What is a case study?
A case study is either a story which is based on a real situation or it is composed of a series of events or fictive situations, which could take place in reality as well. A case study
- presents an engaging and interesting story,
- is based on a recent event,
- provides a learning opportunity on a relevant topic,
- is of relevance to the students,
- manages uncertainty,
- tackles a general problem, and
- is decision-forcing (cp. Hamschmidt 2007).
It is important that case studies relate to the students’ knowledge and environment in order to address their emotions so that they demonstrate empathy with the case persons. Learning outcomes are more relevant when the case addresses a general problem because the students will be able to apply the outcomes in more contexts.
Why applying case study teaching?
Case studies are included in many university classes in order to confront students with complex and uncertain challenges of a real-world situation. Students will be involved into a concrete problem-solving process and puts them in a situation where there is not only one correct answer, but which requires thoughtful and creative decision-making in an uncertain context. Students are confronted with their values and skills as they need to prioritise which aspects of the case (facts, theories, emotions) they experience as most relevant. Thereby students can develop their strategic and systemic competences as well as interpersonal, teamwork and leadership skills.
How to teach with case studies?
Students will benefit most in a case method when they can apply their previously learned theoretical knowledge and methodological skills. Hence it is recommended to integrate cases in advanced stages of a course or study programme.
Preparations for the educator involve selecting appropriate case studies and formulating questions for the students. During class the educator needs to find the right balance between instructor and facilitator as students might need some guidance but should at the same time have enough freedom to discuss solutions on their own.
Following procedure is recommended:
- Students individually read the case study. They explore the problem and have time to sort out the important facts.
- The case is discussed in small groups of 3-5 students. The educator provides questions to the students.
- The students present their perspectives of the case and first conclusions to the audience.
- The results are commonly discussed.
- Students reflect the case and answer the questions in a written report (on the individual or group level).
As a further step students can be assigned roles in the case and they have to find and negotiate decisions from the different characters’ points of view.
Case studies can be applied independently from the group size, but classes with up to 25 students would be ideal.
Note: If you prefer to directly engage your students in a real case, have a look at the “Transdisciplinary case study approach”.