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Case Studies: Defined and Explored

Case Studies: Defined and Explored

Using a story with a carefully arranged set of facts to stimulate critical thinking.

The case study method

The "case study method" is a time-tested method of instruction in which students are given a detailed story about a certain situation and then must discuss the best way to proceed in that situation. The details of the case and the circumstances they describe are carefully chosen by the instructor to maximize opportunities for students to apply course content in their discussion of the case.

Using the metaphor of a library, Kolodner and Guzdial (2000) propose that we "index" the episodes of our experience, and -- when trying to interpret new experiences--review that index for cases from our experience that seem most like the present circumstances. For this reason, some believe the case method to be among the instructional methods best-suited to how we actually learn.

Traditionally, the case study method differs from problem-based learning in that students are usually given all the details of a case at the outset--including the outcome of the event--and discussion focuses on decisions that were made across the course of the case. In problem-based learning there may or may not be an actual outcome to give to students, and details can be delivered sequentially to students, as they make their own decisions along the way.

Brown (2005) noted that students benefit greatly from case study methodology. Herreid (2006) found that the use of case studies in large classes improved attendance, increased students’ grades, and increased scores on exam questions that tapped critical thinking skills. Dori, Tal, and Tsaushu (2003) found that using case studies improved critical thinking skills, especially for lower achieving students. In a large scale survey of college instructors, Yadav et al. (2008) found that case study instruction improved critical thinking skills, that students developed a deeper understanding of course material, and allowed students to see issues from multiple perspectives.

Five fundamental principles

Barnes, Christensen and Hansen (1994, pp. 47-48) identified five fundamental principles underlying case method instruction:

  1. The primacy of situational analysis - Case studies require students to confront "the law of the situation," thereby demanding critical thinking to put abstract concepts to use in realistic situations.
  2. The imperative of relating analysis to action - Analysis is motivated by a need to do something with the knowledge it produces. Knowledge in cases (and reality) is always partial, the consequences of the actions it enables is always speculative until events unfold.
  3. The necessity of student involvement - The case method helps students learn procedural knowledge (skills) in addition to declarative knowledge (facts and concepts). The skills are those of analysis and application, value assessment and judgment in the face of incomplete information. These skills cannot be acquired by being told about them—the student must become involved and practice them.
  4. A nontraditional instructor role - Because students must get involved in a case to get the most from it, the teacher must only facilitate the discussion of the case and not lead the class heavy-handedly through a pre-determined thought process. Questions like "What do others think about this?" and "What might be some outcomes of that?" replace traditional didactic teacher behavior.
  5. A balance of substantive and process teaching objectives - The purpose of the case method is to give students the experience of working through the kinds of analyses and decision-making challenges that they might face as a professional in your field. The acquisition of the skills necessary to do this takes time, energy and effort, and so must be consciously considered valuable by the instructor.

Teaching with the case method

At its simplest, teaching with the case method involves having students read about or watch materials related to case and then discussing what happened, why it happened, what else perhaps should have happened, and so on.  Obviously, choosing a good case will make for a better instructional experience, and some teachers have found that choosing cases for specific reasons works best for their course.  Some find cases in unexpected but nonetheless very educational places
Though there are many cases and case banks out there, sometimes teachers take the time to write their own cases and have even tapped into their students’ creative energies and asked students to learn everything necessary to write good cases themselves.


Brown, D. (2005, March). How the case study method of instruction employs critical thinking to facilitate learning. Inquiry: Critical thinking across the disciplines, 24(3), 37-40.

Dori, Y.J., Tal, R.T., & Tsaushu, M. (2003). Teaching biotechnology through case studies: Can we improve higher order thinking skills of nonscience majors? Science Education, 87(6), 767-793.

Finney, S., & Pyke, J. (2008). Content relevance in case-study teaching: The alumni connection and its effect on student motivation. Journal of Education for Business, 83(5), 251-257.

Herreid, C.F. (2006). Clicker cases: Introducing case study teaching into large classrooms. Journal of College Science Teaching, 36(2), 43-47.

Kolodner, J.L., & Guzdial, M. (2000). Theory and practice of case-based learning aids. In Jonassen, D.S. & Land, M.S. (Eds.),Theoretical foundations of learning environments. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Yadav, A., Lundeberg, M., DeSchryver, M., Dirkin, K., Schiller, N.A., Maier, K., & Herreid, C.F. (2008). Teaching science with case studies: A national survey of faculty perceptions of the benefits and challenges of using cases. The Journal of College Science Teaching, 37(1), 34-38.