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Case-Based Learning

For in-depth resources on case-based learning, see also CAST's UDL On Campus web site.

Overview: What are cases?

Cases can be used to—

  • Tell a story of the workplace that can be visualized
  • Richly model best practices in the workplace
  • Provide a step before learning-by-doing
  • Help learners problem-solve issues and learn from one another
  • Encourage reflection on work practices and allow learners to provide feedback or discuss work practices
  • Help learners to avoid a narrow view of a problem

Cases are representations of real-world situations. They are “stories with a message.”1 They represent a step before learning-by-doing and are therefore critical when classroom learning is designed to teach knowledge, skills, and practices that will be used in the workplace.

Cases take many forms. For example, they can be written out as stories with a set of discussion questions, or they can be multimedia presentations that provide rich visual and auditory representations of people engaged in their work setting. They can present a simple or complex set of problems for learners to resolve.

What they are good for?

Cases are good for simulating an experience and allow us to reproduce an experience with others.2 When a group of learners analyzes a case together, they must tease apart the many factors that generated the situation and consider how they would respond if faced with the dilemma presented. Because cases offer the perspectives of different individuals, they allow us to see that problems must be framed and resolved by people who often have different interests, values and emotions around the issue.3 Cases can illustrate general principles and practices, both good and bad. Cases capture our attention because humans are story-telling animals.4

How are cases used in postsecondary education?

Cases have been used in postsecondary in different ways. In law schools, real cases are used along with Socratic “cold call” questioning to get at general principles and rules. In medical schools, cases are used in small-group, problem-based learning to ensure that future doctors understand how to analyze and resolve difficult problems. Business schools use a method of guiding case discussions to teach learners how to evaluate facts and make decisions when faced with difficult challenges that have no clear answer. Some cases do have a clear right answer. However, more often there are multiple potential solutions that depend on the context and the various stakeholders.5 Cases are used to produce professionals that have the knowledge they need to act.6

An Example: Case-based Learning in Open Education Resources (OER) for STEM

This example provides some ideas of how to use case-based learning and the Universal Design for Learning framework together to produce Open Education Resources that are relevant and can be widely adopted.

STEM Bridge Course Case Videos in the Math Unit

The Open Professionals Education Network (OPEN) is a collaborative effort of Creative Commons (CC), Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative (OLI), Center for Applied Special Technology (CAST), and the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges (SBCTC). The OPEN group is currently providing comprehensive infrastructure and capacity-building support services to 2011 round 1 and 2012 round 2 grantees of the United States Department of Labor (DOL) Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College & Career Training (TAACCCT) program.

As part of this work, OPEN is co-developing a multimedia case-based learning approach with the National STEM Consortium, a 10-college Consortium Round 1 TAACCCT grantee. The co-development course uses case-based learning scenarios to represent the ways STEM skills are used in real life (e.g., arithmetic for budgeting, measurement for car part prototype development, using graphs for identifying water safety).

Case-based learning scenarios are beneficial in a number of ways: many of the soft skills represented in cases such as good communication, effective decision making, and professionalism, generalize to many STEM career pathways and therefore cases are less susceptible to becoming obsolete as workplace needs or processes change; they help adult learners picture why they are learning basic skills such as algebra and how these skills are used on the job; and, cases can be easily aligned with industry-identified skills. In fact, in the STEM course, industry partners have been brought into the development effort starting right at the curriculum design stage to provide stories of work practices, artifacts from the workplace including sample phone calls, images, and videos. This ensures that STEM skills will be learned in the context of realistic workplace scenarios. OPEN’s industry partners plan to use these cases in their own internal training programs, a reuse option made possible by the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) licensing requirement, and a means of having learning carry across postsecondary and workplace settings.

Design of Cases for Learner Variability using UDL and Multimedia

Cases, like any pedagogical approach that promises to be effective, become effective for all learners if they are designed according to the principles of Universal Design for Learning and leverage multimedia to apply these principles. UDL principles call for providing 1) multiple means of representation, 2) multiple means of action and expression, and 3) multiple means of engagement. In the National STEM Consortium course development effort, we have implemented alternative representations of information through multimedia cases. Dorothy Leonard, who teaches the case method at the Harvard Business School, suggests that cases are ways of hypothesizing, and that hypothesizing helps memory and memories are visual.7 In this way, developing multimedia cases that use visual media such as video and images seems a natural way to help individuals to bridge visual memories to what they are learning. Yet, visual media is not accessible for everyone, so a UDL approach calls us to also provide transcripts that describe the setting as well as the people’s actions as an alternate representation and to provide closed captioning for audio.

Representation is not only about providing alternate media to make sure that all learners can engage with the case, it is also about providing support for higher-level recognition tasks by providing options for comprehension. Comprehension has to do with “constructing useable knowledge, knowledge that is accessible for future decision-making,” according to the CAST UDL Guidelines. It “depends not upon merely perceiving information, but upon active ‘information-processing skills’ like selective attending, integrating new information with prior knowledge, strategic categorization, and active memorization.” (For more information, see

Students that may be coming to college for the first time, or may have had unsuccessful college experiences need to be able to perceive information through the senses, but also able to perceive the relationship between that information and their role as a student who is responsible for making use of that information in meaningful ways including connecting that information to future career choices or areas of future study. Multiple means of representation requires us not just to consider representations of information, but also representations of roles and practices that help people connect new knowledge to the real world of work. In our design of the STEM bridge course, we sought to showcase a wide range of people that were in the cases, with different abilities, weaknesses, hopes for their careers etc., because we wanted a range of learners to be able to connect the information they were learning with their career choices.

Because the use of cases in the STEM bridge course provides a different representation of how math is used, it can alter the meaning of math and understanding of its purpose for these learners, many of whom may have anxiety brushing up math skills, or may think they are no good at math. This contextualization of learning in turn opens up different pathways for thinking about action and expression (UDL principle 2) and engagement (UDL principle 3). Learning-by-doing means something different if you have represented the knowledge to be gained in a contextualized fashion through stories, cases, videos of work in action, all possible with the use of media and OERs.

Screenshot of OPEN cased-based learning: video case

Text description of image: This is a screenshot from the STEM bridge demo course. At the top of the screen, the page title and menu show that this is “Beginning Algebra” section under “Unit 2: Mathematics.” The video “Jay and Electric Vehicles” is shown in the center of the page and a young man “Jay” with a blue industrial work suit is on the screen. The closed caption on the video says “Jay is a student in an electric vehicle program who has recently gotten an internship.” On the side, four thumbnail images from the video case are shown; an electric car part, a manual with car parts diagrams, a metal caliper measurement tool, and algebraic equations written on a board.

Screenshot of OPEN cased-based learning: following integrated activities

Text description of image: The left image shows a reading passage of a conversation between the characters in the case regarding how many battery packs go in a car. Below the paragraph, an image of a station wagon is provided to show the context with an overlay of 10 battery cells. The right image is a screenshot of a follow up activity to solve the question that was raised in the conversation. The question asks Jay to calculate the length and height for the individual battery cell using algebraic equation, so he has a complete listing of all dimensions of a battery cell and figure out the maximum number of battery cells that can physically fit into the car.

Why Cases and UDL for OER in TAACCCT

As the OER movement grows, broad adoption of OER will rest on sound pedagogical approaches that have a track record with adult learners. Good instructional design practices align pedagogical approaches to the content, the many different learners, and industry needs around skills and competencies. This meets employers’ needs for employees with an understanding of what they will do on the job, and meets learners’ need for engaging learning materials that connect with prior knowledge such as how to function in the workplace. Most TAACCCT grantees are using evidence-based practices such as I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) in order to improve retention in community colleges. The case-based approach is an innovation that builds on this I-BEST model and allows for industry partners to be brought more closely into curriculum development. Case-based learning resources use can be scaled through use by other colleges who adapt the case story to different target industries where the same basic skills are required but in different jobs. Embedding pedagogy in OER makes them more than just educational content resources. They become learning resources that are engaging and more effective.


1. Herreid, C. (1998) What Makes a Good Case? Journal of College Science Teaching 27(3), p. 92.
2. Leonard, D. Lecture Presentation. The Art and Craft of Discussion Leadership, November 5, 2010. Harvard Business School Publishing Seminar.
3. Ibid.
4. Herreid, C. F. (1997). What is a case. Journal of College Science Teaching, 27(2).
5. Ibid.
6. Ibid.
7. Ibid.

Instructional Design & Development Guide; 10 Easy Steps

  • Choose a topic for your case and decide where it fits in your curriculum.
  • Set up timeline for planning, development, and production with UDL as the guiding framework.
  • Create an outline for your case story.
  • Write a detailed case and storyboard.
  • Get feedback from all stakeholders.
  • Revise and finalize your storyboard.
  • Produce the case media segments.
  • Test your case.
  • Resolve any issues discovered from testing.
  • Embed the case in your curriculum.

Last Updated: 07/14/2014

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