My case-based learning experience

It was the spring of 2015 when I was in my junior year when I had to finish an elective course requirement and was forced to take a course called Nonlinear oscillations. The only reason I took the course is that I didn’t have pre-requisites for any of the options available, and the instructor of this course was not very stringent on the pre-requisite criteria. Nonlinear oscillations course was a theoretical course with advanced calculus, and throughout the course, the instructor took us on a journey of solving several complicated differential equations that describe different incredible (satisfying) phenomena.

The instructor had provided me a brief idea of what the course entails, and I was not looking forward to taking the course – way too much math. However, the course has transformed my perspective towards complicated math, as now I had understood that why an equation is they it is more important what it is or how huge it is; and motivated me to pursue graduate studies. Furthermore, I still used some of the ideas taught in that course and have used them in six out of seven journal papers that I have published. For the reasons mentioned above, I believe that the Nonlinear Oscillations course is the most valuable and impactful in my student journey.

As mentioned earlier, just like in most of the classes, the instructor started with basic concepts and introduced different case studies (equations), which became more and more complicated as the semester progressed. The crux of the course was teaching students to use a perturbation toolbox that can be used to gain useful insights into nonlinear differential equations. The instructor not only provided detailed analysis for every case study but also explained it’s importance and application. Further, the instructor went above and beyond what is required by providing us with relevant research articles and notes of experts in the field. Due to the nature of the course content, I don’t think it is possible to utilize the material taught in the course to a new problem. However, I believe that the instructor was successful as some of the students who took the course still use the toolbox in our research.

Since the instructor used pieces of already existing solutions to teach the toolbox, this type of teaching is case-based teaching [1]. I think this approach is ideal for a course where a novel project component is not realistic and would implement a similar strategy in my teaching. Since I have some personal experience, I will share my experiences, in particular, the problems that I solved and the reasoning behind why I did what I did to enhance the learning experience to my future students.

[1] Janet L. Kolodner, Paul J. Camp, David Crismond, Barbara Fasse, Jackie Gray, Jennifer Holbrook, Sadhana Puntambekar & Mike Ryan (2003) Problem-Based Learning Meets Case-Based Reasoning in the Middle-School Science Classroom: Putting Learning by Design (TM) Into Practice, The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 12:4, 495-547, DOI: 10.1207/S15327809JLS1204_2

Heated research group meetings

Having difficult discussions is the topic that resonated the most to me in the readings related to inclusive pedagogy. I firmly believe that to safely execute a difficult conversation by de-escalating the unexpected landmine moments that are beneficial for knowledge exchange is a quintessential skill that every teacher should possess. An essential point that I noted in the reading is that the discussion in an academic setting should never be about the people and that it should always be about ideas that they are exchanging.

I’m interested in applying the tips & strategies for difficult discussions, which are tailored for a classroom setup, to research group meetings (RGMs). RGMs are a lot like a classroom but are also very different. In a typical RGM, students present their work, and each presentation is often followed by a thorough discussion involving peer students (colleagues) and a principal investigator (PI) – the teacher. More than usual, the conversation can become heated as the presenter and audience might not share the same level of understanding of the presenter’s work or might disagree with the assumptions made and (or) conclusions drawn by the presenter. It is particularly important to enforce inclusive pedagogy and maintain a healthy relationship in RGM as the students often work together for a considerable amount of time (more than a semester), which is not always the case in a classroom setup.

As suggested in the reading material, I think the PI should set up ground rules of exercising an RGM and enforce them whenever needed for constructive intellectual dialogue. Since it is not possible to anticipate the needs of every student, the PI should be willing to make changes to the rules if needed. It is also beneficial for the PI to know about potential hot-buttons of individual students so the PI can intervene if they’re triggered in a discussion. More importantly, the PI should know his/her hot-buttons and have a plan to make sure that the debate is not compromised. Bluntness is often confused with rudeness and is a potential cause for individuals getting offended, which results in a heated discussion. It is desired that the PI should be mindful of this behavior and bring the focus back to the ideas. On a final remark, I believe that a rude comment by a student might be a sign of something more complicated happening in the student’s life. Therefore, I think the PI should have a confidential meeting and direct the student to helpful resources available at the university.