What Is a Case Study?
When you’re performing research as part of your job or for a school assignment, you’ll probably come across case studies that help you to learn more about the topic at hand. But what is a case study and why are they helpful? Read on to learn all about case studies.
At face value, a case study is a deep dive into a topic. Case studies can be found in many fields, particularly across the social sciences and medicine. When you conduct a case study, you create a body of research based on an inquiry and related data from analysis of a group, individual or controlled research environment.
As a researcher, you can benefit from the analysis of case studies similar to inquiries you’re currently studying. Researchers often rely on case studies to answer questions that basic information and standard diagnostics cannot address.
Study a Pattern
One of the main objectives of a case study is to find a pattern that answers whatever the initial inquiry seeks to find. This might be a question about why college students are prone to certain eating habits or what mental health problems afflict house fire survivors. The researcher then collects data, either through observation or data research, and starts connecting the dots to find underlying behaviors or impacts of the sample group’s behavior.
During the study period, the researcher gathers evidence to back the observed patterns and future claims that’ll be derived from the data. Since case studies are usually presented in the professional environment, it’s not enough to simply have a theory and observational notes to back up a claim. Instead, the researcher must provide evidence to support the body of study and the resulting conclusions.
As the study progresses, the researcher develops a solid case to present to peers or a governing body. Case study presentation is important because it legitimizes the body of research and opens the findings to a broader analysis that may end up drawing a conclusion that’s more true to the data than what one or two researchers might establish. The presentation might be formal or casual, depending on the case study itself.
Once the body of research is established, it’s time to draw conclusions from the case study. As with all social sciences studies, conclusions from one researcher shouldn’t necessarily be taken as gospel, but they’re helpful for advancing the body of knowledge in a given field. For that purpose, they’re an invaluable way of gathering new material and presenting ideas that others in the field can learn from and expand upon.
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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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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)
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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Action Research Methods pp 69–79 Cite as
A Case for Case Study Research in Education
- Kit Grauer
This chapter makes the case that case study research is making a comeback in educational research because it allows researchers a broad range of methodological tools to suit the needs of answering questions of “how” and “why” within a particular real-world context. As Stake (1995) suggests, case study is often a preferred method of research because case studies may be epistemologically in harmony with the reader’s experience and thus to that person a natural basis for generalization.
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Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research: Design and methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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Grauer, K. (2012). A Case for Case Study Research in Education. In: Klein, S.R. (eds) Action Research Methods. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137046635_4
DOI : https://doi.org/10.1057/9781137046635_4
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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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Educational Research Methods
A site to support teaching and learning...
Case study in a common methodology used in educational research, and there a are many published studies in education which are considered by their authors to be case studies .
Characteristics of case study :
Case study is by its nature idiographic work, and usually tends to be interpretive .
"Studies such as these build upon the analysis of single settings or occurrences. They treat each case as empirically distinct and, in contrast to survey analysis, do not automatically presume that different instances can be thrown together to form a homogenous aggregate." (Hamilton, 1980, p.79.)
Hamilton, David (1980) Some contrasting assumptions about case study research and survey analysis, in Simons, Helen (ed.) Towards a Science of the Singular: Essays about Case Study in Educational Research and Evaluation , Norwich: Centre for Applied Research in Education, UEA, pp.78-92.
“Case study is a methodology used to explore a particular instance in detail …The instance has to be identifiable as having clear boundaries and could be a lesson, the teaching of a scheme of work in a school department, a university teaching department, a group visit to a museum by one class of students, etc. … Although case study looks at an identifiable instance, it is normally naturalistic, exploring the case in its usual context, rather than attempting to set up a clinical setting - which would often not be viable even if considered useful, as often the case is embedded in its natural context in ways that influence its characteristics (so moving a teacher and a class from their normal setting, to a special research classroom in a university, for example, is likely to change behaviours that would be exhibited in the ‘natural’ setting).”
Taber, K. S. (2014). Methodological issues in science education research: a perspective from the philosophy of science. In M. R. Matthews (Ed.), International Handbook of Research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching (Vol. 3, pp. 1839-1893). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.
Case study focuses on one instance among many - the scale of what counts as a case therefor varies considerably.
The instance may be selected for its own special inherent value ( intrinsic case study ), or may be studied as a representative of a wider class of cases ( instrumental case study ).
Case study is a naturalistic form of research
Case study explores a bounded system
Case study involves collecting in-depth data , to support thick description . This is required to support any kind of generalisation from the specifics of a case study.
“...the authors opt for a 'qualitative case-study analysis'. However, quite in line with the large sample size, the analysis has been quite shallow: the fragments of student discourse are presented without any contextual interpretation, which makes it impossible as a reader to assess the validity of the given interpretations.”
Critical comments for a peer review report of an article submitted for publication
Multiple case study
Sometimes researchers carry out and compare across multiple cases. In multiple case study research each case has to be studied in its own stead, before an attempt to look across cases.
This is a personal site of Keith S. Taber to support teaching of educational research methods.
( Dr Keith Taber is Professor of Science Education at the University of Cambridge.)
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Using Case Study in Education Research
- By: Lorna Hamilton & Connie Corbett-Whittier
- Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd
- Series: BERA/SAGE Research Methods in Education
- Publication year: 2013
- Online pub date: December 22, 2014
- Discipline: Education
- Methods: Case study research , Research questions , Educational research
- DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781473913851
- Keywords: collaboration , debates , education studies , knowledge , teaching , virtual environments , young people Show all Show less
- Print ISBN: 9781446208175
- Online ISBN: 9781473913851
- Buy the book icon link
This book provides an accessible introduction to using case studies. It makes sense of literature in this area, and shows how to generate collaborations and communicate findings.
The authors bring together the practical and the theoretical, enabling readers to build expertise on the principles and practice of case study research, as well as engaging with possible theoretical frameworks. They also highlight the place of case study as a key component of educational research.
With the help of this book, graduate students, teacher educators and practitioner researchers will gain the confidence and skills needed to design and conduct a high quality case study.
- Research Methods in Education
- About the Authors
- Chapter 1 | Defining Case Study in Education Research
- Chapter 2 | Ideas as the Foundation for Case Study
- Chapter 3 | Key Purposes
- Chapter 4 | Key Decisions
- Chapter 5 | Ethics in Research
- Chapter 6 | Carrying Out Your Case Study
- Chapter 7 | A Practitioner Perspective
- Chapter 8 | Approaches to Data Analysis
- Chapter 9 | Using Technology to Manage and Analyse Your Data
- Chapter 10 | Finding Your Voice
- Chapter 11 | Sharing Case Study: Quality and Communication
- Chapter 12 | Virtual Environments and Collaborations
- Chapter 13 | Community Building
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Case Study Compilation
The SEL Integration Approach Case Study Compilation was developed with and for educators who work in a K-12 school setting, including teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, SEL Directors, teacher leaders, & school principals, to provide examples of practice related to three questions:
- What does it mean to focus on social-emotional development and the creation of positive learning environments?
- How can educators integrate their approaches to social, emotional, and academic development?
- What does it look, sound, and feel like when SEL is effectively embedded into all elements of the school day?
When read one at a time, the case studies offer snapshots of social-emotional learning in action; they describe daily routines, activities, and teachable moments within short vignettes. When read together, the case studies provide a unique picture of what it takes for a school to integrate social, emotional, and academic learning across grade levels, content areas, and other unique contexts.
The Case Study Compilation includes:
- Eleven case studies: Each case study highlights educator ‘moves’ and strategies to embed social-emotional skills, mindsets, and competencies throughout the school day and within academics. They each conclude with a reflection prompt that challenges readers to examine their own practice. The case studies are written from several different perspectives, including teachers in the classroom and in distance learning environments, a school counselor, and district leaders.
- Reflection Guide for Professional Learning: The Reflection Guide offers an entry point for educators to think critically about their work with youth in order to strengthen their practice. School leaders or other partners may choose to use this Reflection Guide in a variety of contexts, including coaching conversations and staff professional development sessions.
View our accompanying Quick Reference Guide , Companion Guides , and Educator & School Leader Self-Reflection Tools .
“We must resist thinking in siloed terms when it comes to social-emotional learning (SEL), academics, and equity. Rather, these elements of our work as educators and partners go hand in hand.”
HEAD & HEART, TransformEd & ANet
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