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Student-Created Case Studies

Student-Created Case Studies


As the natural extreme in case-study student involvement, having students create their own cases can both immerse them in the details and conflicts of the discipline, and also instill a sense of ownership to inspire creative thought.

The activity

Provide your students with "The structure of a case study" and "Basic rules of a good case" which appear below. Tell them what concept, setting, issue or dilemma you want them to illustrate with their case--or let them choose their own from the course material. It can be helpful to tell them how many characters you want them to include, what kind of time frame the case should elapse over, and so on.

This can be an assignment you have students write up individually, or a collaborative activity you have students draft in class. If you have students work together in class, leave time for at least some of the groups to walk the rest of the class through their case, so other students can benefit from being immersed in each set of circumstances. It is not recommended to have groups work together on a paper outside of class: only one pair of hands can fit on a keyboard, and so the workload will inevitably become unbalanced.

As writing a case can be an immersive and creative act, this can be a long-term activity that students work on over the course of a semester, and can be a format for a term paper that is enjoyable to read and grade.

The structure of a case study

Lynn (1993) 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 11 elements of a good case (for more details on each of these elements, see his website at the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science):

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


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

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