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Choosing or Writing Cases Good Cases

Choosing or Writing Good Cases


A case study stimulates critical thinking by immersing students in 'real life' circumstances they might encounter as professionals. Cases represent new contexts for students, in which you challenge them to both apply critical thinking skills and learn as they go. For this reason, the content of a case is as crucial as how you lead the students through that case.

There are many cases and case banks already available, like the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. Before writing your own case, try a quick Internet search or tap your professional networks. You may be surprised how at how many good cases there are for you to find!

Keep in mind that you do not necessarily have to keep a case you do find "as is." Teachers often find existing cases that are close to what they need, then add their own details or events to make the case fit their topic. This can be an enjoyable, creative exercise.

When they are unable to find an existing case with the right set of details, many teachers write their own cases.

The teaching tip

Regardless of whether you find a case perfect for you, find one to adapt, or generate your own from scratch, the following guidelines for good cases have been developed by case teachers from their own experience.

Lynn (1999) described a "star quality" case as one that:

  1. Poses a problem that has no obvious right answer.
  2. Identifies actor(s) who must solve the problem, make decisions.
  3. Requires the reader to use the information in the case to address the problem.
  4. Requires the reader to think critically and analytically in order to evaluate the problem and potential solutions.
  5. Has enough information for a good analysis.

Remember that the instructional power of a case is that it tells the story of events that unfold around a concept, issue or dilemma that you want students to learn. For this reason, give yourself time to write a draft of the case before using it in class, and share it with a colleague or two for their input. They may be able to contribute ideas and details that can both sharpen the instructional impact of the case and also give it more vivid realism.

The structure of a case study

Further, Lynn (1999) outlined the main elements of a case study as including:

  1. Setting: where, when, why.
    Where and when is the story taking place? What precipitated the events and actions on which the story is based?
  2. Decision maker, main actor, other actors.
    Who are the principal characters in the story? Who is the key actor and why?
  3. Issues, problems, interests.
    What are the actors in the case trying to accomplish? What are their interests, motivations, goals? What issues, questions, or problems must they confront or solve?
  4. Constraints, opportunities.
    What circumstances limit the actors' freedom of action? What opportunities do they face (if they are clever or perceptive enough to realize it)? In other words, what must they do (or not do), and what may they do?

Basic rules of a good case

Herreid (1997/98) identified the following elements of a good case:

  1. A good case tells a story.
    A good case focuses on an interest-arousing issue.
    A good case is set in the past five years.
    A good case creates empathy with the central characters.
    A good case includes quotations.
    A good case is relevant to the reader.
    A good case must have pedagogic utility.
    A good case is conflict provoking.
    A good case is decision forcing.
    A good case has generality.
    A good case is short.

For more details on each of these elements, see Herreid's website.


Cases are much more instructional when they involve students in nitty-gritty decision making within the context that the case presents. Many cases are written to have 'stop points' at crucial places in the story, where students are prompted to consider what they know at this point and what the best course of action might be.


Keep in mind that the case must have details that are both relevant and irrelevant to the issue, and characters who are sympathetic a 'real' enough for students to identify with them and therefore get something of a sense for what the problems they encounter might feel like.



Lynn, L.E. (1999). Teaching and Learning with Cases:  A Guidebook.  New York: Chatham House.

Herreid, C.F. (1997/98) What makes a good case? Journal of College Science Teaching 27(3):163-165.