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Learning Through Case Studies

Description

A case study is the presentation of a story with real-world elements that bridges the gap between theory and practice. As students work through the case, they must evaluate parameters, identify assumptions, root out the true problem, explore solutions, and then decide on and defend their recommended course of action.

Case studies have the benefit of typically being interdisciplinary, and require that students make connections to their own past experiences, or knowledge learned in other courses. While historically found in law and medical courses, case studies can be applied to numerous fields and found anywhere, even looking through a local newspaper. Case design is open; they can be long or short, simple or complex, real or hypothetical, provide all the relevant information or require students to complete extra research, include ideas for a solution or require students to come up with solutions completely on their own.

Key Components

While case studies come in many forms, a well written case study report asks students to identify and include the following within the bookends of an introduction and conclusion:

  1. Analysis: In this section, students summarize an organized review of the main points and elements of the case. If any outside research was done, it would be introduced and explained here. 
  2. Identify stakeholders: The next step is for students to identify the main stakeholders that are affected by this case, and what they view to be the main issue or problem. 
  3. List assumptions: Case studies rarely provide all the information needed to make a clear decision. It is important to list out any and all assumptions made to get a clear view of what information was missing as students move forward. Assumptions usually include motives, budgets, and data, among others. 
  4. Identify problem: This step seems straightforward, but can be the most difficult part of a good case. Students must consider the perspectives of all the stakeholders and their list of assumptions to clarify the overarching problem to be solved.
  5. Propose multiple solutions: Depending on the complexity of the case, students should draft 2-5 complete solutions to the problem. Each solution should briefly forecast outcomes for the different stakeholders affected, and provide a simple implementation plan. 
  6. Choose solution: After creating and analyzing multiple solutions, students should then be able to choose the best solution to the case problem. This solution should then be fully developed and explored in detail. 
  7. Defend solution: This analysis and synthesis of the case is often left out, but is the most important part of learning from case studies. Students must utilize critical thinking to fully explain why they chose their solution, how it is superior to the other solutions presented and addresses stakeholder needs, and works within the parameters of the case. 

Available Case Studies

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science
Case Studies in Business and Management
New York Times small business
Creative Commons case study collection
Public Art case studies
Ethics case studies
Case Study Collection (Science, Engineering, Social Sciences, Business)

Best Practices

  • Work through a case as a class before you ask students to move through the steps individually. Practice may be required before they are able to identity all the stakeholder perspectives, assumptions, or even the main problem, on their own. 
  • Case studies are an effective group exercise, as group members bring different perspectives and ideas that can lead to more creative solutions. 
  • Consider your students when introducing a case, how you might draw in their backgrounds and experiences, and where they might run into problems. 

Resources

http://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/design/instructionalstrategies/casestudies.html
http://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/cs/
http://www.bu.edu/ceit/teaching-resources/using-case-studies-to-teach/
http://web.stanford.edu/dept/CTL/cgi-bin/docs/newsletter/case_studies.pdf

 

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