Teaching with Case Studies

Teaching with case studies is an effective discussion-based strategy that is appropriate for a wide variety of contexts. Faculty appreciate that case studies give students experience identifying patterns and applying models/theories. Case studies are authentic scenarios that present a problem or issue for students to discuss and solve. Ideally, you want cases to have several possible solutions. When selecting cases, look for compelling stories, book chapters, movies, or newspaper articles that will engage students. Avoid cases with one correct answer.

Effective case study discussions require meticulous planning and structure. The case should be linked to specific course learning goals. For example, a graduate nursing course includes the following objective:

To develop effective strategies for the resolution of administrative problems relating to quality and cost effectiveness.

A multi-faceted hospital case study provides complex scenarios for students to discuss regarding budget and personnel cuts while upholding patient care and quality treatment. Complex cases may be used in several class sessions to focus on different issues within the case.

Incorporating Case Studies into Your Lesson Plan

Prior to class, create a lesson plan that emphasizes the analysis process more than the outcome or final solution. Many faculty members recommend providing students with guiding questions prior to the class session. During case discussions, instructors assume the role of facilitator and relinquish some classroom control because students do most of the talking. A best practice in case study discussions is to immediately begin the session with a low-level question, poll, or brainstorming activity that engages as many student voices as possible. Scaffold case study discussion questions from basic comprehension of the scenario to more advanced analysis and decision-making. Bloom’s Taxonomy is a useful tool to help you design lower to higher level thinking questions. Higher-level questions might be posed as open-ended retrospective, predictive, or action-oriented questions. Try to avoid leading questions such as “What is the main problem with General Hospital?” Instead the question might be “What is the main issue that General Hospital faces?”

Facilitating Participation

From the beginning of the course, let students know that they will be taking an active role in the class. Require students to raise their hands and be recognized before contributing to the discussion. If the same few students do most of the talking, be prepared to pause until more students raise their hands. As you learn students’ strengths, interests, and personalities, you can draw them into the discussion. For example, if a case study focuses on a retail business and Maria works as an assistant manager at Target, you may ask her to incorporate her unique perspective into the discussion. You can stimulate discussion by enthusiastically moving around the classroom, making eye contact, nodding your head, and using physical gestures to encourage dialogue. Role-play is often a noteworthy strategy to supplement student application and analysis of case study concepts.

As a facilitator, you will want to be highly engrossed in the discussion to listen for key points and concepts. What key learning concepts do you want students to take away from the discussion? How much time do you want to spend on each concept? Can you guide the discussion so that students discover the key points instead of you telling them? Look for the “teachable moments” when students make points that allow you to reinforce concepts and principles. Consider how you will use the whiteboard during the class discussion. Frequently, facilitators divide the whiteboard into sections such as:

  1. basic comprehension points about the organization and characters;
  2. analysis points focusing on core issues; and
  3. recommendations including strategies, principles, or decisions. These key areas will help you to efficiently summarize the discussion.

Assessing Performance

As part of your planning process, consider how you will debrief and emphasize key points. Perhaps you want to relate the case to a model or framework presented in the textbook. Even if a case has many options and alternatives, there are likely key take-away points for your students. Assessment of student performance can be in the form of class participation, written assignments, oral assignments, or group assignments. Grading participation is significant because it motivates students to prepare and contribute to the discussion.

The case study methodology can be a valuable teaching and learning strategy in online courses as well as face-to-face courses. Complicated cases work well in online courses because students have time to reflect and develop meaningful contributions to the discussions. Cases with unusual twists, turns, or surprises are not as effective in online courses because students do not always follow the nuances in the stories and discussions. Typically, online facilitators require 4-5 postings per week on different days of the week. They also encourage back channel communication or communication among students outside of the learning management system. Many cases with their solutions are available on the Internet; therefore it is important to encourage students to do their own work. As noted early, the emphasis should be on the process rather than the final outcome.

Whether a course is online or face-to-face, facilitating a case study discussion is part art and part science. The “art” is making the scenario come alive for students and “science” is the meticulous preparation. Strive to end case discussions with a thoughtful question that leaves students discussing and thinking about the concepts after your class ends.

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