Communication: A Haven for Case-Based Learning

In continuing my quest to show people how vast the communication discipline is, I present case-based learning. Before I start, it should be noted that not all communication classes use case-based learning, and sometimes it is not appropriate. However, even communication undergraduate studies are not centered around memorization and tests, but rather focus on how the student can apply this knowledge to the real world. As with any discipline, at times it can get theoretical, but there is always a silver lining: communication theory is typically applicable in real life, and not bogged down in molecular jargon. With this being said, I understand that sometimes the hard sciences require memorization. My boyfriend is an aerospace engineering PhD student and had a three-question test this weekend that took him the entire time. Without memorization, the test would not have been possible. On the other hand, I usually spend the last two weeks of every semester writing around 90 pages for my classes. I don’t even know what would happen if he was tasked with writing that much.

Case-based learning is just that–a case-by-case basis approach to learning. It is getting students to see how your content can be applicable to not only their life, but to situations that have (or have not) occurred in reality. In communication, it is not difficult to pull communication theories into reality and make your students realize their utility. This is especially easy because many communication theories are founded in reality, based off of real phenomona. Nevertheless, it is crucial to remember that these are just theories, and none of them can be “proven.” Instad, they can be explained by using real-world examples:

Agenda Setting Theory

Defined (roughly): The news media set the public agenda for what is important in the public eye. “The media do not tell you what to think, but rather what to think about” (McCombs & Shaw, 1972).

Case example: The Vietnam War was the first time that the media’s opinion differed from what the government was saying. The United States government was stating the the United States was winning the conflict, and that is why they had to stay deployed. Meanwhile, Walter Cronkite and the media interviewed soldiers on the ground, that stated they did not know what they were fighting for. This all came to fruition with the publication of the Pentagon Papers, which stated that the government knew the United States did not have a chance at winning. This media coverage set lots of public agendas, but most saliently the agenda that the United States should not be in the Vietnam War. The public listened.

Framing Theory 

Defined (roughly):  An application of the media’s gatekeeping (choosing what the public reads in a news article) power — the power to take tidbits of information and make them newsworthy, spinning a story in a direction that makes them stand out from other news organizations (Shoemaker & Vos, 2014). When there is a breaking news story, there is often more information available than a journalist is able to publish, forcing them to focus on one aspect of the story and tell the story through that lens.

Case example: Following a mass shooting, journalists often pick one frame to write a news story about. For instance, this frame can be a gun control frame (e.g. this shooting would not have happened if the perpetrator did not have access to guns), a video game frame (e.g. this shooting happened becuase the perpetrator played violent video games), a familial frame (e.g. the perpetrator had a tough childhood, leading him to commit this crime), etc. If you were teaching a communication theory class, you could ask students what they would do if they were the journalist in this position. Maybe don’t pick such a violent topic–I only chose it because it is my research area.

Expectancy Violations Theory 

Defined (roughly): In all interactions, whether interpersonal or with technology, people have expectations for how it will go. These interactions can end in one of two ways: your expectation is met, and leaving you satisfied, or your expectations can be violated, often leaving you frustrated.

Case example: John and Heather are on their first date after meeting online. John and Heather have been texting for several weeks before meeting, and think that they have a good grasp on each other’s persona. Upon meeting, John realizes that Heather has a very aggressive personality–one that was not expressed through initial text messages. John’s expectations were violated, and there was no second date.

I could go on, but it is evident that there are many different case-based approaches to teaching communication theory. Communication does not stop at theories, but the entire discipline derives from reality, which I think is pretty neat.

In the communication classroom, especially the graduate communication classroom, there is rarely a day that goes by without a case applied to the topic at hand. I distinictly remember my undergraduate media effects class, where the class was always enthralled with what the professor had to say. Although we were learning theory and other phenomena, all of the concepts were applicable to the real-world, with constant examples played in class.

I can get behind case-based learning, as I have seen it’s potential unfold in not only classes I have taken, but classes that I teach. I agree with Foran (2001) from the University of Michigan case-based teaching page: case-based learning increases student engagement by miles.


Foran, J. (2001). The case method and the interactive classroom. The NEA Higher Education Journal, 17(1), 41-50.

McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). The agenda-setting function of mass media. The Public Opinion Quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.

Shoemaker, P. J., & Vos, T. P. (2014). Chapter 6: Media gatekeeping. In D. Stacks & M. Salwen (eds.), An integrated approach to communication theory and research. Taylor & Francis Group.

5 Replies to “Communication: A Haven for Case-Based Learning”

  1. Thanks for sharing, Britt! It is always great reading another perspective about the field of communication and its application to PBL/CBL. I agree that our major definitely has practical advantages, as communication theories are usually relevant to most people’s daily lives (i.e. reading the news, deciding whether to support an organization or creating a compelling social media post). While some may argue that communication is almost too simple/basic compared to other disciplines in academia, I think incorporating excellent research theories and studies helps students and other researchers from other disciplines see its value in our world.

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Brittany! I’m definitely thankful to be in the communication program. It would be hard to do with the amount of dense readings that we have if we did not have a case-based learning approach with the lively discussions we have had in our classes. I especially enjoyed our debates in our mass media and public opinion class where we have a chance to talk about topics that really do relate to our every day lives, such as social media advocacy and the ultimate influencer of public opinion. Those classes where we are able to engage on real world issues based on our application of theory have been the ones I have enjoyed the most in our program.

  3. This was a fascinating read! This may be incredibly naïve of me (counselor, not communications major), but I didn’t realize all the theoretical orientations that go into mass or micro communication. The latter I am more familiar with, being a counselor. So, all to say, I really enjoyed the information you provided here and using case-based learning to provide powerful examples of those theories! Thank you so much!

  4. Hi Brittany! I really enjoyed reading about how applicable CBL is within your communication discipline and I think you are right-on about how in different disciplines (e.g. aerospace engineering) CBL would probably look very different. As an engineer myself, I think CBL is an essential part of the engineering education – after all, we are being trained to be creative problem solvers – however, I think CBL can be less accessible to engineering students because of (like you mentioned) a large amount of background material (equations, etc.) that is required to actually solve the problems. It sounds like CBL and communication is a perfect match – almost as if CBL has already been seamlessly integrated into the curricula. Do you have any ideas on how you might make CBL even better in your field?

  5. Hi Brittany,

    That’s a brilliant example actually. It shows the verifiability aspect of an idea and an idea is imagined to be fundamentally virtual. Your post however seems to draw a distinction between ‘actual’ and ‘virtual’, which is at times considered problematic in some of the humanities orientations, It has its own benefits as well. But, however, what your post made me think about is the knowledge with verifiable ground and without one. This in turn leads me to think about the very idea of knowledge itself. I am hoping to write about this aspect in detail in my blog. Thanks for provoking my thoughts Brittany !

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