Why use cases to teach?


There are many documented reasons to use cases. Some of the reasons or beliefs about using cases are listed below. How many do you agree with?


  • Create the need to know.
  • Provide a space to think about practice.
  • Raise the level of critical thinking skills (application/synthesis/evaluation, not recall.
  • Enhance the listening/cooperative learning skills.
  • Prompt deeper diagnosis and meaning making.
  • Develop problem solving skills.
  • Help learners connect theory and practice.
  • Facilitate the social learning process of learning judgment.
  • Are "inefficient transmitters of facts."
  • Provide a vehicle for examining multiple points of view/hearing various voices.
  • Build partnership/collegiality among learners and teacher.
  • Encourage attention to and self-consciousness about assumptions and conceptions.
  • Allow students' naive questions to precipitate profound change in approach.
  • Help students learn to monitor their own thinking.
  • Reflect the contextual, situated, complex nature or knowledge.
  • Help students see connection to their own goals.
  • Help teachers become aware of their own tensions and ironies.
  • Teach students not to take things literally.
  • Teach students that there may not be one "right" answer, after all.
  • Illustrate interaction among variables (especially human ones).
  • Teach that it is easy to overlook important details.
  • Get you thinking and brainstorming.
  • Simulate passage of time, so you can integrate real life consequences and developments.
  • Get students to be active, not passive.
  • Can be structured and convergent, or unstructured and divergent.
  • Encompass an enormous range of possibilities.
  • Create a rich ambiguous learning environment.
  • Provide possibilities for all learners to be successful and a variety of roles.

Back to Top 

Case-based Process

Here a process you can use to help your students use cases to their best.

  • Determine the facts of the case.
  • Understand the dynamics of the situation.
  • Define the presenting problem. Determine the problem to be solved.
  • Generate a possible course of action or generate, assess, and propose a number of possible solutions.
  • Evaluate the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats to each course of action.
  • Make a decision regarding a satisfactory or at least workable plan of action.

Back to Top 

Underlying Procedures for Using Cases

  • Students need to come to class prepared to discuss the case.
  • Students will understand the case better, if they are given careful introductory directions.
  • Unless there are specific pedagogical reasons, key facts should be introduced in the written case and not added during the discussion.
  • Cases need to be complete enough so that the problem can be defined.
  • The size of the group should allow for free exchange among all participants. Groups larger than 12 tend to exclude many members from participating, Larger groups can be divided.
  • Combined contributions of members of different discussion groups improve the learning experience.
  • Group leaders should prevent small sub-groups from either controlling the situation or distracting others.
  • Facilitators need to be objective without being emotionally invested in the case.
  • They should be aware of the larger goals of the case.
  • Facilitators should ask carefully designed questions. They should not let the discussion get submerged in the details of the case, but rather ensure that discussion focuses on the ways to solve the problem.
  • Role-playing can help clarify some concepts by engaging students in problem solving from the perspectives of different key players.

Back to Top 

What makes a good case?

  • The incident has emotional power.
  • The incident entails difficult choices.
  • Is open-ended, allowing multiple interpretations and solutions.
  • Entails fundamental/underlying value conflicts.
  • Speaks to important aspects of your goals for your student learning.
  • Gets at issues that require or benefit collegial discussions,
  • Is related to the important curricular and pedagogical aims of the program.
  • The situation has stayed with you and wants to be told.

Back to Top 

For the Instructor:

  • Anchor instruction in cases.
  • Actively involve learners.
  • Model professional thinking and action
  • Provide direction and feedback.
  • Create a collaborative learning environment.

Back to Top 

What Can You Use for Cases?

The following might be used as cases in your discipline:

  • Problem Sets
  • Problem-based Learning Activities
  • Critical Incidents
  • Slice of Life Accounts
  • Ethnographic Studies
  • Clinical Descriptions
  • Appraisals/Consultant Reports
  • Personal Stories/Narratives
  • Newspaper Stories
  • Case Histories
  • "Armchair" Cases
  • Scenarios
  • Video Cases/Trigger Films
  • Simulation Activities

Back to Top 

An activity to try:

  • Read a case. NOTE: if you'd like a case from higher education, contact Karen Adsit  for one. (Include your mailing address and a phone number.)
  • Identify 1-2 of the most important learning objectives you would have for your learners if you were to teach this case.
  • Given the learning objective(s), you identified, come up with ONE opening question to begin discussion of this case.
  • Select one member of your group to write the opening question on the flip chart and facilitate the discussion for five minutes.

Back to Top 

Other activities to practice using cases:

  • After reading a case, outline at least three questions that would broaden the scope of discussion around this case.
  • What would you do to wrap up this discussion in a class period?
  • What are some ways in which you could test students on the "knowledge" learned through this case?
  • What would you ask them to do? How would you score them?

Back to Top 

Some default questions to use when beginning a case discussion:

  • What's the problem?
  • When did this problem begin?

Back to Top 

How Do I Choose and Use a Case?

  • Identify clear learning objectives.
  • Know your learners...
  • Understand how the concepts of the case fit into the overall concept map for the course or unit.
  • Choose the best strategy for using the case materials.

Back to Top 

References for Using Cases in the Classroom:

    • Manning, B. (1997). The Case for Cases. Professional and Organizational Network in Higher Education Annual Conference, October 17, 1997. Haines City, Florida.
    • Irby, D. (1994), Three exemplary models of case-based teaching. Academic Medicine. Vol 69, No. 12, p. 947-953.

Back to Top