Teaching with Case Studies

The Case Study method is based on focused stories, rooted in reality, and provides contextual information such as background, characters, setting, and enough specific details to provide some guidance. Cases can be used to illustrate, remediate, and practice critical thinking, teamwork, research, and communication skills. Classroom applications of the case study method include:

  • Socratic cross examination
  • Directed discussion or research teams
  • Public hearings or trials
  • Dialogue paper (e.g., 10 exchanges between two characters from opposing sides of an issue that finish with a personal opinion or reflection)

At the Fifth Annual Conference on Case Study Teaching in Science hosted by the University of Buffalo-SUNY, two broad categories of case studies were identified (recognizing potential overlap):

  1. Open or Closed: Open cases are left to one’s interpretation and may have multiple correct or valid answers depending on the rationale and facts presented in the case analysis. Closed cases have specific, correct answers or processes that must be followed in order to arrive at the correct analysis.
  2. Analysis or Dilemma: Analysis Cases (Issues Cases) are a general account of “what happened.” Dilemma Cases (Decision Cases) require students to make a decision or take action given certain information.

Case Study Analysis Process

Based on a variety of different case study analysis models, we have identified four basic stages students follow in analyzing a case study. This process may vary depending on discipline and if case studies are being used as part of a problem-based learning exercise.

  1. Observe the facts and issues that are present without interpretation (“what do we know”).
  2. Develop hypotheses/questions, formulate predictions, and provide explanations or justifications based on the known information (“what do we need to know”).
  3. Collect and explore relevant data to answer open questions, reinforce/refute hypotheses, and formulate new hypotheses and questions.
  4. Communicate findings including citations and documentation.
Arrow coming out of an open book with chart table and graphics

How to Write a Case Study

Effective case studies tell a story, have compelling and identifiable characters, contain depth and complexity, and have dilemmas that are not easily resolved. The following steps provide a general guide for use in identifying the various issues and criteria comprising a good case study.

  1. Identify a course and list the teachable principles, topics, and issues (often a difficult or complex concept students just don’t “get”).
  2. List any relevant controversies and subtopics that further describe your topics.
  3. Identify stakeholders or those affected by the issue (from that list, consider choosing one central character on which to base the case study).
  4. Identify teaching methods that might be used (team project, dialogue paper, debate, etc.) as well as the most appropriate assessment method (peer or team assessments, participation grade, etc.).
  5. Decide what materials and resources will be provided to students.
  6. Identify and describe the deliverables students will produce (paper, presentation, etc.).
  7. Select the category of case study (open or closed/analysis or dilemma) that best fits your topic, scenario, learning outcomes, teaching method, and assessment strategy. Write your case study and include teaching notes outlining the critical elements identified above.
  8. Teach the case and subsequently make any necessary revisions.

Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

PBL uses case studies in a slightly different way by providing a more specific structure for learning. The medical field uses this approach extensively. According to Barrows & Tamblyn (1980), the case problem is presented first in the learning sequence, before any background preparation has occurred. The case study analysis process outlined above is used with PBL; the main difference being that cases are presented in pieces, with increasing amounts of specific detail provided in each layer of the case (e.g., part one of the case may simply be a patient admission form, part two may provide a summary of patient examination notes, part three may contain specific medical test results, and so on).

The problem-based learning approach encourages student-directed learning and allows the instructor to serve as a facilitator. Students frame and identify problems and continually identify and test hypotheses. During group tutorials, case-related questions arise that students are unable to answer. These questions form the basis for learning issues that students will study independently between sessions. This method requires an alert and actively involved instructor to facilitate.


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Guide to Teaching with Technology Copyright © 2019 by Centre for Pedagogical Innovation is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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