Case Studies - Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation - Carnegie Mellon University

Case Studies

What are case studies?

Case studies are stories. They present realistic, complex, and contextually rich situations and often involve a dilemma, conflict, or problem that one or more of the characters in the case must negotiate.

A good case study, according to Professor Paul Lawrence is:

“the vehicle by which a chunk of reality is brought into the classroom to be worked over by the class and the instructor. A good case keeps the class discussion grounded upon some of the stubborn facts that must be faced in real life situations.”

(quoted in Christensen, 1981)

Although they have been used most extensively in the teaching of medicine, law and business, case studies can be an effective teaching tool in any number of disciplines. As an instructional strategy, case studies have a number of virtues. They “bridge the gap between theory and practice and between the academy and the workplace” (Barkley, Cross, and Major 2005, p.182). They also give students practice identifying the parameters of a problem, recognizing and articulating positions, evaluating courses of action, and arguing different points of view.

Case studies vary in length and detail, and can be used in a number of ways, depending on the case itself and on the instructor’s goals.

  • They can be short (a few paragraphs) or long (e.g. 20+ pages).
  • They can be used in lecture-based or discussion-based classes.
  • They can be real, with all the detail drawn from actual people and circumstances, or simply realistic.
  • They can provide all the relevant data students need to discuss and resolve the central issue, or only some of it, requiring students to identify, and possibly fill in (via outside research), the missing information.
  • They can require students to examine multiple aspects of a problem, or just a circumscribed piece.
  • They can require students to propose a solution for the case or simply to identify the parameters of the problem.

Finding or creating cases

It is possible to write your own case studies, although it is not a simple task. The material for a case study can be drawn from your own professional experiences (e.g., negotiating a labor dispute at a local corporation or navigating the rocky shoals of a political campaign), from current events (e.g., a high-profile medical ethics case or a diplomatic conundrum), from historical sources (e.g., a legal debate or military predicament), etc. It is also possible to find published cases from books and on-line case study collections. Whatever the source, an effective case study is one that, according to Davis (1993):

  • tells a “real” and engaging story
  • raises a thought-provoking issue
  • has elements of conflict
  • promotes empathy with the central characters
  • lacks an obvious or clear-cut right answer
  • encourages students to think and take a position
  • portrays actors in moments of decision
  • provides plenty of data about character, location, context, actions
  • is relatively concise

Using case studies

How you use case studies will depend on the goals, as well as on the format, of your course. If it is a large lecture course, for example, you might use a case study to illustrate and enrich the lecture material. (An instructor lecturing on principles of marketing, for example, might use the case of a particular company or product to explore marketing issues and dilemmas in a real-life context.) Also in a large class you might consider breaking the class into small groups or pairs to discuss a relevant case. If your class is a smaller, discussion-format course, you will be able to use more detailed and complex cases, to explore the perspectives introduced in the case in greater depth, and perhaps integrate other instructional strategies, such as role playing or debate.

Regardless of the format in which you employ case studies, it is important that you, as the instructor, know all the issues involved in the case, prepare questions and prompts in advance, and anticipate where students might run into problems. Finally, consider who your students are and how you might productively draw on their backgrounds, experiences, personalities, etc., to enhance the discussion.

While there are many variations in how case studies can be used, these six steps provide a general framework for how to lead a case-based discussion:

  1. Give students ample time to read and think about the case. If the case is long, assign it as homework with a set of questions for students to consider (e.g., What is the nature of the problem the central character is facing? What are some possible courses of action? What are the potential obstacles?)
  2. Introduce the case briefly and provide some guidelines for how to approach it. Clarify how you want students to think about the case (e.g., “Approach this case as if you were the presiding judge” or “You are a consultant hired by this company. What would you recommend?”) Break down the steps you want students to take in analyzing the case (e.g., “First, identify theconstraints each character in the case was operating under and the opportunities s/he had. Second, evaluate the decisions each character made and their implications. Finally, explain what you would have done differently and why.”). If you would like students to disregard or focus on certain information, specify that as well (e.g., “I want you to ignore the political affiliation of the characters described and simply distinguish their positions on stem-cell research as they are articulated here.”)
  3. Create groups and monitor them to make sure everyone is involved. Breaking the full class into smaller groups gives individual students more opportunities for participation and interaction. However, small groups can drift off track if you do not provide structure. Thus, it is a good idea to make the task of the group very concrete and clear (e.g., “You are to identify three potential courses of action and outline the pros and cons of each from a public relations standpoint”). You may also want to designate roles within each group: for example, one individual might be charged with keeping the others on task and watching the time; a second individual’s role might be to question the assumptions or interpretations of the group and probe for deeper analysis; a third individual’s role might be to record the group’s thoughts and report their decision to the class.  Alternatively, group members could be assigned broad perspectives (e.g., liberal, conservative, libertarian) to represent, or asked to speak for the various “stake-holders” in the case study.
  4. Have groups present their solutions/reasoning: If groups know they are responsible for producing something (a decision, rationale, analysis) to present to the class, they will approach the discussion with greater focus and seriousness. Write their conclusions on the board so that you can return to them in the discussion that follows.
  5.  Ask questions for clarification and to move discussion to another level. One of the challenges for a case-based discussion leader is to guide the discussion and probe for deeper analysis without over-directing. As the discussion unfolds, ask questions that call for students to examine their own assumptions, substantiate their claims, provide illustrations, etc.
  6. Synthesize issues raised. Be sure to bring the various strands of the discussion back together at the end, so that students see what they have learned and take those lessons with them. The job of synthesizing need not necessarily fall to the instructor, however; one or more students can be given this task.

Some variations on this general method include having students do outside research (individually or in groups) to bring to bear on the case in question, and comparing the actual outcome of a real-life dilemma to the solutions generated in class. 

Sources referenced:

Barkley, E. F, Cross, K. P. & Major, C. H. (2005) Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Christensen, C. R. (1981) Teaching By the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School.

Davis, B. G. (1993) Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.