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Can You Crack The Case? Mystery-Based Digital Learning for Investigative Thinkers

Location: W192b

Explore and create
Pre-registration required

Explore and create : BYOD

Monday, June 25, 2:30–3:30 pm
Location: W192b

Jamye Abram   Brian Cooper   Lyn Hawks   Tracy Walker  
Learn how to create an immersive mystery-based case scenario in which students explore key concepts and skills of a specialized discipline. This framework uses digital artifacts and virtual settings to plunge students into a real-life professional mystery where they assume the role of doctors, lawyers, archaeologists, etc.

Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices useful
Attendee device specification: Smartphone: Windows, Android, iOS
Laptop: Chromebook, Mac, PC
Tablet: Android, iOS, Windows
Focus: Digital age teaching & learning
Topic: Project-, problem- and challenge-based learning
ISTE Standards: For Students:
Knowledge Constructor
  • Students build knowledge by actively exploring real-world issues and problems, developing ideas and theories and pursuing answers and solutions.
Computational Thinker
  • Students collect data or identify relevant data sets, use digital tools to analyze them, and represent data in various ways to facilitate problem-solving and decision-making.
Creative Communicator
  • Students communicate complex ideas clearly and effectively by creating or using a variety of digital objects such as visualizations, models or simulations.

Proposal summary

Purpose & objective

This session will provide educators with an opportunity to examine “mystery-based learning,” a new framework for digital learning that is both immersive and student-driven while taking place solely over the web. In this model, students working in a learning management system experience a “case,” rather than a module or course, where they collect, analyze, share, and examine content while playing the roles of doctors, museum curators, archaeologists, disease detectives, or lawyers. The presenters will share a case template to guide participants through the process of designing a meaningful storyline and selecting content and skill objectives that support mystery-based digital learning experiences.. Participants will interact with models of digital artifacts used to create an immersive mystery for students to unravel. Participants will learn how to best utilize a case template to ensure students are engaged with real-world role play, problem-solving, and product creation within a given professional role.

This immersive model has been refined through two years of student participation. While the platform for this completely online experience is Canvas, student activities and case artifacts are deployed through the use of free web resources to simulate environments, characters, and artifacts that allow students to interact with the case in an authentic manner, and this model could be easily adapted for a blending learning environment. Tools used include Thinglink, which allows students to manipulate interactive images to collect information about the case, and also allows students to generate products demonstrating their understanding of visual and knowledge content; Voki, which is used to present original characters in the case setting, such as doctors, fellow researchers, witnesses, etc.; and G Suite applications, which allow students to collaborate, create, and share in real time. In this model, teachers, or “Lead Investigators,” manage the controlled release of new facts and information in order to provide students with continual opportunities to reevaluate the core mystery.

While students develop important content knowledge and skills in this process, the true markers for success are in the problem-solving skills and behaviors developed by tackling and flexing around a real-world problem that is constantly evolving. Students are tasked with re-examining their original ideas and findings through the lens or breaking news and new information, requiring them to focus more on the process and less on the details of the content itself. Their successes are demonstrated in their final products, which share their mystery solutions in a variety of formats that include speeches, mind-maps, annotated artifacts, infographics, and other means that highlight the process and analysis as much as the solution.


Welcome Activity (10 Minutes) : Audience participants will begin the session with an immersive, decision-based interactive activity by taking on the role of a student investigator in a mystery case within our model. This is a device-based activity, but we will also have the content on display. As participants enter, they will be provided a link to a live Canvas site and invited to begin the welcome activity as active participants in a case. They will interact with artifacts to work toward a decision that students would tackle in week one of our case. Participants will share their decisions, as well as discuss their experiences with the activity. After this initial introductory activity is completed, presenters will be shown actual discussion posts from students who have similarly completed the case activity.

Unpacking The Welcome Activity & Other Activities (10 Minutes): Presenters will review this activity and other immersive, hands-on activities and student products utilized in our model in order to allow students to collect, analyze, share and examine evidence while pursuing the answer to the case mystery. We’ll begin by breaking down the steps and tools involved in creating the activity and the tools used in the activity. We will discuss the asynchronous and synchronous discussion topics that follow the activity and other similar activities, and their objectives and goals for student participants. We will then discuss other immersive, hands-on activities using Thinglink, Voki, and Padlet and the student products generated from student choice and case work.

Overview of the Mystery-Based Learning Model (10 mins): We will then present an overview of the umbrella model that is used in our six, subject-area specific cases. We’ll ask questions about audience understandings of problem-based learning, the model that sets the foundation for our framework. We will present the time and hours in place for our specific implementation of the model.

Case Scenario and Activity Templates (5 mins): Presenters will share two templates that are used in developing the mystery-based learning cases: the Case Scenario template that helps conceptualize the overall case, including objectives, plot, roles, and the mystery to solve; and the Activity template that is used to build out each individual activity that allows the case to progress, including decision points that task students with choosing options along the way based on current information and understanding.

Design Your Own Mystery-Based Learning Activity (15 Minutes) : Participants will work in small groups to design and storyboard their own decision point activity for a mystery-based learning case of their invention. They will populate a template that includes a general plot summary, the role of the student in this case, the point in the story where this decision will take place, the 1-2 skills and/or content objectives needed to make the decision, the proposal for digital artifacts used to share information and interact with the case, and the instructional technology tool that provides the best format for delivering the decision to the audience of choice. Participants will share their activities in a showcase space accessible to all participants.

Share Out (5mins): Participants will have the opportunity to share about their process of designing a decision point activity, as well as ask questions or make comments about other groups’ activities.

Q&A (5 mins): Presenters will respond to questions around the model.

Supporting research

ISTE Student Standards

The work of Joyce VanTassel-Baska and Catherine A. Little, Content-Based Curriculum for High-Ability Learners

The work of Dr. Shelagh Gallagher in problem-based learning

The work of Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, Understanding by Design

More [+]


Jamye Abram, Duke TIP
Brian Cooper, Duke TIP
Lyn Hawks, Duke TIP
Tracy Walker, Duke Talent Identification Program

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