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The Social Dynamics of Teaching with Case Studies:
How My Students Rediscovered the Joy of Learning

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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.

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.

How It All Got Started

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 programmer!"

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 elsewhere.

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 electronic Tutortexts.

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 programmer.

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 two formats:

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 this fall.

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 to accomplish.

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 input.

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 Wednesday evening."

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 intend?

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 solved!"

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 get stuck?
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 itself.

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.

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 One: How Conservative Peter Became the Daring Innovator
  • 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.