1. What are Case Studies?
  2. Formats of Case Studies
  3. Case Studies: How To
  4. Case Studies: Assessment
  5. Case Studies: Challenges
  6. Case Studies: Examples
  7. Case Studies: Resources
  8. Examples at Carleton

Case studies provide an opportunity for students to apply their learning to real-life scenarios by working through complex, ambiguous real-world problems. Learners are encouraged to work out their own approach to defining, analyzing and solving the challenge.

What are Case Studies?

The use of case studies is based on the teaching approach of Problem-Based Learning (PBL), which was originally used at the Harvard Business School and at the Medical school at McMaster University in the mid-1970s. According to Barrows and Tablyn (1980), PBL “is the learning that results from the process of working toward the understanding or resolution of a problem”. It has been argued that the use of case studies promotes active learning and the structure is more similar to project-based learning than it is to problem-based learning. There are certain differences between project and problem-based learning:

Project-based Learning Problem-based Learning
Task focused learning; the instructor sets up an activity. The instructors provides the problem and students decide how and what they will learn.
Supervision by the instructor. Facilitation by the instructor.
Students are expected to come up with a solution and solve the problem. Students focus on managing the problem and not so much on its solution.
Students are expected to draw resources from previous lectures or instructor may provide supporting materials. The instructor may not provide lectures and the students are expected to identify the knowledge and materials that are necessary in order to address the problem.

It seems, though, that in many case studies used in various disciplines, there is an overlap between these two teaching approaches.

The case study method is a form of PBL and is based on a narrative of realistic issues that may derive from actual events that took place, or were developed with the purpose to simulate occurrences in everyday life. Cases are used to help students engage in discussion, apply knowledge and skills in solving problematic issues, and to address issues from various perspectives.

Case method learning is often successful because:

  • Adult learners find it more appealing when what they learn applies immediately to practical situations and when they are provided with the chance to activate their prior knowledge in order to address an issue
  • It promotes critical thinking and increases learner’s confidence in addressing an issue successfully
  • It encourages the learner to assume an active role in constructing knowledge and understanding.
  • The learners are challenged to set priorities in locating and managing information, they use scientific inquiry methods and explore higher level concepts and how these are applied into practice.
  • Case studies encourage collaborative learning, which is a widely supported method in knowledge formation

 There are various instructional objectives that could be addressed through the use of case studies:

  • To pre-assess the students’ knowledge and understanding
  • As a basis for either a regular lab session or a specific lab technology
  • To set the context for students to engage in research papers
  • To provide opportunities for students to explore issues from multiple perspectives
  • To help students learn through modelling and simulation process
  • To provide opportunities for students to explore historical events
  • To engage students in the data interpretation process
  • As an introduction to experimental design
  • To help students get prepared for a field trip
  • To equip students with knowledge and skills before practicum sessions

Some guiding questions that may help students to analyze cases are:

  • What is the issue that this case investigates? What is the problem to be addressed?
  • What are some of the questions you may have in relation to the issue?
  • What are some of the strategies to be used to solve the issue?
  • What information is necessary for you to acquire? What are some of the resources and materials that you need?
  • How will you solve the issue?
  • How will you evaluate the solution that you propose?

There are a variety of different formats of case studies that can be used in the classroom context (e.g., extensive case studies, descriptive/narrative cases, mini cases, etc.), which are all used with the purpose of facilitating knowledge acquisition.

Formats of Case Studies

Detailed / Extensive case studies

These are very detailed case studies that may be up to 100 pages or more in length. These are usually used in business courses individually by students with the purpose to develop an analysis with a list of suggestions for changes to be applied. A discussion is typically followed.

Descriptive / Narrative cases

These types of case studies were initially used in medical schools, and are up to 5 pages in length with each page containing 1-2 paragraphs. They are addressed during 2 or more class sessions and students are expected to generate hypotheses, develop the learning objectives and generate study questions for each part of the case.

Mini cases

These have a specific focus and are used in a single class session. Their purpose is to provide opportunities to the students to apply knowledge and concepts, to engage in lab practical applications, or used as a pre-lab exercise.

Bullet cases

These are up to 2 or 3 sentences in length and are used in small groups to engage students in pre-assessments.

Directed choice cases

These are short cases and are accompanied by directed questions that need to be addressed by the students.

Multiple choice cases

These are mini cases with 4-5 solutions for students to choose from and support the most possible one. Usually used for addressing issues in ethics and policy decisions and used during in-class sessions.

Case studies are a widely accepted method of in-class experiential learning. There are many different ways that professors can integrate case studies into their classroom.

Case Studies: How To

This image is drawn by a medical student and portrays a typical case-study session (Stanley, n.d.).

There are 3 phases in processing case studies:

Phase I: Analyzing the case and Defining the problem

  1. Introduction of the case: Students read the case individually or in groups (with one student reading aloud). It takes up to a couple of minutes and can be done as a whole class as well.
  2. Identifying issues to be addressed: Students spend 2-3 minutes reading the case silently, underlying keywords and jotting down initial ideas and relevant questions.
  3. Identifying underlying themes: Students look at the case as a whole and address the general question “What is this case about?”. The teacher writes down 5-7 responses and allows students to recognize the complexity of the case.
  4. Posing questions through KWL analysis (What I Know/What I Need to know/What I Learned):  Students will spend 10-15 minutes and in groups complete the KWL chart by identifying what they know and what they need to know. The questions are shared with the whole class and each group are then asked to narrow down their focus on 2-3 questions which are considered to be the most essential ones for the case.

Phase II: Developing strategies to investigate and solve the problem

  1. Collecting resources and materials: Such resources may be textbooks, library resources, and results from lab research or field investigations. Articles from academic journals, magazine and media articles, websites or electronic resources, newsletters and informational pamphlets of institutions and organizations, data from interviews, archival resources, information from exhibits in museums. Students may be assigned to research certain resources individually, and the instructor may make some of the resources available to the whole classrooms by placing them on reserve in the library or developing a web page with corresponding links.
  2. Sharing perspectives and refining the problems: At this stage students will share views and understandings with their group members or with the whole class in order to refine their problems and shape their inquiry questions. That sharing of perspectives can take place in class, outside class, online, on the phone, etc.
  3. Designing and conducting research: Students may engage in literature searches, or conduct interviews, lab experiments,  through field research and through data collection/generation. The instructor may need to provide the lab equipment, provide a tutorial on research methodology, or introduce students to datasets or simulations that are important to address the questions emerging from the case.

Phase III: Present the findings and Supporting reasoning

  1. Producing materials that support the findings: Students share the results of the  cases study analysis through papers, lab reports, posters, “videos, booklets, pamphlets for the general public, consulting reports, artwork, designs for new technology, scientific publications, newspaper stories, editorials” (Stanley, n.d.). What is of importance is that students engage in a reviewing process of their peer’s products and discuss how and why they are similar or different. Debates on controversial issues may arise and these are essential to the creation and agreement with new scientific knowledge (The BioQuest Library IV: Planning for Case-based learning, 1996).

Case Studies: Assessment

These are some criteria that could be used to assess the products of students’ work on case studies:

  • How did they participate and contribute to group discussions and engagements?
  • What issues did they identify and what did they focus their attention and research on?
  • The type of questions did they develop?
  • What investigations did they inquire about?
  • The location of the resources and materials used.
  • The ways in which their investigations were conducted.
  • How did they present the results of the case study analysis?

Assessing the effectiveness of case studies in relation to learning

As an instructor, it is important to assess the learning that took place as a result of the use case studies in your course. The questions to be used for this purpose should focus on how well the learning objectives were addressed and how meaningful the interactions were between and among group members.

Some of the proposed questions to be used for assessing a case study are:

  • Was the case study effective learning tool?
  • How open-ended is this case and how can it be altered in a way that students can move beyond fact-finding?
  • What are some of the challenges for the students?
  • Were students being misled in investigating this case?
  • What are some of the comments regarding the time allotted for this case?
  • How was the process of generating questions to investigate the case?
  • Any comments on the usability of the questions?
  • How was the process of generating and accumulating materials and resources?
  • How well is the case study aligned with the other aspects of the course (lecturing time, lab work, discussions and debates)?
  • What worked and what did not work well?
  • What needs to be modified for future use of the case?

Case Studies: Challenges

Group work skills: Group training may be necessary before students engage in case studies together. Students need to have a good understanding of the group dynamics, how the group members should function and how group meetings should be organized.

Adequate explanation of the requirements of the case study: Davis and Wilcock (2003) argue that, based on research findings, the more information provided to the students the better they will be prepared to address the issues posed in the case study. Students expect elaborate information on the depth of the independent research needed, on the practicality of writing reports, on preparing and giving presentations, and on designing posters. This maybe prerequisite training for most of the students.

Depth of learning targeted: It is important that case studies do not focus on having students accumulate information but rather provide them with the opportunity to engage in critical thinking and analysis. We need to aim for higher order thinking skills and ensure that there is a progression on the development of their learning skills. For example, progressing from analysis to synthesis.

Grade/credit allocation: Students need to have enough information regarding how much credit will be allocated to their involvement with the case study. Also, clear directions, guidelines for expectations of the case study, and time needed for individual research should be provided.

Additional workload: Davis and Wilcock (2003) discuss how important it is that students do not get overwhelmed with the expectations and requirements of the case study  to the expense of other assignments that need to be completed in the other modules of the course.

Case Studies: Examples

A list of various case studies in Astronomy, Biochemistry, Bioinformatics, Chemistry, Ethics, Evolution, Genetics, Behavior, Biology, Botany, Ecology, Epidemiology, Health Sciences, Microbiology, Phylogenetics, Physiology, Physics,  and other disciplines:


National Centre for Case Study Teaching in Science. The purpose of this center is to “promote a nationwide application of active learning techniques to the teaching of science, with a particular emphasis on case studies and problem-based learning” (quotation from front page of the official website). This resource contains many cases in all areas of science:

http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/ and, more specifically: http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/collection/

MERLOT II: Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching. You can have access to many cases in various disciplines by doing a search with the key phrase: “case studies”.


Stanley, E., (n.d.). Investigative case based learning examples. SERC Pedagogic Service Project. Several cases are provided and some of the Earth Systems topics are in atmosphere, biosphere, climate, Earth’s cycles, human dimensions, hydrology and surface processes. http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/icbl/examples.html

Ryerson University – The Teaching and Learning Office – Teaching Methods for Case Studies. This is a pdf file with information on how to pick a case study, how to prepare your students, the importance of knowing your students, how to lead the discussion, what types of questions to be asked, and the evaluation process. http://www.ryerson.ca/content/dam/lt/resources/handouts/CaseMethodBestPractices.pdf

Boston University – Center for Teaching and Learning – Using Case Studies to Teach. This website has a brief introduction on case study use to teach: common elements in case studies, advantages in using them in class, guidelines for using them, how to lead a case discussion and how to evaluate performance. http://www.bu.edu/ctl/teaching-resources/using-case-studies-to-teach/

Case Studies: Resources

Barrows H.S. & Tamblyn R.M. (1980). Problem-Based Learning: An Approach to Medical Education. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Boehrer J. & Linsky M. (1990) Teaching with cases: Learning to question. The Changing Face of College Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, In.

Brown University, (n.d.). Case Studies. Retrieved April 13, 2017 from https://www.brown.edu/about/administration/sheridan-center/teaching-learning/effective-classroom-practices/case-studies

Davis, C., and Wilcock, E. (2003). Teaching materials using case studies. In UK Centre for Materials Education: Working with you to enhance the student experience. Retrieved on April 18, 2017 from http://www.materials.ac.uk/guides/1-casestudies.pdf

Kaufman, D. M. (1998). Problem-based learning: Using cases to teach about how to deal with ethical problems. In NCEHR, 8(2).

Piaget, J. (1936). Origins of intelligence in the child. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Savin-Baden, M. (2003). Facilitating problem-based learning: The other side of silence. SRHE: Open University Press.

Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, (1994). Teaching with case studies. In Speaking of Teaching, 5(2), 1-4. Retrieved on April 13 2017 from https://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/Newsletter/case_studies.pdf

Stanley, E., (n.d.). Using Investigative Cases. SERC Pedagogic Service Project. Retrieved on April 18, 2017, from http://serc.carleton.edu/introgeo/icbl/index.html

The BioQuest Library IV, (1996). Planning for case-based learning. Retrieved on April 18, 2017, from http://bioquest.org/lifelines/PlanningStages.html#structure

Examples at Carleton