Center for Teaching
Case studies are stories that are used as a teaching tool to show the application of a theory or concept to real situations. Dependent on the goal they are meant to fulfill, cases can be fact-driven and deductive where there is a correct answer, or they can be context driven where multiple solutions are possible. Various disciplines have employed case studies, including humanities, social sciences, sciences, engineering, law, business, and medicine. Good cases generally have the following features: they tell a good story, are recent, include dialogue, create empathy with the main characters, are relevant to the reader, serve a teaching function, require a dilemma to be solved, and have generality.
Instructors can create their own cases or can find cases that already exist. The following are some things to keep in mind when creating a case:
- What do you want students to learn from the discussion of the case?
- What do they already know that applies to the case?
- What are the issues that may be raised in discussion?
- How will the case and discussion be introduced?
- What preparation is expected of students? (Do they need to read the case ahead of time? Do research? Write anything?)
- What directions do you need to provide students regarding what they are supposed to do and accomplish?
- Do you need to divide students into groups or will they discuss as the whole class?
- Are you going to use role-playing or facilitators or record keepers? If so, how?
- What are the opening questions?
- How much time is needed for students to discuss the case?
- What concepts are to be applied/extracted during the discussion?
- How will you evaluate students?
To find other cases that already exist, try the following websites:
- The National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science , University of Buffalo. SUNY-Buffalo maintains this set of links to other case studies on the web in disciplines ranging from engineering and ethics to sociology and business
- A Journal of Teaching Cases in Public Administration and Public Policy , University of Washington
For more information:
- World Association for Case Method Research and Application
Book Review : Teaching and the Case Method , 3rd ed., vols. 1 and 2, by Louis Barnes, C. Roland (Chris) Christensen, and Abby Hansen. Harvard Business School Press, 1994; 333 pp. (vol 1), 412 pp. (vol 2).
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Developing Educational Case Studies
Case studies can be used in education as a teaching tool. Many students learn better using real-life examples, and case studies can be an effective way to learn in the classroom.
Case studies have a history of being used in business schools, law schools, medical schools, and other master programs. These cases can come in different forms, with some being basic "what would you do?" type questions, and some being very detailed and requiring data analysis.
Assignments and homework for these types of studies usually require students to answer open-ended questions about a possible solution to a problem. Usually these projects are done by a group of students, as group learning is often more effective.
What Are Case Studies?
A case is basically a story. A case recounts events or problems in a way that students can learn from their complexities and ambiguities. The students can learn from the original participants in the case, whether it is business people, doctors, or other professionals.
The students are able to take over a case, and dissect key information in order to find solutions to the problems. This allows students to be able to:
1. Determine pertinent information
2. Identify the problem and its parameters
3. Identify possible solutions
4. Form strategies and ideas for action
5. Make decisions to fix the problems
The History of the Case Study Method
The founder of the case study method was Christopher Langdell, who attended Harvard Law School from 1851-1854. He was very studious, and spent most of his time in the library. This is when he started to formulate the case method.
At the time, law schools used the Dwight Method of teaching, which was a combination of lecture, recitations and drills. This method focused highly on memorization, and didn't allow for much actual learning, just rote repetitions.
Langdell's method was completely different. He required his students to only read cases, and to draw their own conclusions. To help them, he published sets of cases with a short introduction.
Narrative Case Studies
Narrative case studies use a comprehensive history of a problem, along with the several parts of the typical case study, to teach using the case method. With this method students try to find better solutions to problems, and find ways to analyze why their chosen solution is best.
An example of a narrative case study is the Tylenol cyanide scandal. In 1982 seven people died after ingesting Tylenol tablets laced with cyanide.
Almost immediately Tylenol's market share dropped from 37% to 7%. Johnson & Johnson, the parent company had to work quickly to save the product. They reintroduced the product with tamper resistant packaging and a large media campaign.
Johnson & Johnson was successful. The Tylenol brand recovered and regained customer trust.
The Tylenol Scandal case study details everything that happened from beginning to end. It also details each step J&J took when turning the scandal around…both positive and negative steps.
This case study is now used in business, marketing, crisis management and other disciplines to help them solve their own problems. They can look at what J&J did to solve their problems, and use that information to fix their own issues.
As a teaching tool, this case study allows the students to analyze each step Johnson & Johnson went through, and whether or not any other solutions were possible.
A decision-forcing case doesn't provide an outcome, and therefore forces the students to determine an outcome on their own. Often these cases have an epilogue, which completes the story.
The formats of these cases can vary. They can be standard written cases, PowerPoint presentations, movies or movie clips, or even TV or news stories. Regardless of the type of case, they all:
llustrate the issues typical to the type of case study
Show theoretical frameworks
Leave out assumptions
Show realistic ambiguities and tensions.
Common Case Elements
Most cases, whether legal, business, or other, have the same common elements. These are:
1. A decision maker who has a problem that needs to be solved.
2. A description of the context of the problem.
3 . Data that supports the study, which could include interviews, documents or images.
Case studies can be done individually, but are usually done in a small group so students can problem solve together as a team.
The Case Study Method
The case study method is two-parted. One part is the case itself, and other part is the discussion of the case. Case studies are chosen for teaching based on how rich the narrative is, and whether the people in the study are required to make a decision or solve a problem.
When using case studies, the focus is not on the data or the analysis. The students analyze the case and try to find ways to find solutions and solve problems. This method is most often used in groups, with a focus on classroom discussion.
When students are given a study by a teacher, they should attack each case with the following checklist.
1. Thoroughly read the case and formulate your own opinions before sharing ideas with others in your group or class. You must be able to identify the problems on your own, as well as be able to offer solutions and alternatives. Before the study is discussed with the group, you must be able to form your own outline and course of action.
2. Once you have a clear understanding of the case, you can share your ideas with other members of your group.
3. Open discussion of the case and listen to the input of others in your group and class.
4. Reflect back on how your original ideas changed as a result of the group discussion.
Teaching the Case Method
Professors have several ways to use case studies in the classroom. The first way is as an adjunct to normal lectures. A lecture might discuss a certain facet of business, and the case study can be used to backup the information learned in the lecture.
This type of teaching doesn't require large case studies, and can get by using excerpts and other extractions. The benefits of this method are that it only needs little preparation, and is a great way to introduce case studies into the classroom.
The second way is to use the case studies to challenge the student's solutions, and help them formulate new strategies. This is the typical case study method. Students work together to formulate solutions and conclusions, and allow students to learn from each other.
Gaining Skills With The Case Method
The case method is an excellent way for students to learn new cognitive skills, as well as improve their analysis and evaluation skills. Here is a list of the skills that can be improved, and how the case method helps this process.
Knowledge – This is the student's ability to remember information and ability to recall it.
Comprehension – This is the student's ability to understand what they are learning. The case method helps this by using examples in a real-world context.
Application – This is the student's ability to use their knowledge in new ways. This could mean new rules, ideas or theories. The case method helps students understand how these ideas and theories are used in the real world.
Analysis – This is the student's ability to break down information so it can be better understood. Since analysis is the basis of the case method, this skill is greatly improved.
Synthesis – This is the student's ability to form new ideas. Case studies help this skill by requiring them to identify new information and concepts. This is developed during group activities and discussions.
Evaluation – This is the student's ability to judge information for a particular reason. Again, this skill is a hallmark of the case study method, and the use of cases will help improve the student's evaluation skills.
Case Method Advantages
The largest advantage of the case study method is that students must actively and openly discuss the principals of the study. This helps develop their skills in:
Analysis, both quantitative and qualitative
Dealing with ambiguities
Case Method Criticisms
While the case study method has been seen as a very successful way of learning, it does have its criticisms. Here is a list of some of the drawbacks of the learning method.
1. Students often fight for airtime, and may not fully think through their thoughts. Many students want to be first, and place more importance in that than being right. This results in analysis that is superficial and not well thought-out.
2. Students in business management courses don't always have the same background experience, and this can contribute to issues with experience.
3. The background information provided for the case analysis is often limited to whatever was supplied with the case.
4. If cases are too old, they may no longer be relevant. Cases that are older than 10 years shouldn't be used if possible. This is particularly the case with business studies, since changes occur quite frequently in the business world. For example, case studies that detail companies before the Internet are often out of date. You wouldn't want to study Barnes & Noble without knowing how eBooks affected their bottom line.
5. The case study method is not a good way to learn the technicals of finance and accounting. Not every MBA student has a strong background in accounting or finance, and vice versa. Furthermore, students don't always attend business school at the same time in their careers. Many students get their MBA's while in their 20's, while other students wait until they are in their 30's or 40's.
6. With the case method, there isn't a right or wrong answer. This can cause students to leave the lesson without key takeaways. In addition, this method cannot work for areas that have unique answers…this is why the case method would never work in physics or mathematics.
Those who disagree with the total case method teaching method believe the best alternative is a balance between cases and lectures.
The most recent iteration is a combination of both. They offer lectures to learn the fundamentals, and cases to determine whether or not the students understand the fundamentals enough to apply them to real-world situation.
The Case Study Method in Business School
Most top business schools use the case study method, including Harvard Business School. When students are given a case, they are required to be the decision maker, and they must read the study and identify the problems.
Once the problem has been identified, the student must analyze the situation and find solutions that can solve the problem. There can often be several possible solutions.
Students work in teams to solve the cases, discussing each facet of the case with their classmates. The teacher or instructor guides the students when necessary, and will often suggest courses of action when necessary.
Case Studies in Psychology and Social
Case studies are used in just about every discipline, from business, to the arts, and education. But case studies are most prevalent in psychology and the social sciences, where case studies form a strong basis for all other clinical and non-clinical research.
If you are studying psychology, a part of your education will include the use of case studies. Case studies are how we learn and expand our knowledge, and how we build on older ideas and theories and attempt to make them better.
The Most Well-Known Psychological Case Studies
One of the best ways to learn about and better understand psychological case studies is to read and familiarize yourself with the most well-known case studies. These are the studies that every psychology student will learn about.
The John-John case was a pioneering study about gender and sexuality. This is one of those unique cases that cannot be recreated.
John-John focused on a set of twin boys, both of whom were circumcised at the age of 6 months. One of the twin's circumcisions failed, causing irreparable damage to the penis. His parents were concerned about the sexual health of their son, so they contacted Dr. John Money for a solution.
What makes the John/John case study so valuable?
What can be learned about the psychological case study method itself?
Dr. Money believed that sexuality came from nurture, not nature, and that the injured baby, Bruce, could be raised as a girl. His penis was removed and he was sexually reassigned to become a girl. Bruce's name was changed to Brenda, and his parents decided to raise him as a girl.
In this case, Dr. Money was dishonest. He believed that gender could be changed, which has since been proven false. Brenda's parents were also dishonest, stating that the surgery was a success, when in fact that wasn't the case.
As Brenda grew up, she always acted masculine and was teased for it at school. She did not socialize as a girl, and did not identify as a female. When Brenda was 13 she learned the truth, and was incredibly relieved. She changed her name to David, and lived the rest of her life as a male.
Jill Price was believed to have a condition called hyperthymesia, which gave her a remarkable memory. She could remember the tiniest details, such as what she ate for lunch 10 years prior on a random Monday.
This condition caused her great harm because she focused on all the negative events in her life, even the small ones like derogatory remarks. Price participated in the study hoping it would help her deal with her condition.
Through the study, it was determined that Price wasn't a memory whiz, and that her abilities were completely blown out of proportion. She wasn't able to memorize lists of words or names. Her memory was focused only on events that were relevant to her. For example, she could remember famous dates, but only if they were relevant to her or her life.
Doctors also did brain scans, and through the study, determined that she had a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. Price was obsessed with the negative things that had happened to her in her life, and that obsession cause the increased memory in her instance.
Future research will have to be done to corroborate this theory.
H.M., the initials of Henry Molaison, is probably the most important case study in the field of neuroscience. HM was in a bike accident at the age of 9, and it caused brain damage that resulted in seizures.
In an attempt to end his seizures, surgeons removed small slivers of his brain from the hippocampus, which we now know is the area of the brain that is critical to memory. As a result of the surgery, HM was left with amnesia. He was unable to form new memories, and had issues remembering old memories.
This case study was the basis for future studies of human memory. Because of this study, we know that memory has two parts that work together. One part is located in the hippocampus, which is where facts and memories are stored. This one study revolutionized the study of the brain and memory.
Phineas Gage was a railroad worker who was injured in a workplace accident. He was packing gunpowder into a rock, and a spark caused the tampering iron to shoot through his cheek into his skull. His frontal lobe was damaged, but he survived the accident and was able to talk and walk immediately after.
The study was done about his personality, which immediately changed. He became short tempered and angry. He lost his friends, family, and his job. This study allowed researchers to study the frontal lobe and how it is involved in higher mental functions. It also proved that the brain was the basis for personality and behavior.
By now you are probably familiar with Genie case, and why it was such a breakthrough case study. Of all the case studies that exist, it is Genie that has allowed the most inroads to be made in the psychological field.
Genie was a feral child. She was raised in completed isolation, with little human contact. Because of the abuse she withstood, she was unable to develop cognitively. From infancy she was strapped to a potty chair, and therefore never acquired the physicality needed for walking, running and jumping.
If Genie made a noise, her father beat her. Therefore, she learned to not make a noise. Once she was found, researchers studied her language skills, and attempted to find ways to get her to communicate. They were successful. While she never gained the ability to speak, she did develop other ways to communicate. However, the public soon lost interest in her case, and with that, the funds to conduct the study.
However, her case was extremely important to child development psychology and linguistic theory. Because of her, we know that mental stimulation is needed for proper development. We also now know that there is a "critical period" for the learning of language.
The Most Well-Known Case Studies in Sociology
Sociology is a science much like psychology. In sociology, the study is of social behavior, how it originated, and how it exists today. Like most sciences, it isn't perfect, and therefore benefits from the use of case studies.
Sociological case studies have helped us identify problems in our culture, and have helped define possible solutions. Here are some of the most well-known studies in sociology, the ones that defined and shaped the field.
Fast Food Nation
Fast Food Nation is a book by Eric Schlosser, about how the fast food industry is related to the American life.
Americans love their fast food. It is said that most toddlers are able to identify the golden arches of McDonald's before they are able to read. Fast Food Nation uncovered some disturbing facts about the fast food industry. He discovered that fast food has widened the gap between rich and poor, and has contributed to the obesity epidemic.
His study details how much of this happened, and most of it is very unsettling.
The study also touched on other sociological issues, such as farming and ethics. Since fast food restaurants needed more beef than ever, cattle farmers would find ways to make bigger cows, and would find ways to own more cattle. This often led to overcrowding and poor care of the animals.
Milgram Obedience Studies
Stanley Milgram did a study from 1960 to 1974 in which he studied the effects of social pressure. The study was set up as an independent laboratory. A random person would walk in, and agree to be a part of the study. He was told to act as a teacher, and ask questions to another volunteer, who was the learner.
The teacher would ask the learner questions, and whenever he answered incorrectly, the teacher was instructed to give the learner an electric shock. Each time the learner was wrong, the shock would be increased by 15 volts. What the teacher didn't know was that the learner was a part of the experiment, and that no shocks were being given. However, the learner did act as if they were being shocked.
If the teacher tried to quit, they were strongly pushed to continue. The goal of the experiment was to see whether or not any of the teachers would go up to the highest voltage. As it turned out, 65% of the teachers did.
This study opened eyes when it comes to social pressure. If someone tells you it is okay to hurt someone, at what point will the person back off and say "this is not ok!" And in this study, the results were the same, regardless of income, race, gender or ethnicity.
Why are sociological case studies necessary? Name a sociological case study that has changed the way we think about culture today.
Nickel and Dimed
Nickel and Dimed is a book and study done by Barbara Ehrenreich. She wanted to study poverty in America, and did so by living and working as a person living on minimum wage.
She set up her experiment with three rules.
1. When looking for a job, she is unable to use her education or skills.
2. She had to take the highest paying job she gets, and do her best to keep it.
3. She had to take the cheapest housing she could find.
She lived in three cities in Florida, Maine and Minnesota.
Through her experiment, she discovered that poverty was almost inescapable. As soon as she saved a little money, she was hit with a crisis. She might get sick, or her car might break down, all occurrences that can be destructive when a person doesn't have a safety net to fall back on.
It didn't matter where she lived or what she did. Working a minimum wage job gave her no chances for advancement or improvement whatsoever. And she did the experiment as a woman with no children to support.
This study opened a lot of eyes to the problem of the working poor in America. By living and working as the experiment, Ehrenreich was able to show first-hand data regarding the issues surrounding poverty. The book didn't end with any solutions, just suggestions for the reader and points for them to think about.
The Culture of Fear
This study was written in 1999 by Barry Glassner, a professor of sociology at the University of Southern California. The study investigated why Americans are so engrossed with fear.
The study examined the organizations that caused the fear, and how they profited from the anxiety that resulted. Politicians, television news and magazine programs, were all found guilty of peddling fear, which causes people to worry needlessly and cost billions of dollars.
The study investigated why Americans have so many fears today, and why Americans are more fearful now than they were 20 years ago. Life is not more dangerous now than it was 20 years ago, and yet Americans are more afraid.
Glassner discovered that there are businesses and organizations that actually profit from these fears, and as such, find ways to create them. This of course leads to wasted money, time and resources.
Much of the blame is placed with the news media, who constantly inundates us with news stories that will increase their ratings. This is called the media-effects theory.
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What are case studies.
Case studies are stories or scenarios, often in narrative form, created and used as a tool for analysis and discussion. They have long been used in higher education, particularly in business and law. Hatcher et al. (2018, pp. 274-5) write:
Case studies, at their core, are metaphors for larger, more general classes of administrative problems. When presented to a class, they are narratives allow students to envision themselves in the role of the protagonist and experience the application of theory to practice by struggling with and attempting to solve the problem or issue that the protagonist faces.... Out of the metaphor students can derive a series of “lessons learned” that they can apply or transfer to other, more general issues that may arise in their professional careers.
They further note (p. 276) that "[a] good case is one that achieves its learning objectives by means of a story and a critical analysis of the situation".
Cases are often based on actual events, which adds a sense of urgency or reality. Case studies have elements of simulations , although for case studies the students tend to be observers rather than participants.
Why use case studies?
Case studies are effective ways to get students to practically apply their skills and their understanding of learned facts to a real-world situation. They are particularly useful where situations are complex and solutions are uncertain.
They can serve as the launching pad for a class discussion, or as a project for individuals or small groups. A single case may be presented to several groups, with each group offering its solutions.
Used as a teaching tool, a case study:
- engages students in research and reflective discussion
- encourages higher-order thinking
- facilitates creative problem solving
- allows students to develop realistic solutions to complex problems
- develops students' ability to identify and distinguish between critical and extraneous factors
- enables students to apply previously acquired skills
- creates an opportunity for students to learn from one another.
Case studies bridge the gap between a more teacher-centred lecture method and pure problem-based learning. They leave room for teachers to give direct guidance, and the scenarios themselves provide hints and parameters within which the students operate.
Common issues using case studies
The challenges with case studies are similar to those with discussions :
- getting students to talk and keeping the class moving
- pointless arguments, which can throw a case analysis off track.
Since case-study analysis is student-led, it can be difficult to get the class to move through various stages of analysis and arrive at a reasonable conclusion.
How to write or choose case studies
Hatcher et al. (2018, p. 276) categorise case studies as either issue-driven (focusing on a particular problem or aspects of the course material) or organisationally based (focusing on the various issues faced by a particular type of organisation). They can be based on general knowledge or adopt the viewpoint of a single protagonist, an organisation as a whole or information gathered from governent, company or other public documents.
"Like any good story" (Hatcher et al., 2018, p. 279), a case study begins with an exposition that introduces the problem and the protagonist and launches the action. Next, the narrative escalates, with complications exacerbating the problem and constraining the protagonist's choices. These complications are revealed as the protagonist discovers them, rather than as part of the background information, to increase the verisimilitude of the case study. Eventually the situation comes to a head, and the protagonist must decide on a solution. Finally, the case study relates the consequences of that solution.
A case study should be engaging, relevant and clearly written. In particular it needs to be economical: every aspect must be directly relevant to the problem the case study is examining, with no extraneous details or digressions.
How to teach effectively with case studies
Case content should reflect the purposes of the course, and should align with the course learning outcomes, other teaching strategies and assessment in your course or program.
1) Use complex cases requiring multiple perspectives
A good case has sufficient detail to:
- necessitate research and
- stimulate analysis from a variety of viewpoints or perspectives.
It places the learner in the position of problem-solver. Students actively engage with the materials, discovering underlying issues, dilemmas and conflict issues.
2) Assess the process of analysis, not only the outcome
The resolution of a case is only the last stage of a process. You can observe or evaluate:
- the quality of research
- structural issues in written material
- organisation of arguments
- the feasibility of solutions presented
- intra-group dynamics
- evidence of consideration of all case factors.
Case studies may be resolved in more than one manner.
3) Use a variety of questions in case analysis
Various ways to use questions in teaching are discussed in detail on the Questioning page. If you are using the Harvard Business School Case Method , when analysing case studies, use a range of question types to enable the class to move through the stages of analysis:
- clarification / information seeking ( what? )
- analysis / diagnosis ( why? )
- conclusion / recommendation ( what now? )
- implementation ( how? ) and
- application / reflection ( so what? what does it mean to you?)
- For help using media to create case studies, see Creative Development and Educational Media Production .
- UNSW Assessment Toolkit: Assessment by Case Studies and Scenarios
- The HBS Case Method (Harvard Business School).
- What the Case Method Really Teaches
- How to write a teaching case study
Gwee, J. (2018). The case writer's toolkit. Palgrave Macmillan.
Hatcher, W., McDonald, B. D., & Brainard, L. A. (2018). How to write a case study for public affairs. Journal of Public Affairs Education , 24 (2), 274-285. https://doi.org/10.1080/15236803.2018.1444902
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Case studies can be used to help students understand simple and complex issues. They typically are presented to the students as a situation or scenario which is guided by questions such as “What would you do in this situation?” or “How would you solve this problem?” Successful case studies focus on problem situations relevant to course content and which are relevant “both to the interests and experience level of learners” (Illinois Online Network, 2007).
Case studies can be simple problems where students “work out” a solution to more complex scenarios which require role playing and elaborate planning. Case studies typically involve teams although cases can be undertaken individually. Because case studies often are proposed to not have “one right answer” (Kowalski, Weaver, Henson, 1998, p. 4), some students may be challenged to think alternatively than their peers. However, when properly planned, case studies can effectively engage students in problem solving and deriving creative solutions.
The Penn State University’s Teaching and Learning with Technology unit suggests the following elements when planning case studies for use in the classroom.
Case studies actively involve students as they work on issues found in “real-life” situations and, with careful planning, can be used in all academic disciplines.
- Real-World Scenario. Cases are generally based on real world situations, although some facts may be changed to simplify the scenario or “protect the innocent.”
- Supporting Data and Documents. Effective case assignments typically provide real world situations for student to analyze. These can be simple data tables, links to URLs, quoted statements or testimony, supporting documents, images, video, audio, or any appropriate material.
- Open-Ended Problem. Most case assignments require students to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution to an open-ended problem with multiple potential solutions. Requirements can range from a one-paragraph answer to a fully developed team action plan, proposal or decision. (Penn State University, 2006, para. 2).
Most case assignments require students to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution to an open-ended problem with multiple potential solutions.
To help you get started using case studies in the classroom, a number of tasks should be considered. Following this list are tasks to help you prepare students as they participate in the case study.
- Identify a topic that is based on real-world situations
- Develop the case that will challenge students’ current knowledge of the topic
- Link the case to one (or more) of the course goals or objectives
- Provide students with case study basic information before asking them to work on the case
- Prepare necessary data, information, that will help students come up with a solution
- Discuss how this case would relate to real life and career situations
- Place students in teams in which participants have differing views and opinions to better challenge them in discussing possible solutions to the case
- Review team dynamics with the students (prepare an outline of team rules and roles)
- Inform students that they are to find a solution to the case based on their personal experiences, the knowledge gained in class, and challenge one another to solve the problem
- Determine team member roles and identify a strategic plan to solve the case
- Brainstorm and prepare questions to further explore the case
- Read and critically analyze any data provided by the instructor, discuss the facts related to the case, identify and discuss the relationship of further problems within the case
- Listen to and be open to viewpoints expressed by each member of the team
- Assess, refine, and condense solutions that are presented
- Prepare findings as required by the instructor
Case studies provide students with scenarios in which they can begin to think about their understanding and solutions to problems found in real-world situations. When carefully planned, case studies will challenge students’ critical thinking and problem solving skills in a safe and open learning environment. Case studies can help students analyze and find solutions to complex problems with foresight and confidence.
Illinois Online Network (2007). ION research: Case studies. https://www.ion.uillinois.edu/resources/casestudies/
Kowalski, T. J., Weaver, R. A., & Henson, K. T. (1998). Case studies of beginning teachers. New York, NY: Longman.
Penn State University (2006). Office of Teaching and Learning with Technology. Using cases in teaching. http://tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/cases/casewhat.html
Study Guides and Strategies (2007). Case studies. https://www.studygs.net/casestudy.htm
Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2012). Case studies. In Instructional guide for university faculty and teaching assistants. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional-guide
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Using Case Studies to Teach
Why Use Cases?
Many students are more inductive than deductive reasoners, which means that they learn better from examples than from logical development starting with basic principles. The use of case studies can therefore be a very effective classroom technique.
Case studies are have long been used in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences, but they can be used in any discipline when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations. Cases come in many formats, from a simple “What would you do in this situation?” question to a detailed description of a situation with accompanying data to analyze. Whether to use a simple scenario-type case or a complex detailed one depends on your course objectives.
Most case assignments require students to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution to an open-ended problem with multiple potential solutions. Requirements can range from a one-paragraph answer to a fully developed group action plan, proposal or decision.
Common Case Elements
Most “full-blown” cases have these common elements:
- A decision-maker who is grappling with some question or problem that needs to be solved.
- A description of the problem’s context (a law, an industry, a family).
- Supporting data, which can range from data tables to links to URLs, quoted statements or testimony, supporting documents, images, video, or audio.
Case assignments can be done individually or in teams so that the students can brainstorm solutions and share the work load.
The following discussion of this topic incorporates material presented by Robb Dixon of the School of Management and Rob Schadt of the School of Public Health at CEIT workshops. Professor Dixon also provided some written comments that the discussion incorporates.
Advantages to the use of case studies in class
A major advantage of teaching with case studies is that the students are actively engaged in figuring out the principles by abstracting from the examples. This develops their skills in:
- Problem solving
- Analytical tools, quantitative and/or qualitative, depending on the case
- Decision making in complex situations
- Coping with ambiguities
Guidelines for using case studies in class
In the most straightforward application, the presentation of the case study establishes a framework for analysis. It is helpful if the statement of the case provides enough information for the students to figure out solutions and then to identify how to apply those solutions in other similar situations. Instructors may choose to use several cases so that students can identify both the similarities and differences among the cases.
Depending on the course objectives, the instructor may encourage students to follow a systematic approach to their analysis. For example:
- What is the issue?
- What is the goal of the analysis?
- What is the context of the problem?
- What key facts should be considered?
- What alternatives are available to the decision-maker?
- What would you recommend — and why?
An innovative approach to case analysis might be to have students role-play the part of the people involved in the case. This not only actively engages students, but forces them to really understand the perspectives of the case characters. Videos or even field trips showing the venue in which the case is situated can help students to visualize the situation that they need to analyze.
Case studies can be especially effective if they are paired with a reading assignment that introduces or explains a concept or analytical method that applies to the case. The amount of emphasis placed on the use of the reading during the case discussion depends on the complexity of the concept or method. If it is straightforward, the focus of the discussion can be placed on the use of the analytical results. If the method is more complex, the instructor may need to walk students through its application and the interpretation of the results.
Leading the Case Discussion and Evaluating Performance
Decision cases are more interesting than descriptive ones. In order to start the discussion in class, the instructor can start with an easy, noncontroversial question that all the students should be able to answer readily. However, some of the best case discussions start by forcing the students to take a stand. Some instructors will ask a student to do a formal “open” of the case, outlining his or her entire analysis. Others may choose to guide discussion with questions that move students from problem identification to solutions. A skilled instructor steers questions and discussion to keep the class on track and moving at a reasonable pace.
In order to motivate the students to complete the assignment before class as well as to stimulate attentiveness during the class, the instructor should grade the participation—quantity and especially quality—during the discussion of the case. This might be a simple check, check-plus, check-minus or zero. The instructor should involve as many students as possible. In order to engage all the students, the instructor can divide them into groups, give each group several minutes to discuss how to answer a question related to the case, and then ask a randomly selected person in each group to present the group’s answer and reasoning. Random selection can be accomplished through rolling of dice, shuffled index cards, each with one student’s name, a spinning wheel, etc.
Tips on the Penn State U. website: http://tlt.its.psu.edu/suggestions/cases/
If you are interested in using this technique in a science course, there is a good website on use of case studies in the sciences at the University of Buffalo.
Dunne, D. and Brooks, K. (2004) Teaching with Cases (Halifax, NS: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education), ISBN 0-7703-8924-4 (Can be ordered at http://www.bookstore.uwo.ca/ at a cost of $15.00)
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What the Case Study Method Really Teaches
- Nitin Nohria
Seven meta-skills that stick even if the cases fade from memory.
It’s been 100 years since Harvard Business School began using the case study method. Beyond teaching specific subject matter, the case study method excels in instilling meta-skills in students. This article explains the importance of seven such skills: preparation, discernment, bias recognition, judgement, collaboration, curiosity, and self-confidence.
During my decade as dean of Harvard Business School, I spent hundreds of hours talking with our alumni. To enliven these conversations, I relied on a favorite question: “What was the most important thing you learned from your time in our MBA program?”
Alumni responses varied but tended to follow a pattern. Almost no one referred to a specific business concept they learned. Many mentioned close friendships or the classmate who became a business or life partner. Most often, though, alumni highlighted a personal quality or skill like “increased self-confidence” or “the ability to advocate for a point of view” or “knowing how to work closely with others to solve problems.” And when I asked how they developed these capabilities, they inevitably mentioned the magic of the case method.
Harvard Business School pioneered the use of case studies to teach management in 1921. As we commemorate 100 years of case teaching, much has been written about the effectiveness of this method. I agree with many of these observations. Cases expose students to real business dilemmas and decisions. Cases teach students to size up business problems quickly while considering the broader organizational, industry, and societal context. Students recall concepts better when they are set in a case, much as people remember words better when used in context. Cases teach students how to apply theory in practice and how to induce theory from practice. The case method cultivates the capacity for critical analysis, judgment, decision-making, and action.
There is a word that aptly captures the broader set of capabilities our alumni reported they learned from the case method. That word is meta-skills, and these meta-skills are a benefit of case study instruction that those who’ve never been exposed to the method may undervalue.
Educators define meta-skills as a group of long-lasting abilities that allow someone to learn new things more quickly. When parents encourage a child to learn to play a musical instrument, for instance, beyond the hope of instilling musical skills (which some children will master and others may not), they may also appreciate the benefit the child derives from deliberate, consistent practice. This meta-skill is valuable for learning many other things beyond music.
In the same vein, let me suggest seven vital meta-skills students gain from the case method:
There is no place for students to hide in the moments before the famed “cold call”— when the teacher can ask any student at random to open the case discussion. Decades after they graduate, students will vividly remember cold calls when they, or someone else, froze with fear, or when they rose to nail the case even in the face of a fierce grilling by the professor.
The case method creates high-powered incentives for students to prepare. Students typically spend several hours reading, highlighting, and debating cases before class, sometimes alone and sometimes in groups. The number of cases to be prepared can be overwhelming by design.
Learning to be prepared — to read materials in advance, prioritize, identify the key issues, and have an initial point of view — is a meta-skill that helps people succeed in a broad range of professions and work situations. We have all seen how the prepared person, who knows what they are talking about, can gain the trust and confidence of others in a business meeting. The habits of preparing for a case discussion can transform a student into that person.
Many cases are long. A typical case may include history, industry background, a cast of characters, dialogue, financial statements, source documents, or other exhibits. Some material may be digressive or inessential. Cases often have holes — critical pieces of information that are missing.
The case method forces students to identify and focus on what’s essential, ignore the noise, skim when possible, and concentrate on what matters, meta-skills required for every busy executive confronted with the paradox of simultaneous information overload and information paucity. As one alumnus pithily put it, “The case method helped me learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff.”
3. Bias Recognition
Students often have an initial reaction to a case stemming from their background or earlier work and life experiences. For instance, people who have worked in finance may be biased to view cases through a financial lens. However, effective general managers must understand and empathize with various stakeholders, and if someone has a natural tendency to favor one viewpoint over another, discussing dozens of cases will help reveal that bias. Armed with this self-understanding, students can correct that bias or learn to listen more carefully to classmates whose different viewpoints may help them see beyond their own biases.
Recognizing and correcting personal bias can be an invaluable meta-skill in business settings when leaders inevitably have to work with people from different functions, backgrounds, and perspectives.
Cases put students into the role of the case protagonist and force them to make and defend a decision. The format leaves room for nuanced discussion, but not for waffling: Teachers push students to choose an option, knowing full well that there is rarely one correct answer.
Indeed, most cases are meant to stimulate a discussion rather than highlight effective or ineffective management practice. Across the cases they study, students get feedback from their classmates and their teachers about when their decisions are more or less compelling. It enables them to develop the judgment of making decisions under uncertainty, communicating that decision to others, and gaining their buy-in — all essential leadership skills. Leaders earn respect for their judgment. It is something students in the case method get lots of practice honing.
It is better to make business decisions after extended give-and-take, debate, and deliberation. As in any team sport, people get better at working collaboratively with practice. Discussing cases in small study groups, and then in the classroom, helps students practice the meta-skill of collaborating with others. Our alumni often say they came away from the case method with better skills to participate in meetings and lead them.
Orchestrating a good collaborative discussion in which everyone contributes, every viewpoint is carefully considered, yet a thoughtful decision is made in the end is the arc of any good case discussion. Although teachers play the primary role in this collaborative process during their time at the school, it is an art that students of the case method internalize and get better at when they get to lead discussions.
Cases expose students to lots of different situations and roles. Across cases, they get to assume the role of entrepreneur, investor, functional leader, or CEO, in a range of different industries and sectors. Each case offers an opportunity for students to see what resonates with them, what excites them, what bores them, which role they could imagine inhabiting in their careers.
Cases stimulate curiosity about the range of opportunities in the world and the many ways that students can make a difference as leaders. This curiosity serves them well throughout their lives. It makes them more agile, more adaptive, and more open to doing a wider range of things in their careers.
Students must inhabit roles during a case study that far outstrip their prior experience or capability, often as leaders of teams or entire organizations in unfamiliar settings. “What would you do if you were the case protagonist?” is the most common question in a case discussion. Even though they are imaginary and temporary, these “stretch” assignments increase students’ self-confidence that they can rise to the challenge.
In our program, students can study 500 cases over two years, and the range of roles they are asked to assume increases the range of situations they believe they can tackle. Speaking up in front of 90 classmates feels risky at first, but students become more comfortable taking that risk over time. Knowing that they can hold their own in a highly curated group of competitive peers enhances student confidence. Often, alumni describe how discussing cases made them feel prepared for much bigger roles or challenges than they’d imagined they could handle before their MBA studies. Self-confidence is difficult to teach or coach, but the case study method seems to instill it in people.
There may well be other ways of learning these meta-skills, such as the repeated experience gained through practice or guidance from a gifted coach. However, under the direction of a masterful teacher, the case method can engage students and help them develop powerful meta-skills like no other form of teaching. This quickly became apparent when case teaching was introduced in 1921 — and it’s even truer today.
For educators and students, recognizing the value of these meta-skills can offer perspective on the broader goals of their work together. Returning to the example of piano lessons, it may be natural for a music teacher or their students to judge success by a simple measure: Does the student learn to play the instrument well? But when everyone involved recognizes the broader meta-skills that instrumental instruction can instill — and that even those who bumble their way through Bach may still derive lifelong benefits from their instruction — it may lead to a deeper appreciation of this work.
For recruiters and employers, recognizing the long-lasting set of benefits that accrue from studying via the case method can be a valuable perspective in assessing candidates and plotting their potential career trajectories.
And while we must certainly use the case method’s centennial to imagine yet more powerful ways of educating students in the future, let us be sure to assess these innovations for the meta-skills they might instill, as much as the subject matter mastery they might enable.
- Nitin Nohria is the former dean of Harvard Business School.
How to... Write a teaching case study
- What is a teaching Case Study?
A discussion-based case study is an education tool to facilitate learning about, and analysis of, a real-world situation.
A case study provides a well-researched and compelling narrative about an individual, or group of people, that need to make a decision in an organizational setting.
The case study narrative includes relevant information about the situation, and gives multiple perspectives on the problem or decision that needs to be taken, but does not provide analysis, conclusions, or a solution.
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How does a case study work in education, top tips for writing a case study, what is the difference between teaching cases and research focused cases.
- Writing the case study
The Emerald Cases Hub
Which publication would suit my case study.
Read about getting ready to publish and visit the Emerald Cases Hub for courses and guides on writing case studies and teaching notes.
Teaching cases expose students to real-world business dilemmas in different cultural contexts.
Students are expected to read the case study and prepare an argument about the most appropriate course of action or recommendation, which can be debated in a facilitated case study class session, or documented in a case study assignment or examination.
A case teaching note, containing recent and relevant theoretical and managerial frameworks will be published alongside the teaching case, and can be used to demonstrate the links between course content and the case situation to support teaching of the case method.
Teaching case studies have a distinctive literary style, they are written in the third person, in the past tense and establish an objectivity of core dilemmas in the case.
We have gathered some top tips for you to think about as your write your case study.
Cases can be based on primary or secondary data, however where possible, carrying out interviews with the protagonist and others in the organisation often results in a better and more balanced case study. Make sure that you have all the materials you will need before you start the writing process. This will speed up the actual process. Most case studies have a mixture of primary and secondary sources to help capture the spirit of the protagonist.
Structure the narrative
Tell the story in chronological order and in the past tense. Identify and establish the central protagonist and their dilemma in the first paragraph and summarise the dilemma again at the end of the case.
Develop the protagonist
Ensure the protagonist is a well-developed character and that students can identify with their motivations throughout the case.
You must include signed permission when you submit your case study and teaching note from the relevant protagonist or company in the case, as well as permission for any material that you don’t own the copyright for.
Be clear on your teaching objective
The case method offers a variety of class participation methods such as discussion, role-play, presentation or examination. Decided which method best suits the case you want to write.
Identify case lead author
You might want to consider writing your case study in partnership with colleagues. However, if you are writing a case with other people you need to make sure that the case reads as one voice.
You do not have to share the work evenly. Instead, play to your individual strengths: one author might be better at data analysis, one a better writer. Agree and clarify the order of appearance of authors. This is very important since this cannot be changed after publication.
Writing a teaching case requires a distinctive literary style written in the third person, in the past tense and establishing an objectivity of core dilemmas in the case.
To begin with, a case has to have a hook: an overriding issue that pulls various parts together, a managerial issue or decision that requires urgent attention.
The trick is to present the story so that the hook is not immediately apparent but ‘discovered’ by students putting the relevant pieces together. More importantly, the hook must be linked to a particular concept, theory, or methodology.
A teaching case reflects the ambiguity of the situation and need not have a single outcome, as the intent is to create a dialogue with students, encourage critical thinking and research, and evaluate recommendations.
Research cases are a methodology used to support research findings and add to the body of theoretical knowledge, and as such are more academically-focused and evidence-based.
Writing a case study
How to write & structure a case.
- Write in the past tense
- Identify and establish an issue/problem which can be used to teach a concept or theory
The opening paragraph should make clear:
- Who the main protagonist is
- Who the key decision maker is
- What the nature of the problem or issue is
- When the case took place, including specific dates
- Why the issue or problem arose
The body of the case should:
- Tell the whole story – usually in a chronological order
- Typically contain general background on business environment, company background, and the details of the specific issue(s) faced by the company
- Tell more than one side of the story so that students can think of competing alternatives
The concluding paragraph should:
- Provide a short synthesis of the case to reiterate the main issues, or even to raise new questions
Final thoughts on writing
What makes a great teaching case.
- Written in the case teaching narrative style, not in the style of a research article
- Submitting a case that has been classroom tested and therefore is much more robust
- Objectivity and considering all sides of a dilemma
- Fit with the objectives of the publication it is included
- Allowing for relevant learning outcomes and enabling students to meet them effectively
Common review feedback comments
- The case requires additional information in order to be taught
- A lack of detail
- Suggested answers are not supported by the case
- Learning objectives which apply a model without a purpose
- No sample answers
- Not written in the third person or past tense
- No analysis or lessons learned
What makes a good teaching note?
- Clear learning objectives
- Suggested class time, broken down by topics
- Suggested student assignment
- Brief description of the opening and closing 10-15 minutes and case synopsis
- Challenging case discussion questions with sample answers
- Supporting materials – worksheets, videos, readings, reference material, etc
- Target audience identified
- If applicable, an update on ‘what actually happened’
Sign in or register on the Emerald Cases Hub for resources and support to help you write a quality case study and increase your chances of publication. Develop your skills and knowledge with a course on writing a case study and teaching note or download our handy how-to guides.
Visit the Emerald Cases Hub
A key factor in boosting the chances of your case study being published is making sure it is submitted to the most suitable outlet. Emerald is delighted to offer two key options:
Emerging Markets Case Studies (EMCS)
EMCS welcomes well-researched, instructive, and multimedia online cases about the most interesting companies in complex emerging market contexts, to be used by faculty to develop effective managers globally.
Cases must be factual and be developed from multiple sources, including primary data sourced and signed-off by the company involved.
Find out more about EMCS
The CASE Journal (TCJ)
TCJ is the official journal of The CASE Association, the leading online, double-blind, peer-reviewed journal featuring factual teaching cases and case exercises spanning the full spectrum of business and management disciplines.
TCJ invites submissions of cases designed for classroom use.
Find out more about TCJ
Write a teaching note
A well-written case study needs an equally well-written teaching note. Read our how-to guide on how to write a teaching note.
Submit your case study
Submit your case through your chosen channel’s online submission site, find author support and understand your next steps to publish your case study.
We partner with a range of organisations to offer case writing competitions. Applying for an award opens the door to the possibility of you receiving international recognition and a cash prize.
How to Write a Case Study: The Basics
The purpose of a case study is to walk the reader through a situation where a problem is presented, background information provided and a description of the solution given, along with how it was derived. A case study can be written to encourage the reader to come up with his or her own solution or to review the solution that was already implemented. The goal of the writer is to give the reader experiences similar to those the writer had as he or she researched the situation presented.
Several steps must be taken before actually writing anything:
- Choose the situation on which to write
- Gather as much information as possible about the situation
- Analyze all of the elements surrounding the situation
- Determine the final solution implemented
- Gather information about why the solution worked or did not work
From these steps you will create the content of your case study.
Describe the situation/problem
The reader needs to have a clear understanding of the situation for which a solution is sought. You can explicitly state the problem posed in the study. You can begin by sharing quotes from someone intimate with the situation. Or you can present a question:
- ABC Hospital has a higher post-surgical infection rate than other health care facilities in the area.
- The Director of Nursing at ABC Hospital stated that “In spite of following rigid standards, we continue to experience high post-surgical infection rates”
- Why is it that the post-surgical infection rate at ABC Hospital higher than any other health center in the area?
This sets the tone for the reader to think of the problem while he or she read the rest of the case study. This also sets the expectation that you will be presenting information the reader can use to further understand the situation.
Background is the information you discovered that describes why there is a problem. This will consist of facts and figures from authoritative sources. Graphs, charts, tables, photos, videos, audio files, and anything that points to the problem is useful here. Quotes from interviews are also good. You might include anecdotal information as well:
“According to previous employees of this facility, this has been a problem for several years”
What is not included in this section is the author’s opinion:
“I don’t think the infection review procedures are followed very closely”
In this section you give the reader information that they can use to come to their own conclusion. Like writing a mystery, you are giving clues from which the reader can decide how to solve the puzzle. From all of this evidence, how did the problem become a problem? How can the trend be reversed so the problem goes away?
A good case study doesn’t tell the readers what to think. It guides the reader through the thought process used to create the final conclusion. The readers may come to their own conclusion or find fault in the logic being presented. That’s okay because there may be more than one solution to the problem. The readers will have their own perspective and background as they read the case study.
Describe the solution
This section discusses the solution and the thought processes that lead up to it. It guides the reader through the information to the solution that was implemented. This section may contain the author’s opinions and speculations.
Facts will be involved in the decision, but there can be subjective thinking as well:
“Taking into account A, B and C, the committee suggested solution X. In lieu of the current budget situation, the committee felt this was the most prudent approach”
Briefly present the key elements used to derive the solution. Be clear about the goal of the solution. Was it to slow down, reduce or eliminate the problem?
Evaluate the response to the solution
If the case study is for a recent situation, there may not have been enough time to determine the overall effect of the solution:
“New infection standards were adopted in the first quarter and the center hopes to have enough information by the year’s end to judge their effectiveness”
If the solution has been in place for some time, then an opportunity to gather and review facts and impressions exists. A summary of how well the solution is working would be included here.
Tell the whole story
Case study-writing is about telling the story of a problem that has been fixed. The focus is on the evidence for the problem and the approach used to create a solution. The writing style guides the readers through the problem analysis as if they were part of the project. The result is a case study that can be both entertaining and educational.
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Case studies are stories that are used as a teaching tool to show the application of a theory or concept to real situations. Dependent on the goal they are
When using case studies, the focus is not on the data or the analysis. The students analyze the case and try to find ways to find solutions and solve problems.
What are case studies? Case studies are stories or scenarios, often in narrative form, created and used as a tool for analysis and
Case studies provide students with scenarios in which they can begin to think about their understanding and solutions to problems found in real-world situations
Case studies are have long been used in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences, but they can be used in any discipline when
Cases expose students to real business dilemmas and decisions. Cases teach students to size up business problems quickly while considering the
A discussion-based case study is an education tool to facilitate learning about, and analysis of, a real-world situation. A case study provides a
A case study can be written to encourage the reader to come up with his or her own solution or to review the solution that was already
A Case Study is a method of detailed research and examination that focuses on 1 specific case. This can then be used to draw conclusions, comparisons and
Case studies is an instructional method (not a theory) that refers to assigned scenarios based on situations in which students observe, analyze, record