A Comparison of Case Study and Traditional Teaching Methods for Improvement of Oral Communication and Critical-Thinking Skills

Article excerpt

Scientists must be able to communicate scientific and technical issues to a variety of professional and lay audiences in both oral and written form. In today's collaborative workplace, scientists are frequently called on to work in teams that include a variety of nonscientific participants. Scientific researchers are continually required to justify research and development needs to funding entities. Promotion within corporate, academic, and other entities inevitably requires the ability to communicate outside the scientific community. Furthermore, scientists are increasingly called on to explain scientific research and its broader implications to various nonscientific communities to inform the general public and even influence the government.

Undergraduate science curricula often focus primarily on problem solving, computation, and scientific concepts. Such a skill set, however, is not broad enough to encompass all the tasks and challenges science students will encounter in their careers. Science curricula that provide students with significant opportunities to improve their communication skills will provide a useful service. Development of such communication skills must be specifically focused on conveying scientific concepts to both scientific and nonscientific audiences. Students must understand the importance and relevance of communicating scientific concepts to a nonscientific audience and should be encouraged to identify possible hurdles that such an audience will encounter.

Purpose and background of study

The purpose of this study is to compare two teaching methods, a traditional paper presentation method and a case study method, to teach oral communication and critical-thinking skills. The course is part of the curriculum of the Forensic Science Program at Eastern Kentucky University. This program was established in 1974 and is one of only 16 undergraduate forensic science programs in the United States that is accredited by the Forensic Science Education Programs Accreditation Commission. The forensic science program has a strong chemistry and molecular biology focus with additional skills specific to forensic science added to the curriculum. The program has always recognized the need for forensic scientists to be both scientifically competent and able to effectively communicate difficult technical concepts to lay persons who make up juries. Thus, a course entitled Expert Witness Testimony has been a part of the program since its inception.

Students take the Expert Witness Testimony course in the second semester of the junior year. This semester is a "communication intensive" semester in the program. Students give technical oral presentations in two forensic science classes to an audience of their peers, as well as three speaking sessions during the Expert Witness Testimony course.

The Expert Witness Testimony course is intended to familiarize students with courtroom procedure and the role of the expert witness. A more important goal, however, is to have the students assimilate and apply knowledge gained from previous forensic science courses and to communicate results, concepts, and conclusions at a level that would be understandable to a jury. The goals of this course are directly related to the Eastern Kentucky University Quality Enhancement Plan, which strives to "develop informed, critical, and creative thinkers who communicate effectively."

The case study instructional method is a well-established instructional tool with extensive literature (Camill 2006; Gallucci 2006; Herreid 2005, 2006). In the case study approach, students are provided with true or realistic "stories" that form the basis for study. This approach has been used most often in law, medicine, and business schools, but has become more common in college-level science courses in recent years. The use of the case study approach is an excellent fit for the Expert Witness Testimony course, which combines law and science. …