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JTE Inside Author Interview: Examining the Impact of Case-Based Learning for Preservice Teachers

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In this interview, the JTE editorial team shares  insights from Adrie A. Koehler, who writes on behalf of her work with co-authors Peggy A. Ertmer and Timothy J. Newby from their article “Developing Preservice Teachers’ Instructional Design Skills Through Case-Based Instruction: Examining the Impact of Discussion,” published in the September/October 2019 issues of the Journal of Teacher Education.

What motivated you to pursue this particular research topic?

I started my career as a high school business teacher. Although I loved my job and cared about my students, transitioning into the education profession was challenging; and as a beginning teacher, I often felt uncertain about my teaching abilities. Ultimately, my struggles with transitioning into the teaching profession prompted me to consider important questions:  What is effective and meaningful teaching and learning, and, am I accomplishing it? During graduate school, I had the opportunity to complete an instructional design “case” course with Dr. Peg Ertmer, a co-author on this project. In this course, students were required to analyze several case studies based on real-world instructional design problems. After only a few class meetings, I was hooked on case-based learning. Although I was intrigued by the situations presented in the cases and felt that I was vicariously gaining professional experience with events with which I was not personally involved, I realized that ultimately I was developing problem-solving skills. This experience sparked my research interests, and from my initial investigation, I determined a few things:  1) most of what teachers do on a daily basis—especially when developing learning experiences while managing constraints and diverse needs—is a problem-solving process, 2) problem-centered methods, like case-based learning, can be effective strategies for facilitating the development of problem-solving skills in learners, and 3) the effectiveness of problem-centered methods rests, to a great extent, on the facilitator.

Because I was interested in supporting pre-service teachers’ transition into the education profession, enabling them to avoid some of the challenges (and mistakes) I made during this process, I decided to explore the idea of developing problem-solving skills, specifically related to the instructional design process. Leading up to this study, Peg and I had completed research that examined how a case facilitator uses discussions to cover the problem space afforded by a case study. We had explored this topic with graduate students in an online advanced instructional design course. Not only did this research give us the chance to investigate how to improve pre-service teacher preparation, it also allowed me and Peg to compare our results in a different context, with a different set of participants. Finally, from my observations and experiences, constructing an intentional discussion is something that is commonly overlooked in the teaching and learning process, and our research gave us an opportunity to explore this.

What were some difficulties you encountered with the research?

In general, measuring the development of problem-solving skills is difficult. As a result, a lot of research tends to focus on learners’ perceptions of their problem-solving growth. Developing research methods that were both robust enough to capture student growth and effective enough to provide an accurate depiction of ways that learners were impacted after participating in different case-based learning methods was important for this research. While we were able to use multiple data sources to examine students’ problem-solving processes, this was a challenging process. However, our methods do offer a new way of considering problem-solving in instructional design settings. Another challenge with this research was capturing the discussions of approximately 120 students (46 groups). In this research, we opted to collect group-reported discussion data, which certainly provided information about what the learners identified as most relevant in their discussions but did not provide a complete understanding of what they discussed. In future research, we hope to take a closer look at specific discussion data when using similar methods.

Writing, by necessity, requires leaving certain things on the cutting room floor. What didn’t make it into the article that you want to talk about?

As part of this research, we collected additional data that could help us take a deeper look at the problem-solving processes used by the pre-service teachers. However, we did not have enough space in the article to discuss everything!  In our JTE article, we focused on learners’ individual and group performances and their lessons-learned blog reflections. In our broader research, we analyzed the topics groups reported discussing, sources of inspiration groups reported tapping for their solutions, and end-of-course evaluation responses. Our analysis of these sources suggested that, on the surface, regardless of discussion format (instructor-facilitated vs instructor-supported), students seemed to work in similar ways (e.g., focusing on previous learning experiences and finishing the required tasks). However, we also found that students participating in the instructor-facilitated discussions used more sources of inspiration and considered learner and environmental characteristics more frequently as they designed their solutions. In other words, when students completed the case-learning process with an active facilitator, they took additional time to more deeply understand the case problems, while learners participating in the instructor-supported section appeared most concerned about completing the assigned task versus understanding key challenges. We hope to publish the results of these analyses soon.

As another component of this research, we also investigated how learners used social media to support their problem-solving efforts. From this research, we found that learners used social media tools in positive ways (e.g., to brainstorm ideas, connect with experts, work within a collaborative space). However, overall, much of their tool use was underutilized, and learners reported making decisions based on unproductive reasons. Even though the learners had the appropriate technical skills, as novice problem solvers, they needed more guidance on how to effectively use the tools in productive ways. More details about this work are described in our Journal of Research on Technology in Education article.

What current areas of research are you pursuing?

Here are some topics that we are currently investigating-

Having studied how individuals use discussion to collaboratively address the problem space for a given case study, we are also interested in examining what individual problem solving looks like during case discussions and how this compares with the collaborative effort.

As social media tools are readily available, we are studying how educators approach personal and professional social media use and how such tools can support problem solving during the teaching and learning process.

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