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Course Information

Instructor Info:Christopher Jarvis
Office Extension x5580
Megan Dobro
Office Extension x5541
TA Info:Nora Stedman
Term: 2012F
Meeting Info: Monday Wednesday
10:30 AM - 11:50 AM Cole Science Center 333
10:30 AM - 11:50 AM Cole Science Center 333

Students in this course will learn about the biological function of selected human organs and systems through the study of actual medical cases. Not all human systems will be covered, but students will gain a good understanding of how diseases affect the body and how they are diagnosed. Working in small teams, students will develop diagnoses for medical cases through reviewing descriptions of patient histories, physical exams, and laboratory findings. A human biology text, medical texts on reserve, and Internet resources will help students track down information they need to solve these medical mysteries. Students will also learn to find and read scientific research articles on topics of their choosing and will learn to write analytical reviews of these articles. These reviews will form the basis of final papers in which students choose particular diseases or treatments to investigate in detail and present their findings to the class.

Course Objectives:

In this course you will be working with a case based method of instruction adapted from materials used by Harvard Medical School (Waterman, 1995; Waterman, Matlin, and D’Amore, 1993; Matlin 1992; and Hafler, 1991) As Matlin described the course, “The primary objective of this course is to enhance your abilities to be self sufficient and critical learners while learning a lot of cell biology. Specifically we hope you will develop skills to identify key elements of scientific problems, to determine the essential information needed to attack those problems, to seek out and find that information, to clearly and concisely discuss your findings with your peers, and to work together to synthesize experimental approaches to a solution. It is expected that your strategy will take into account conduct-of-science issues such as family, and gender considerations, student/post-doc/advisor relationships, and scientific politics.” (Matlin, 1992)


The case approach has been used in medical schools nationwide for years as both a teaching tool and as a problem-solving tool. In clinical pathology conferences (CPC) physicians bring cases which puzzle them to teams of MD’s, Ph.D.’s, and med students. The team attempts to offer a fresh approach to the problem. They role play the initial interaction of the patient with the physician and then the team asks questions and request tests. The team only receives test results if they ask for them. Often the team comes up with a different diagnosis or approach because they have different levels of knowledge and areas of expertise than the initial physician. We have used this approach in Human Biology since 1994 (Bruno and Jarvis, 2001).


You will work in a study group of 3-5 students. Your instructors or TA will wander from group to group listening in on your approaches and thoughts, but our role is not to provide information during those times. We can help in other ways when needed but not by giving you answers (that is your groups job). Keep in mind that we don’t have all the answers either, these are real medical cases (the names of the patients have been changed of course). We are there to encourage critical thinking, to guide you to resources where you may find some answers and assist with the group process if you can’t solve that on your own within the group. You however are in charge of your group, not us.


Okay, how does all this work in practice?

Everyone receives a copy of Part 1 of the case, one person will read it out loud to the group. Then the group brainstorms a problem list:

  • What is the problem to be solved?
  • What do we know so far?


After this discussion you generate hypotheses (more is better than fewer right now).

  • What may be happening?
  • What further data do we need to test these hypotheses
  • List and assign learning tasks for the group


Between classes you will find answers to the questions you’ve assigned yourselves and then you report back to the group.

  • Share results of the learning tasks
  • Continue the discussion


Continue this cycle as needed until you have eliminated most of the diagnoses and have arrived at your best hypothesis.

  • Then receive part 2 of the case (if there is one) and read it aloud
  • Redefine the problem
  • Generate further hypotheses
  • List data needed
  • Identify learning issues and assign tasks
  • And on you go to solve the case


Background lectures will be given as needed, although usually these occur after the case unless many case groups bring us questions early on. Some groups work better than others, so a group liaison should be selected early on that will communicate with us regularly. You will all be asked to fill out feedback forms that will critique all your team members (and yourself) at various times.


Suggested team roles (to make that teamwork more efficient). They will change from time to time. It may seem awkward to assign roles but the teams that do often work better. You can all do each role but having one responsible for it will make a difference. Trust us, if you take this seriously your team will function more effectively.

  • Recorder

This person will record on the board (or newsprint) so everyone can see the lists of

  1. What do we know?
  2. What do we need to know
  3. What do we think is happening


  • Facilitator

This person will ensure everyone in the group has a chance to speak AND that everyone in the group does contribute!


  • Skeptic This person helps the group stay honest. Don’t accept, ask:
  1. How do we know that?
  2. Could there be another explanation?
  3. Why may that happen?


This will keep the team from getting too narrow to quickly, a common problem even among physicians. Arriving at one diagnosis too quickly (or one treatment option) may exclude some other important considerations. In your case reports you will need to list all your hypotheses and very specifically why they have been eliminated from consideration.

  • Task Manager

This person helps keep the group on task! Some limited discussion off topic can help keep a team fresh and cohesive but your job is to help this patient (and to learn), so stay on task! So this job involves asking the group:

Who is going to look this up?

What hypotheses are we considering?

What should we do next?

Have we listed everything we know?


Each team member will keep their own case log (a journal notebook is good for this). Include all brainstorming lists, notes to remind you to look things up, your thoughts about the case, references and resources you have used, where you found what information, and your speculations, frustrations, insights etc. These will be collected on occasion and will be part of your final portfolio due at the end of the semester.



Your textbook is a good reference source

Your instructors and TA

Library books and Journals



Other faculty

Group members


Medical textbooks in the classroom




Bruno, M.S. and C.D. Jarvis. (2001). It’s Fun, But is it Science? Goals and strategies in a problem based learning course. The Journal of Mathematics and Science.  4 (1):9-24


Matlin, Karl S. (1992). Cell Biology by the Case Method, Department of Pathology, Harvard Medical School.


Hafler, Janet (1992). The Role of the Tutor and Learning Agenda in Problem-Based Tutorials, in Tutoring Excellence: Faculty Development for the New Pathway, 1 (2):4,5 Harvard Medical School


Waterman, Margaret A. (1995). Introduction to Case Writing for the Life Sciences, presented to the Coalition for Education in the Life Sciences, Madison, WI.


Waterman, M.A., K.S. Matlin, and P.A. D’Amore (1993). Using Cases for Teaching and Learning in the Life Sciences: an Example from Cell Biology. Presented to the Coalition for Education in the Life Sciences, Woods Hole, MA.


Evaluation Criteria:

Class attendence and participation

Final Portfolio complete by the last day of class

  • This will include your case log
  • All your case reports
  • Your draft and final article summaries
  • Your final paper
  • Your final presentation (notes, handouts, etc)
  • Your group participation sheets
  • Any other writing that we hand back to you (problem sets, quizzes, etc)

Final Presentation

Self Evaluation

Additional Info:


Required: Biology of Humans - 3rd edition

by Judith Goodenough, Robert A. Wallace and Betty A. McGuire

New this can cost less than $50 (used less than $10). Check the web and order it! This will not be in the book store, order now!