Tutorial Methods of Instruction

Case Studies For PBL Peer Tutors

Each PBL tutor registered for CHEM-467/BISC-422 Tutorial Methods of Instruction will write a teaching case based on his or her experience. These cases should focus on some critical issue or critical incident associated with the tutoring experience and should be written so that they will promote reflection and discussion among others who might have or potentially might encounter similar issues. The format may vary, but brevity and drama heighten the utility and interest as do clever titles and engaging dialog. Prof. White has published an extended case study, "Dan Tries Problem-Based Learning,"  about the challenges of a fictitious faculty member, Dan Sherman, who confronts the challenges of using problem-based learning for the first time. Two additional case studies "Dawn's Eight O'Clock" and "Water Striders" by Prof. White are presented below. These and about ten other cases, some written by former students in Tutorial Methods of Instruction appear as trigger "tapes" on a video "Groups in Action" produced by Drs. Deborah Allen, Nancy King King, and Hal White in 2001.

Dawn's Eight O'Clock

A teaching case written by Hal White for Tutorial Methods of Instruction, 1996.
Annotated for a trigger tape 9/6/98.

Prof. Sherman's Introduction to Anthropology class meets every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and starts promptly at 8 a.m. The course uses a problem-based learning format. Each of the seven groups in the class has an upperclass tutor-facilitator who, like Janine, previously has taken the course and done well in it. This is the first PBL class for Janine's students and they are apprehensive about the upcoming first hourly exam which would include a group-graded part.

Prof. Sherman: (Wrapping up about 5 minutes of introductory remarks and announcements before turning the class over to the groups.) "Well, that's all I have to say this morning. Are there any questions before I let you get started?

                (As usual there are no questions and attention shifts to individual groups.)

Janine:     "O'kay, Where shall we start this morning? What did you ..(interrupted by Jill).."

Jill:         "Where's Dawn? This must be the fifth or sixth time already that she has been late or absent for class. Why is it our responsibility to waste class time and tell her what she missed?"

Bob:         "Yeh, not only that, when she is here, she keeps asking questions about things we have already discussed. I'm not interested in her getting credit for our hard work." (Nods of agreement from others in the group.)

Janine:     (Sensing that things might get out of hand.) "Would you feel any differently if you discovered that Dawn had a serious personal problem that caused her to be absent but she is embarrassed or reluctant to share it with you?"

Bob:         (Unmoved) "O'kay, say she has mono or is on drugs, does that change the situation? She's ruining the course for us. I'm for kicking her out of the group."

Debby:     (Similarly unmoved) "I doubt she has anything wrong. She's just lazy or likes to party late. There are lots of students in my dorm just like her. They avoid eight o'clocks like the plague."

George:     "I hate eight o'clocks too but this course is required for my major and I make a point of getting here on time. How long would Dawn last if she gets a job that starts at eight? ...or even earlier!"

Janine:     (Still trying to generate another perspective.) "Then you all think her personal situation is irrelevant?"

Jill:         (With hint of reflection.) "I don't know what to think. You know? Like, if I knew for sure she was just lazy or hungover, I would have no sympathy. On the other hand, can we just exclude her from the group part of the exam or kick her out of the group if it wasn't part of our group guidelines? You know what mean?"

Janine:     (Seizing the moment.) "Do you think this group has any responsibility for Dawn's behavior or trying to change her behavior?"

Bob:     (Seated in a position where he can see the door behind Janine, says in a quiet voice.) "Here she comes."

Dawn:     [Dawn enters the room quietly but directly; hair uncombed, looking tired, and carrying vending machine breakfast (a Coke and a Pop-Tart). She takes her seat at the group's table.] "Sorry. My alarm didn't go off. ...What did I miss?"

What appropriate consequences might a group impose on a member who frequently misses class without notice?       Should circumstances factor in?

What might Janine do to limit the disruption to her group?

Water Striders

A teaching case written by Hal White for Tutorial Methods of Instruction, 3/15/98.
Annotated for a trigger tape 7/13/98.

As a tutor in a PBL Introductory Biology course, Jared Diggs was being challenged. The five members in his group got along fine but they seemed to be satisfied with a superficial level of understanding. They just didn't seem to do any more than they felt they had to. They didn't seem to have any curiosity to pursue problems a bit deeper and see how interesting this all was. He was sure that today would be no different.

(As group members arrive before class, they sit down and engage in friendly social conversation in Jared's presence but Jared is not involved. He is looking through the plans he has for today's class. The instructor gives the cue for the class to start.)

Jared:     (In an upbeat but somewhat forced way.) "Well guys, how did it go over the weekend? What did you find out about your learning issues? (Without waiting for a volunteer).....Judy, Let's start with you today. What did you learn about naphthalene?"

Judy:     (Reading from a sheet of paper she pulls from her notebook.) "Naphthalene is a white, crystalline, aromatic hydrocarbon with a formula, C10H8."

Jared:     "Where did you find that information?

Judy:     "In my roommate's dictionary"

Joe:         "Did the dictionary say anything else?"

Judy:     "No."

Jared:     (Still looking at Judy.) "What does aromatic mean here?"

Judy:      (In a tone and expression that reflects a guess.) ".....Does it mean it smells?"

Jared:     (Looking around the group.) "Who can help us out here?"

                (Silence, no one makes eye contact)

Jared:     "Pete, You are taking organic chemistry. What do you think naphthalene looks like?

Pete:      (After some hesitation and glances for help from other group members.) "A long chain, maybe?"

Jared:     "Hank, What do think?"

Hank:     (Hank sits with arms folded, leaning back in seat, seemingly paying attention to things out the window. He has not brought anything to class.)

               "Sounds good to me."

Jared:     (Somewhat sternly) "You know, I think there are some things here you guys ought to look up."

Jared:     "Jen, Does what Judy found out about naphthalene tell you anything about why we wanted to look it up in the first place?"

Jen:         (A conscientious student who would rather be in a lecture class. She typically comes to class with several reference books.) "I don't know. ....You seem to want us to say something specific, but I don't have any idea what you want. Why don't you just tell us?"

Jared:     (Ignoring Jen's question) "Ed, Why did we want to know about naphthalene?"

Ed:         (Looking through his loose papers trying to find one that would jog his memory.) "I'm not sure, but didn't it have something to do with the kid getting sick."

Hank:     (Yawns a bit loudly and glances at Judy.)

Judy:     (Smiles back with amusement.)

Jared:     "Good, if that's the case, what more would you want to know about naphthalene?"

Ed:         (In a tone that sounds like he has figured out what Jared is driving at.) "What does it smell like?"

Jared:     (Displaying his frustration with a smirk.) "Sure. That might be worth knowing and even interesting, but how would knowing its smell help you with finding out why naphthalene induces hemolytic anemia in some individuals? If you were a doctor and this kid were your patient, would the smell of naphthalene be the most important thing for you to find out?"

It was like pulling teeth to get the students to say anything substantive and understand it. Jared thought of them as water striders constantly skimming the surface and never getting wet. It seemed to him that the students had wasted their weekend in a mindless search for information. Jared decided it was time to get serious but he wasn't quite sure what he could do that would, figuratively, break the surface tension. He contemplated just getting up and walking out saying he would return when they were ready to discuss the problem.

What factors determine when, whether, or how a person knows to dive into a problem?

Are those elements present in Jared's group?

What should Jared do to get students to do more than skim the surface of a problem?

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Created 15 March 2000, Last updated 25 February 2001 by Hal White
Copyright 2000, 2001 Harold B. White, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, University of Delaware, Newark, DE 19716