Case study teaching involves the use of real world situations as a basis for learning. Case study teaching:

  • Engages students in working on ill-structured or amiguous, complex, real or realistic problems or issues
  • Relies on students to explore the topic and use critical thinking to come to a solution, decision, or action, rather than relying on instructors to explain the problem or issue and report the solution
  • Puts the instructor in the role of "coach" rather than information deliverer, and puts students in the position of decision-makers

How it works

Like all evidence-based teaching, case study teaching requires that learning objectives are defined first, and that the objectives for analyzing a case align with learning objectives for the course. The instructor then presents students with a problem or issue, which typically includes more information than necessary to solve the problem - just like real life. The instructor can also provide supporting materials that would be useful for understanding and making decisions about the case, such as data graphs, websites, journal articles, images, figures, or videos. Alternatively, students can be tasked with finding these resources. The instructor also presents questions before, during, or after class to get students thinking about the case, and structures discussion about the case with questions or prompts. In a typical case study teaching session, the instructor:

  1. Sets expectations - What are the case objectives and how do they align with course goals? What are students expected to do?
  2. Asks open-ended, provocative questions
  3. Follows up on incomplete responses
  4. Brings the discussion and case elements together
  5. Reminds about the learning objectives for the case and learning goals for the course so students can evaluate the progress they are making as they analyze cases.

Assessment in case study teaching often looks different from evaluation in lecture class sessions. Because learning happens through analysis and discussion of the case, participation is important. Assessment of participation can be done by tracking attendance and documenting engagement in discussion using a rubric. Students can also be expected to submit a product, such as an analysis of the case and recommendations for action, either individually or in teams. These products are also best graded using rubrics. For more on evaluating student case work, visit the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science

Typical challenges of case study teaching are:

  • Students may believe there should be a single, correct answer - in real life, this may not be the case. Students may need to be reassured that there are multiple possible solutions, and the important piece is the alignment between the proble, the solution, and the evidence.
  • Cases are ambiguous, which can make students and instructors uncomfortable. Acknowledging the ambiguity, emphasizing that real life and real situations are ambiguous yet we are still expected to make decisions, and being sure to bring the discussion to a conclusion related to the objectives can help alleviate the discomfort and encourage students to persist in the face of ambiguity.
  •  Discussions can wander or head off topic. This is where it is important for the instructor to be a coach - recognizing when discussion may be wandering too much or heading in directions that are counter-productive, and gently steering the conversation back to the case, the guiding questions or prompts, and the objectives.
  • Students may bring up ideas or questions instructors are not prepared to address. Instructors should feel comfortable stating that they are not prepared to address the idea or question in the moment, and then either get back to students after some investigation or ask the students what they could do to follow up on their idea or address their own question.

Learn more

More information on case study teaching and examples of cases can be found at these sites: