invariably point to some combination of their experience doing my Case
Studies and my contagious enthusiasm for learning. They say, "The Case
Studies taught me how sacred texts are initially shaped by and later end up
shaping a faith community." Others tell me how they repeatedly used the
deep lessons learned: "Not a week passes when I don't make use of my discoveries
in one or the other of your Case Studies."
For many years I stayed away from the Case Study Methodology because I judged
that the time in the classroom was too precious to waste on ill-defined and
open-ended discussions. So I spent enormous amount of time in preparing lectures,
in drafting class notes, in using visual aids. Then, I started teaching adults
and discovered how methods honed on bright, sophisticated 20-year-olds offer
little help in utilizing the experience and overcoming the resistance of learners
thirty and over. Now, I never teach any class (on the undergraduate or graduate
school) without some use of the Case Study Methodology. My best courses incorporate
half of the in-class time being used in processing Cases. In these classes,
I recover the joy of teaching and, to the surprise of everyone, my students
come away learning three to four times more than what I had formerly been able
to offer using traditional methods.
How and why did I move from relying on the traditional methods to a steady reliance
upon Case Studies? How and why did I undertake the transition from linear printed
Case Studies to interactive electronic Case Studies? What does the future hold?
Each of these questions shall be taken up in its turn.
If anyone had told me fifteen years ago that I would be designing and publishing
commercial software, I would have responded, "You're crazy. I'm not a software
But then it happened in little steps.
In 1978, I attended a three-day workshop devoted to adapting the Harvard Case Study Method to religious studies. When the workshop was finished, I dutifully put everything in a folder
and placed it in my basement file cabinet where it sat for the next five years. Then, in
1983, I received an invitation to become a visiting professor in a small Lutheran
College and was asked to present two introductory courses in the New Testament.
I spent the first week talking about how the Gospels came to be created and
the problems encountered when it came time for them to be translated. Then,
in the second week, I proposed to begin a systematic investigation of Mark's
Gospel. I began by opening my Scriptures to Mark 1:21 and reading to them: "And
they [Jesus and his disciples] went into Capernaum; and immediately on the sabbath
he entered a synagogue and taught" (Mark 1:21). Then I asked, "Why
didn't Jesus wait for Sunday and go to pray and teach in a Christian church?"
My question was greeted with stunned silence. Finally, a young woman hesitatingly
raised her hand and said, "Wasn't Jesus a Jew?" When a student asks
me a question by way of answering a question, I'm curious as to what they think.
In this case, the young woman explained, "Jesus was born and raised as
a Jew." I asked the class how many of them think of Jesus as having been
raised as a Jew and as having lived his entire life practicing Judaism. After
much hesitation, five out of thirty raised their hands. At that point, I knew
that my real task of teaching had begun.
Some things are too deep and too important to be told in words (as though deep
things can be grasped in one hearing). So I fished out my folder in the basement
and began to create Case Studies designed to allow my students to discover these
deep things for themselves. This worked wonders. By the end of the class, I
had generated a dozen. Each fit on two sides of a single sheet of paper. I discovered
two unsuspected advantages of the Case Study methodology:
1. Case Studies brought excitement into the theology classroom. Most of my Lutheran
students equated the study of religion with the bone dry catechism lessons they
had reluctantly mastered prior to their Confirmation. To have imitated their
earlier teachers would have been tantamount to pouring new wine into old wineskins.
Case Studies provided the new wineskins.
2. Freshmen are notoriously shy. At every moment, they are preoccupied with
the impression they are making or hope to make. The two-thirds who are unsure
of themselves say nothing while the vocal third are only too eager to share
what they know. The introduction of Case Studies had the effect of leveling
the playing field. Now, everyone had something to contribute and no prior knowledge
gave the vocal third any marked advantage.
Adult Learners Thrive using Case Studies
In 1984, I moved to Cincinnati to take a position at the Athenaeum of Ohio.
Now, for the first time, eighty percent of my students were over 30. Some had
gone ten years without reading anything more demanding than the local newspaper.
And now they wanted to study theology! Here was a new challenge, and here again
I created Case Studies in order to turn a problem into an opportunity.
My adult learners revealed four additional reasons why the Case Study methodology
is so beneficial for them:
3. Most adults are blocked from new learning because they are so deeply committed
to their old learning. Former revered authorities are pitted against a new authority
(myself). A Case Study allows the authority of the text to regain its rightful
role. Then, both student and professor are together working to explore what
solutions the text brings to the questions posed.
4. Adults flourish when they are allowed to discover things for themselves.
This results in deep learning wherein they experience the route whereby pioneering
discoveries are made, and, having made them through their own efforts, they
feel sure of themselves and know how to lead others to the same result.
5. When adults figure things out for themselves, the resulting deep learning
translates into changed lives. Participants are constantly confiding to me how
they went on to do this or do that as a direct result of the last Case Study.
In fact, they often want to go out and convert the world by simply telling others
the new discoveries they have made. Thus, from time to time, I have to remind
them that they came to these deep discoveries about the church and about themselves
by route of a prolonged investigation. Simple "telling" someone is
generally not enough.
6. Given the occasion, every one of my students can reconstruct the route whereby
they arrived at their discoveries. Furthermore, this reconstruction takes place
with remarkable clarity years after having done the initial Case Study. This
is what I mean by "deep learning" and how it is especially important
to adults who, for the most part, forget everything that does not come to them
as deep, personal, and transformative.
The Thorny Path to Getting Published
In 1990, Jenny Froehle and Tom Bruce, editors for the St. Anthony Messenger
Press, approached me with the novel idea of taking the Case Studies that my
students had brought to their attention and of publishing a book. I told them,
"Frankly, I didn't know whether it can be done but I'll give it a try."
So I set to work expanding and refining my Case Studies such that someone outside
of my class could get interested and get involved in sleuthing and find some
verification of their results. Two years later, my manuscript was ready. Then,
quite unexpectedly, my book was rejected by the Archdiocesan censor assigned
by the Archbishop of examine my book prior to granting it the imprimatur. The
censor was unsympathetic to my "discover for yourself" approach to
the Scriptures. He wanted me to mimic the old catechisms by giving "correct"
answers using an ahistorical and uncontextual approach to the Scriptures. This
I was unwilling to do. So, with the blessing and regrets of the editors, I had
a pioneering book of Case Studies in need of a publisher.
In the year that followed, I faced a series of hits and misses. My book of Case
Studies was not the normal stuff that editors expected to publish. Some self-help
books do have interactive exercises at the end of each chapter and blank pages
for recording results. My book, on the other hand, was one continuous interactive
exercise, and blank spaces for recording results peppered every chapter. Nonetheless,
some encouragement did arrive. "I think your ms. is superb," wrote
Frank Oveis, Senior Editor of Crossroad/Continuum. Harold Rust, Director of
Trinity Press International, phoned me to say that my Case Studies combined
"meat with inspiration"--a sharp contrast to "the general pabulum"
which, from his vantage point, has glutted the religious education market. Robert
Heyer, Editor-in-Chief of Sheed & Ward, meanwhile, called me two days after
receiving my manuscript to express his enthusiasm for publishing not only the
Cases that he had received but others that I had prepared as well. Thus, having
lost one publisher due to an ill-informed censor, I ended up finding another
with over a hundred years tradition.
While negotiating a contract with Sheed & Ward, I glimpsed the possibility
of retooling my Case Studies for a computer media. Sheed & Ward was interested
in marketing software versions of textbooks; yet, their model electronic textbooks
turned out to be little more than electronic page turners. I knew that no software
enthusiast would be remotely attracted to this lackluster sort of presentation.
You can underline and write in the margins of books and carry them wherever
you go. The page turner, on the other hand, offered no advantages to offset
these glaring disadvantages. It is no wonder, therefore, that the electronic
textbook has not captured a large audience. I needed to take my software idea
So I went to The Human Element in Cincinnati and met with its director, Debbie
Loft. She showed me how, using the software program known as Authorware, I could
create what was needed! Books were linear. The reader progresses from page 42
to 43 and then 44. Authorware, on the other hand, enables someone to progress
according to their own learning curve.
Recall the Tutortexts of the 60s. These books presented the reader with a series
of problems. For the first problem, if you chose solution A, you went on to
page 11; if solution B, then to page 41; if solution C, then to page 55. Everyone
was going to get to the end of the book (and, in so doing, to learn, for example,
how to balance chemical equations or solve algebraic problems), yet, each person
progressed at their own rate depending upon how quickly they learned. Thus,
for example, in the case just cited, let's suppose solution B is the correct
response. Users who grasped this are rewarded by immediately going on to learn
something new. Users choosing solution A and solution C demonstrate some flaw
in understanding which pages 11 and 55 are respectively designed to correct.
Once this flaw is corrected and tested by one or two additional problems like
the one that the reader failed to solve initially, the user will then progress
to the new learning on page 41. Thus, Tutortexts provided the first instance
of non-linear interactive learning. Authorware, given the presentational immediacy
that disguises the non-linear aspect of its content, was an ideal tool for creating
But Authorware was very expensive. A license for the software cost $1600 and
required a 1% royalty on products commercially sold. Meanwhile, technicians
at The Human Element charged $100 per hour for refining and debugging the software
programs produced using Authorware. Nonetheless, convinced that the non-linear
electronic medium was ideal for my Case Studies, I asked Sheed & Ward to
invest $2000 in the project, and I promised to pay any additional costs necessary
to produce an electronic version out of my own pocket. Mr. Heyer turned down
my offer saying that, in a few years, new tools would be available to do what
Authorware has done for a much more modest price tag.
Frustrated, I began to explore whether I could learn to program for myself.
In the 60s, when a mainframe became available to me at Duquesne University,
I taught myself to program in Fortran. Fortran is designed to solve mathematical
problems and has little application to my Case Studies. Then I invested $100
and a hundred hours into learning C++ for Windows. I got totally discouraged.
It took a dozen lines of code just to open a window on the monitor. Then I found
Microsoft Visual Basic. I was impressed. With Visual Basic, I could design windows
quickly and easily by snapping in various functional parts (text boxes, buttons,
etc.) into a generic blank frame. With lots of practice, I soon became a skilled
Within a year, I had converted my paper Case Studies to an electronic format.
Meanwhile, I was developing additional paper Case Studies at the rate of two per
year. The majority of my time, however, was spent in perfecting the computer edition.
As I got more and more sophisticated in my programming skills, the sharp contrast
between the book version and the electronic version steadily emerged. Here is
what I wrote to my students by way of helping them make the choice between the
I am keenly aware that my book will be of little use to the "computer
set" which shops for its mental nourishment, not in bookstores, but from
electronic bulletin boards. Accordingly, I have prepared a computer edition
of my Case Studies which will be piloted by some of you taking my courses
In effect, my Case Studies now come in two distinct formats: (a) textbook
and (b) computer diskette. One can use one without the other. They are not
identical, however. The book has been designed to provide broad margins, a
rapid overview, and amply space for keeping track of your investigation as
it progresses. The computer edition incorporates presentational immediacy,
simple animations, and a dozen hidden subroutines that take note of and assist
your progress. No two people will ever progress through the computer edition
in precisely the same way while, given the sequential nature of pages in a
book, users of the textbook all progress along the same route (unless, of
course, someone skips around).
The software edition of these Case Studies incorporates pleasing colors, illustrative
drawings, sounds of the synagogue, simple animations, and a dozen hidden subroutines
("guardian angels") that take note of and assist your progress.
Software users report that the self-selected mood music, soft colors, and
enriched interactive environment allows them better to focus their attention
and organize their responses. The "flight of the dove" animation
has been singled out as "supremely relaxing" and "enabling
my spirit to soar." In the long run, I expect the software edition to
be the preferred mode for experiencing the transformative power of Case Studies.
Your experience of using one or the other this fall will decide this issue.
Everything I wrote about the superiority of the electronic version continues
to be true. Over the years, however, it was the Guardian Angel that proved to
be the feature that overwhelmingly pleased my students. Accordingly, I spent
countless hours improving the quality of feedback that the Guardian Angel provided.
This I will now explain.
Help from Your Guardian Angel
"My most satisfying discovery," reported one student, "is that
when I'm working on a Case Study, I am never alone." In practice every
user discovers that he/she has a Guardian Angel who follows his/her progress
and makes helpful interventions which show up as voice messages (for those with
sound cards) or as angel notes on their screen. The Guardian Angel in this program
consists in subroutines which monitor user progress and user input. When triggered,
she makes her presence felt by offering help and, in most cases, a blessing
as well. Besides the presentational immediacy, the relaxing animations, the
mood music, this is what no textbook version of these Case Studies can begin
This program is genuinely interactive. A user, for example, spending too much
time puzzling over a particular set of clues receives a Guardian Angel message
encouraging her to go ahead and return to the problem later. Further along,
the same user is surprised that her use of a term (such as "unclean")
is either challenged or affirmed by the Guardian Angel. Still later, this same
user is applauded by her Guardian Angel for her thoughtful and well-articulated
All in all, however, I don't want students to become dependent upon the Guardian
Angel. Accordingly, I tell them this:
If you've seen the film, Angels In The Outfield, you can understand that angels
function by way of getting started those who are most in need of help. When
the World Series arrives, however, the players are left quite on their own.
With this understanding, it is possible that the Guardian Angel of this software
may not even show up for you? She reserves her energy for moments when she judges
you really need her. Be thankful that the Lord has given you enough of a spirit
to proceed alone! On the other hand, I caution against just experimenting to
find out what can bring the Guardian Angel out of hiding. She is not fooled
when you just type gibberish or intimidated if you use cuss words. Moreover,
as in the film, when she does appear, her presence will send you away with a
stronger confidence in your own powers; hence, as you get on in the use of this
software, expect her to show up less and less.
A subroutine, accordingly, keeps track of the success quotient of the user,
and, as the success quotient increases, the Guardian Angel is directed to show
up less and less. Some users, consequently, never encounter their Guardian Angel.
Given the impact of the Guardian Angel upon my students, I went on to design
an additional feature whereby, upon completing each Case Study, users could
have a heart-to-heart talk with their Guardian Angel. The impact of this debriefing
interview has been profound. Having experienced the encouragement and assistance
of their Guardian Angel during the Case Study, students report to me that this
closing interview makes such an artful use of their own input as to give rise
to the experience that "here I felt a real and supportive presence"
of someone engaged in talking with me "as I would talk with a friend."
This heart-to-heart talk can be saved to a separate disk file which can be reviewed
later or shared with a Learning Partner or teacher. Nothing in textbook format
could accomplish such a feat. And what the Guardian Angel failed to accomplish
in her five-minute heart-to-heart exchange, the use of a Learning Partner supplemented.
Getting a Learning Partner
When I first designed these Case Studies, most everyone did them alone. This,
after all, was the traditional way of learning. But then it occurred to me that
much was to be gained by sharing the puzzlement, sharing the insights, sharing
the applications. Hence, I found a Learning Partner for anyone who was interested.
The results reported to me were spectacular! One person told me how delightful
it was to be supported and confirmed by his Learning Partner: "Even though
we were separated by age and by experience, I was surprised again and again
as to how our discoveries mutually supported each other." Another told
me that talking things out seemed to crystallize what she was learning: "I
was amazed how much I was learning and how good I got in accounting for my discoveries
to my very patient Learning Partner." One gentleman acknowledged, "I
don't think that I would have continued to faithfully plug away if I didn't
know that my Learning Partner was waiting to share his results with me every
This is what I tell my students regarding the choice of a Learning Partner:
Needless to say, if you know someone who would like to be your Learning
Partner, by all means take the initiative and ask her/him. If you don't know
anyone, warm up your modem and send an e-mail message to GetPartner@aol.com
asking to be assigned a Learning Partner by the Guardian Angel who is responsible
for pairing off users. Questions, difficulties, and praise can also be sent
to the Guarding Angel at this same address.
In studies of Distant Learning, the use of a modem and of access to e-mail
invariably provide a sense of connectedness prior to and following class sessions.
Having a Learning Partner personalizes this connectedness even further. Students
have confided to me that some of their most significant learning took place
with their Learning Partner. And so it should be! Students have much to say
to each other and can learn well from each other. My task, in the classroom,
is to enable students to facilitate ways in which students can learn from
each other. In so doing, I am multiplying my teaching outreach and, more often
than not, helping create a bond that continues long after the course is finished.
Bonding in learning produces bonding for life!
All Significant Learning Is Deep, Personal, Transformative
Get ready! When adults figure things out for themselves, this leads to a deep
learning which, not unexpectedly, almost always translates into changed lives.
In my setting, participants are constantly telling me at the beginning of each
session how they went on to do this or do that as a direct result of the last
Case Study. In fact, they often want to go out and convert the world by simply
telling others what they have learned. Thus, from time to time, I have to remind
them that they came to these deep discoveries about the church and about themselves
by route of a prolonged investigation. Simple "telling" someone may
not do the trick. What amazes me is that, when given the time, they can easily
reconstruct the entire route whereby they arrived at a discovery for someone who
was attentive and sympathetic. And this is possible years after having done a
Case Study. This is what I mean by "deep learning" and how it is especially
important to adults who, for the most part, forget anything that has not become
important for them. All significant learning is deep, personal, and transformative.
Before I developed these Case Studies, I repeatedly ran up against students who
would object to what I was presenting in class. Why? Because I would be telling
them things that they never heard before and they would be naturally prone to
judge its worth on the basis of what their former mentors and pastors had said
on the same subject. Hence, in those instances where I was not regarded as the
greater "authority" on the subject than their former "authorities,"
a clash developed. Using Case Studies, such clashes have disappeared. Why? Because
now students find out HOW one arrives at an answer to a significant question and
the AUTHORITY becomes the text itself which they now know how to unravel for themselves.
Now I don't get in the way but only facilitate their learning.
What I Say to Those about to Try Their First Case Study
Here is what I say to adults about to try their first case study:
Most people like to discover things for themselves and not simply to
be told. Adult learners, more especially, appreciate a direct involvement
in what they are learning. By taking charge of their own learning, adults
invariably find that they learn more easily, more enjoyably, and more deeply.
Deep learning immediately results in noticeable changes in the settled instincts
whereby adults perceive, evaluate, and enjoy life. These interior changes,
in their turn, provide an enlarged sense of being alive and being well in
their family, in their church, in their society.
The Case Studies within this volume (or those used within this course) were
designed for and perfected by adult learners. Each Case Study was crafted
to build upon and enlarge what you already know and experience about discipleship
and the church. At the same time, there will be surprises: you will be exploring
dimensions of the church that you have never closely examined before. Progressively,
you will become fascinated with and rooted in the past??gaining a new freedom,
a new discernment, and a new responsibility to live in the present. From time
to time, you will even find yourself struggling to sort out how the origins
and early history of Christianity square with what is going on in your church
today. What kind of Christian in what kind of church, after all, does God
Each Case Study will allow you to independently investigate some aspect of
the early church through a direct examination of primary sources. For the
first Case Study, the source will be Acts 10. Using the clues offered by Luke,
"the first church historian," you will play the role of a Sherlock
Holmes. Your mission will be to solve a mystery that is entitled "How
Conservative Peter Became the Daring Innovator." As you move through
the Case Study, you will undertake a guided investigation of the "clues"
that Luke has left behind. You will puzzle over these clues. You will make
hunches and test them out. In the end, you will decide to what degree you
have been able to synthesize the clues in such a way as to say, "Mystery
Questions First-Time Users Ask
Students preparing to do their first Case Study know that they are entering
into unfamiliar waters. Here are the three questions most frequently posed and
the response that I make:
Q1. I've never done anything like this before. What should I do if I
A1. During your investigation, you will sometimes get stuck. All good detectives
do. When this happens, don't try to rack your brain so hard and so long that
you wear yourself out. When a solution doesn't readily come, type in a few
question marks and continue. When the moment is right, come back to the issue
that you marked off for yourself with the question marks. The experience of
adult learners demonstrates that it is far better to have gone through the
whole Case Study in a reasonable period of time than to get hopelessly stuck
somewhere in the middle.
Q2. Wouldn't it be better to go to a biblical commentary?
A2. To do so would be like bringing in another detective to solve the case
for you. Give yourself a crack at it first. Make up your own mind on the basis
of the clues offered. If, in the end, you want to check out a trusted commentary
or to consult your local pastor so as to get a second opinion, go ahead. Remember,
however, that every biblical commentator (no matter how many degrees or ordinations
he/she may have) is also constrained to play Sherlock Holmes and to make sense
of the same clues that you have encountered. Hence, don't be shy about challenging
or revising what your commentator says on the basis of your own investigations.
The same, needless to say, holds true for the analysis that I have prepared
at the end of each Case Study. Every solution is "true" only to
the degree that it can satisfactorily account for the clues given by the text
Q3. How about working on a Case Study with a friend or a Learning Partner?
A3. If you are so inclined, go ahead. Some people work best when they think
out loud before a "Watson" who has his/her own insights and gnawing
questions to chew on. In practice, this often proves to be a richer way to
do detective work, even though it may be more time consuming. In order to
save time, you might want to agree with your Learning Partner to do a Case
Study independently and then come together to compare your results. In the
end, do what proves best for you.
Case One: How Conservative Peter Became the Daring Innovator
Complaints I Have Received
Initially, many learners feel insecure with the very thought of doing an investigation
on their own. They have been conditioned to think that theology is for experts
and that they would do best to listen to ordained pastors and read recognized
theologians. For their entire lives, they have been "spectators" and
have never had the chance to "enter on the playing field themselves."
For those who feel insecure, I acknowledge their insecurity and gently encourage
them to at least give it a try and then decide how adequate or inadequate they
are after doing investigation. I can truthfully say that, after using these
Case Studies for eight years, I have not yet found a single person who, after
giving it a try, was not caught up and liberated by taking charge of their own
learning. Some of those who initially were the most hesitant end up being zealots
out to convert the world to this new method.
Sheed & Ward has published volume one of a paperback edition containing
eight early church Case Studies. Three more volumes are in preparation. This
first volume, Exploring Scriptural Sources, and its electronic counterpart,
Scripture Sleuth, include the following:
Case Two: How Jesus Came to Be Chosen as High Priest
Case Three: The Transformation Effected by Ordination
Case Four: When Jesus Sided With the Women (see www.JesusWomen.com)
Case Five: Whether the Twelve Fancied Themselves as Bishops
Case Six: Collaboration as the Hallmark of Peter's Authority
Case Seven: The Transformation Effected by Baptism
Case Eight: The Kingdom Come and/or Going to Heaven?
All in all, my use of Case Studies has kept me excited about teaching. Using
the Case Study Method, everyone enters the classroom with something to contribute.
During the class, my role is to bring out into the open their various hunches
and discoveries, to negotiate their differences, and to bring about some final
synthesis. This is very engaging and stimulating for both the students and the
teacher! Thus, after twenty-five years of teaching, I am more alive in the classroom
today than I have ever been. My students, meanwhile, relish gaining the skills
to examine things for themselves and to arrive at conclusions that touch the
depths of their being. Adults, more especially, learn to take charge of their
own learning and, in so doing, arrive at that deep lifelong learning that is
both intellectually persuasive and spiritually transformative.