Well-designed case studies provide students with an opportunity to grasp the complexity of the issues that are faced in the field and apply theoretical concepts in practice.
In the 21st century, our students will face many complex and difficult problems. Students must possess the capacity to adaptively apply their knowledge and skills to tackle increasingly unique situations and contexts (e.g., addressing climate change in Manitoba). The majority of all disciplines require students to take knowledge and skills and apply them in a real-world context. Well-designed case studies provide students with an opportunity to grasp the complexity of the issues that are faced in the field and apply theoretical concepts in practice.
Why use case studies?
There are many reasons to use case studies with your students.
- Replicate authentic experience;
- Encourage students to be involved and interact with the highlighted issue or concept;
- Provide opportunities to navigate precarious situations and equip students with informed approaches to challenging problems;
- Improve classroom attendance;
- Advance the ethical dimensions of decision-making.
Discipline-specific case study resources
Case studies have been used in a multitude of disciplines:
- Clinical psychology
- Resource Management
- Political Science
- Research Design
As a result, there is a bank of exceptional case studies available:
National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (University at Buffalo – peer-reviewed case studies)
Molecular Biology Simulations for Case-Based Learning in Biology (University of Wisconsin-River Falls)
Training Videos – Using Case Studies to Teach Science (National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science – University at Buffalo)
Case Studies – Ecology (National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science – University at Buffalo)
Online Archive of Context Rich Problems – physics/mathematics (University of Minnesota)
Creating Context Rich Problems – physics/mathematics (University of Minnesota)
Using Case Studies to Teach Science (American Institute of Biological Sciences)
Knowledge Weavers Project: Interactive Cases (University of Utah; scroll down to Interactive Cases)
Epidemiologic Case Studies (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
Case Studies in Pathology (University of Pittsburg – Department of Pathology)
Geriatric Education – Case Studies (John Hopkins Medicine – Geriatric Education Center Consortium)
Designing your own case studies
When designing a case study it is important to note that a well-crafted case is open-ended and rarely can be resolved with a single solution. A case study begins with a believable story that integrates relevant issues and presents a problem that the student must grapple with. The problem should naturally be linked to the learning outcomes that you have for your students. The simplest way in which to present a case study is through text, however some have used video representations – either existing clips or self-designed video (this always requires a group of willing friends/helpers).
An effective case, like a good novel, should be believable. Include details of the situation and the people involved in order to paint a realistic picture and highlight the issues that the case addresses. A good case study should also have a storyline that your students can relate to or appreciate – likeable characters, familiar scenarios, common problems, tension and struggle. And like a good story, there should be a compelling or relevant issue driving the case – there should be something at stake.
Well-crafted case studies provide an opportunity for students to draw from concepts that they have been learning about in order to apply them. As in life, this often requires more than a mechanistic, ‘if this happens, then do this’ approach. Problems within a case study may include the important details that we would like the students to pay attention to, as well as a lot of irrelevant and messy details in the mix. In this way, students must analyze what’s available to them, decide what’s important, and propose solutions. And as in real-life problems, there is often a degree of ambiguity – there may be missing pieces of important information to make a proper decision, or there may be numerous solutions that are all an appropriate response to the problem. You may wish to design your case study in such a way that students may propose only one solution. If there are multiple possible solutions, you may ask your students to provide a ranking, along with a justification for the order that they recommend.
Content authoring tools such as Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate, and Office Mix can be used to create interactive case study scenarios to play in class or online. These interactive case studies often help students relate to the subject matter and see how it ties into real world situations. In blended or flipped classes, pre-class readings or videos about a case study can be shared with students via the content area of UM Learn.
Leading a case study session
A case study is an effective hook and point of reference to present before a lecture or discussion. By referring back to the case study that students have engaged in, they will have a greater degree of motivation and interest in the subject – what you are presenting or discussing with your students will appear more relevant.
- Prior to the class, make available readings that include a conceptual emphasis or framework that students can use during the case study (ensure that students know ahead of time that the readings will be used in class in a case study activity);
- Provide time to examine, analyze, and discuss the case in partners or groups – encourage students to take notes of their thinking and discussion;
- Facilitate a whole-class discussion of students’ evaluation of the case – guide the discussion but don’t provide your view at this stage; your role here is to keep the discussion focused;
- Once the student groups (or if this is a large classroom, a selection of groups) have had a chance to share their analysis, explain how the case exemplifies the application of theory in practice.
Your case study will now provide you and your students with a common experience that you can refer back to in your future lectures, activities, and discussions – a valuable link to demonstrate theoretical concepts to work in the field.
Assessment and debriefing of case studies
When building your cases into an exam or essay, or more commonly, as part of a discussion activity, it is important to design effective questions that draw out students’ explanations and ideas for how to go about solving the case.
An easy to implement way to debrief and assess student understanding is through the problems-remedies-prevention approach:
- What are the problems?
- What are the solutions?
- How could these problems have been prevented? (if applicable)
Specific details of the case may need to be highlighted in a group discussion (if not mentioned by students):
- The importance of the context
- Possible motivation behind an individual’s behaviour in the case
- The consequences of individual’s behaviour
- Alternate scenarios if the case were different
There are two ways to implement a case study discussion in class: in small groups or as the whole class. In small groups you may ask the participants:
- To try and reach a consensus on the proposed solutions to a single case
- To take on different questions regarding a single case
- As a whole class, to select the problems in the case, and then with half the groups speaking to the solutions and the other half addressing ways to prevent the problems
- In small groups, to work on different cases and present a summary to the class
Assessment and Debriefing of Case Studies section adapted from Nilson, L. (2016). Teaching at its best: A research-based resource for college instructors. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. (pp. 203-204)
Content authoring software such as Articulate Storyline and Adobe Captivate contain a quizzing feature that allows for various types of quiz questions to be embedded into an interactive case study. Case study questions can also be posed to students in UM Learn through the quiz and self-assessment features. The goal is to assess student understanding and to ask questions that target their thought processes in solving the case. As a follow-up, ask students to discuss their solutions in an online forum.
Faculty Focus Resource
- Log on to UM Learn
- Under My Courses, select All Roles under Role, and All under Term.
- Scroll down to Development Courses and select The Centre – Magna Campus Resources
- Select Magna Campus > Open Menu > Faculty Focus
- In the search box, type in “Guiding students to think critically using case studies”
Angelo, T & Boehrer, J. (2002). Case learning: How does it work? Why is it effective? Case Method Website: How to Teach with Cases, University of California, Santa Barbara. Retrieved from: UC Santa Barbara Department of Sociology
Daly, P. (2002). Methodology for using case studies in the business English language classroom. Internet TESL Journal. 8(11).
Davis, C. & Wilcock, E. Teaching materials using case studies. UK Centre for Materials Education, Higher Education Academy. Retrieved from: http://www.materials.ac.uk/guides/casestudies.asp
Garvin, D. (2004). Participant-centered learning and the case method: A Case study teacher in action. Harvard Business School.
Herreid, Clyde Freeman, & Schiller, Nancy A. (2014). Science stories you can count on: 51 case studies with quantitative reasoning in biology.
Herreid, C., Schiller, Nancy A., & Herreid, Ky F. (2012). Science stories: Using case studies to teach critical thinking. Arlingto, Va.: National Science Teachers Association.
Herreid, C. (2007). Start with a story: The case study method of teaching college science. Arlington, Va.: NSTA Press.
Herreid, C.F. (1998). Return to Mars: How not to teach a case study. Journal of College Science Teaching. May 1998. Retrieved from: National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (PDF)
Herreid, C.F. (2001). Don’t! What not to do in teaching cases. Journal of College Science
Teaching. 30(5), 292-294. Retrieved from: National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (PDF)
Savin-Baden, M. (2003). Facilitating problem-based learning: the other side of silence. SRHE/Open University Press, Buckingham.
Teaching with case studies. (1994). Speaking of Teaching, Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching. 5(2).