Connecting with Diverse Students: Scenarios & Cases

When I think of simulations in the fields of nursing or education, I often think of very expensive practice manikins with arteries and veins that students can practice poking with needles (Complete Left Replacement Arm $234.00) or classroom-management programs where graduate students are paid to act as avatars that talk too much in a simulated middle-school classroom. Although these are great learning resources for students, I don’t have the resources to purchase or design these complicated simulation tools.

However, I don’t want my students to miss the many  benefits of simulation-based learning.  Scenarios and case studies are known to create significant gains in the areas of moral reasoning (O’ Flaherity and McGarr 2014) and teamwork skills (Motola, et al 2013) as well as critical thinking (Milner & Wolfer 2014). I’ve been experimenting with scenarios and case-studies on a smaller scale, and have been pleased at the level of engagement students have shown–both with the material and with each other. In addition, I’ve been especially intrigued with how scenarios  and case studies can meet the diverse needs of students.

Here’s why:

Scenarios & Cases Give Students a Common Starting Point

It’s easy to assume  all students have experience with a particular situation or concept..  However, as our classrooms become more diverse, this assumption doesn’t hold up.  Wlodowski and Ginsberg (1995) discuss that one of the keys to motivating culturally diverse students is to build on prior knowledge. If students don’t have the prior knowledge to engage with a question, they will lose motivation. I want my students to approach a discussion on equal footing, regardless of their past experience. Therefore, I ground a big question in a specific situation,  using a background video clip, article, or anecdote that can allow all students to participate.

Even before we read the syllabus on the first day of College Writing, I want my students to explore the abstract question “What does it mean to know?”  To ground this big question, I start with a smaller one grounded in a specific situation: “Is it possible to really know someone if your only contact with them is through digital means?” Before we discuss the question, we watch a scene from the MTV show Catfish, in which people who have met online have the opportunity to meet in person (usually with disastrous results.) Everyone in the class, then, has some common background about a few of the common pitfalls and possibilities of online relationships.

Then I ask students to discuss the specific question with a small group. Each group must post three answers–a “yes, because” answer, a “no, because” answer, and an “it depends” answer. From the “it depends” column we build an answer to the more abstract question,  “What does it mean to ‘know’?” before moving into the ways in which college writers need to “know” their subjects in order to write well. (We also establish– for the most part– that we wouldn’t lend money to or marry someone that we hadn’t met in person at least once.)

Scenarios & Cases Allow Students to Take New Perspectives

Although I work to make my classroom a safe place to discuss controversial issues, many students feel pressure to conform to a particular Christian point of view.  Students who come from underrepresented communities may feel that they need to speak carefully as they are representing their communities in every class discussion.  With these constraints in place, sometimes it’s difficult to discuss controversy. The work of Griffith (2012)  indicates that when discussions get heated, students often withdraw, defeating the purpose of the discussion and causing more fear and awkwardness around these difficult topics. A simulation can encourage students to shed these constraints and enter into a ‘third space’ (Cook 2005) where ideas can be more fully explored as well as offering multiple entry points (Gelbach 2007). Students can more easily shed constraints and enter the situation as someone other than themselves.

In my juvenile literature class we read the textbook chapter on censorship, which insists that all censorship in books for young readers is wrong.  Although this stance works in a textbook chapter, most people who work with young readers know that this issue is much more nuanced and complex than the textbook indicates.  Students come to class after reading that chapter with very strong opinions about this issue.

I ask students to set their personal opinions aside and take on the role of a participant in a simulated school board meeting to decide whether students should read the first Harry Potter book as part of the seventh grade curriculum. I encourage students to choose a speaker role they feel is not representative of their actual view and I give time to go back into the textbook and other resources to plan what they will say based on their assigned role. This class session is always full of surprises. Quiet students often become more vocal and those that have spoken up frequently speak less as they filter their words through their assigned role. The “school board” members genuinely lead, asking better probing questions than I ever do in class discussion.  Students’ written reflections show they are surprised in the power of this experience. One student wrote, “I was expecting judgment in class today and instead I got grace.”

Scenarios & Case Studies Contextualize Abstract Concepts

The work of Giamellaro (2014)  and other science educators indicates students often grasp difficult concepts more easily if they are contextualized, “situating a concept in a particular time and place” (abstract).  This becomes even more important when students have different cultural backgrounds, as Teaching Tolerance recommends instructors provide experiences “that show abstract concepts are drawn from and applied to the everyday world.”

One of my challenges in teaching Introduction to the Liberal Arts is helping students care about Bethel’s history–a concept that perhaps isn’t relevant to new students in the first week of school. However, after listening to all of Chris Gehrz’s podcasts on pietism this summer, I was keenly aware of how Bethel’s unique way of framing issues and problems and grows out of history. Before students read the first two chapters Becoming Whole and Holy Persons, we examine a real-life scenario. Students read the Washington Post  article by a Christian,  incoming student at Duke University who refused to read the graphic novel Fun Home for religious reasons.

Of course, many of my students had an immediate opinion about whether the author of this article was right in making this choice. Several of them immediately commented, quoting Bible verses and girding themselves to “win” the argument.  However, instead of discussing it immediately, I gave them a list of possible Christian responses, some of which agreed with the Duke student’s stance, and some of which disagreed.  We looked at them together, agreeing that all of these were responses that a Christian could reasonably make. When I sent students home to do the reading, I asked them to identify different aspects of Bethel history that might contribute to a discussion of this dilemma. In our next class session, I asked students what words should characterize a discussion of this issue at Bethel, considering its history. They chose words like “respectful,” “Christ-centered,” and  “considerate” and connected these concepts to the historical events in their reading They had entered into a context in which these historical roots became important.


Faculty members like you and me are the value-added in the classroom. We have the background, the experiences and context that can’t be provided by textbooks or video lessons.  How might you use scenarios or cases to share the richness of your experiences to meet the needs of our diverse range of students?



Center for Research on Education, Diversity and Excellence.  (n.d.)  Five standards for effective pedagogy.   Teaching Tolerance.  The Southern Poverty Law Center.  Accessed at

Cook, M.  (2005).  A place of their own:  Creating a classroom ‘third space’ to support a continuum of text construction between home and school.  Literacy.  39:2.  85-90.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1741-4350.2005.00405

Gehlbach, H. (2011).  Making social studies social:  Engaging students through different forms of social perspective taking.  Theory Into Practice.  50:4.  311-318.    DOI: 10.1080/00405841.2011.607394.

Giamellaro, M. (2014).  Primary contextualization of science learning through immersion in content-rich settings.  International Journal of Science Education.  36:17.  2848-2871.  DOI: 10.1080/09500693.2014.937787

Griffith, L.M. (2012).  Bourdieu’s game of life:  Using simulation to facilitate understanding of complex theories.  College Teaching.  60:4. 147-153.  DOI: 10.1080/87567555.2012.660710.

Milner M. & Wolfer, T.  (2014) The use of decision cases to foster critical thinking in social work students, Journal of Teaching in Social Work, 34:3, 269-284, DOI: 10.1080/08841233.2014.909917

Motola I., et al. (2013).  Simulation in healthcare education:  A best evidence practical guide. AMEE Guide No. 82. Medical Teachers.  35: e1511-e1530.

O’Flaherty, J. & McGarr, O.  (2014).  The use of case-based learning in the development of student teachers’ levels of moral reasoning.  European Journal of Teacher Education.  37:3.  312-330.  DOI: 10.1080/02619768.2013.870992

Usherwood, S.  (2015)  Building Resources for Simulations:  Challenges and Opppotunities.  European Political Science.  Sep2015, Vol. 14 Issue 3, p218-227. 10p.

Wlodkowski R. & Ginsberg, M. (1995).  A framework for culturally responsive teaching.  Educational Leadership 53:1.  17-21 Accessed online at

Susan Leigh Brooks
Susan Leigh Brooks, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of English at Bethel University in Minnesota. She loves the challenge of teaching and is thankful that with each new semester she gets another chance to “get it right.”

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