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Teaching with the case study method

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

  • Socratic cross-examination
  • directed discussion
  • symposia or debates
  • public hearings or trials
  • research teams
  • term papers
  • dialogue paper (e.g., 10 exchanges between two characters from opposing sides of an issue and 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:

  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.

These two categories are helpful in planning and writing cases but obviously, there is some overlap.Case studies are written in a way that can be both an open and dilemma case, or a closed and analysis case, and so on. Do you want there to be one or many answers to a particular case study scenario? We tend to see closed cases in the medical field for obvious reasons: the correct medication must be administered to alleviate certain symptoms presented in a case because the consequences to an incorrect analysis can be dire. In other disciplines, a potential remedy or strategy may depend entirely on the students’ philosophical orientation through which they interpret the facts presented in the case: strategies to dealing with a disgruntled employee would depend entirely on management style, type of business or industry, etc.

The second category, analysis or dilemma cases, informs your writing process and also the way in which you want your students to analyze and interpret the case. An analysis case may be easier to write given that you are simple retelling facts whereas a dilemma case requires you to develop more compelling situations and characters in order to draw the students into the dilemma. These dilemma cases are particularly useful in sparking class debate, integrating information from various disciplines into an assignment (e.g., a dilemma case written around the topic of logging in the Pacific Northwest may involve interpretations based on economics, biology, sociology, and political science).

Case Study Analysis Process

Based on a variety of different case study analysis models, we’ve identified four basic stages students follow in analyzing a case study. This process does vary depending on your discipline and if you are using case studies as a 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.

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 should provide you a general guide in identifying the various issues and criteria comprising a good case study.

  1. Identify a course and list the teachable principles, objectives, topics, and issues (often times, 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 effected 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, instructional objectives, 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 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 students will study independently between sessions. It takes an alert and actively involved instructor to facilitate and to be the necessary guide for the group.

References and Resources

Barrows, H. S., & Tamblyn, R. M. (1980) Problem-based learning: An approach to medical education. New York: Springer.

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University of Buffalo-SUNY:

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