How to Get more out of case studies

February 12, 1999

WHAT John Heath tells teachers to forget conventional methods for a while and get a group of students working on a case study

WHY A good case study develops deeper understandingof issues, encourages team working and is a valuable tool in assessment

HOW You are a new office supervisor and an agitated young clerk suddenly announces: "I've just seen that man searching through the pockets of my coat!" You look towards the coat rack, near the door, and recognise the man leaving the office as the firm's maintenance electrician. What will you do next?

Put simply, a case study is an account or description of a situation or sequence of events that raises issues or problems for analysis. The use of case studies - the case method - is well established in business and management education and is to be found increasingly in other areas of education, particularly economics, law, medicine, geography, teacher training and the social sciences generally.

Cases come in many different forms and are used in a variety of ways. They range from the short incident like the example above to complex situation cases at the other end of the spectrum.

Case teaching

At the heart of the case method is a class discussion in which a teacher guides. Its effectiveness depends on well-crafted questions, sensitive listening and constructive responses.

In planning a case discussion it can be helpful to consider three phases. The tutor's first task is to motivate the learner. Case studies must not only address issues relevant to the area of study but also capture student interest.

Sometimes small groups of students work on case-related questions before the full class meets to discuss the case with the tutor. Tutors may pose these questions in a novel or provocative way to heighten student interest in the forthcoming discussion.

In opening the discussion the tutor's aim should be to involve all students in the case situation. Ideally they should become so immersed in the case issues that they readily put themselves into the shoes of people in the case, and deal with both the intellectual and emotional challenges of the case situation.

In the middle phase of the session the main issues are explored in depth. Shaping questions that guide the process of analysis and discovery is the key. These may be framed to aid problem identification or draw out existing knowledge and experiences.

Student contributions are linked by the tutor in ways that build and develop understanding. As the discussion progresses student comments may be recorded on the whiteboard (or equivalent) to provide a summary.

Through questions, restatements and summary remarks at critical points, the effective case teacher ensures that a thorough analysis takes place and students move to a deeper understanding.

Demands on the teacher

Case-study teaching places some new demands on tutors, especially on those who feel more comfortable with traditional forms of teaching. A traditional lecture allows the tutor to control the session from start to finish. But when teaching a case the tutor must relinquish some control to the student group and be prepared for the discussion to go off at tangents.

The tutor will have ideas on what is to be covered by the discussion, but the route from start to finish can be quite different from the one expected.

Given these differences, tutors may be wary of introducing case teaching into their programmes.

Some tutors and institutions believe students learn more in the available study time on a conventional lecture-based course.

The key issue here, however, is what does it mean to "learn more"?

Learning may be defined as the acquisition of knowledge, skills and attitudes. It may be that the straight transfer of knowledge is more readily achieved through lectures or directed reading.

But we must decide whether the acquisition of knowledge by students is the main aim of our programmes. Harvard University (perhaps the principal exponent of the case method) and other leading institutions are very clear that they are in the business of training practitioners, whether in law, medicine, business administration or in other fields.

Effective practitioners need not only analytical and diagnostic skills but action skills too. They must be able to analyse the work situations they face, formulate appropriate action in response to these situations and implement that action effectively.

Diagnostic and action skills are developed through practice. However, it is not always feasible to give trainees real-world situations on which to practise.

Instead, we must make use of proxies, representations and simulations of the real world. Some of these proxies take the form of case studies.

A case study aims to bring a slice of reality into the classroom. In dealing with case studies students are put into a situation in which they must make use of the concepts, theories or frameworks acquired in other parts of their courses through lectures and readings.

Teachers encourage students to reach a personal conclusion about the central issues in the case, and what to do about these, in the light of their own assessment and the group discussion.

Ultimately they will have learned which tools are suitable for which tasks and will have developed proficiency and confidence in using them.

Case examinations

Cases are used to provide opportunities for learning. In examinations they are used for a rather different purpose; here they provide opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning.

A case study typically contains a wide range of issues. Its use as a vehicle for ongoing assessment or final examination must therefore be planned with care.

The essential first stage in this process is to be very clear about what it is that we wish to assess. What knowledge, skills or attitudes do we want the student to demonstrate?

Only when this is clear should we turn to the task of selecting the examination case, the content of which must provide sufficient opportunities for students to demonstrate the learning we wish to assess. What next?

Newcomers to case teaching who wish to learn more will find The European Case Clearing House an invaluable source of guidance (see box left).

Educational publishers can be another useful source of information. Many now offer combined text and case books in various subject areas. Teacher guides are available for some of these books which offer suggestions on how the cases can be used in conjunction with the main text to enhance learning.

John Heath is the author of Teaching and writing case studies - a practical guide, published by European Case Clearing House, 1998. Available from bookshops or direct from ECCH. ISBN 0 907815 01 4


Different types of case study

* The incident case - a short single event

* The background case - a framework within which other cases explore specifics rather than using a handout

* The exercisecase - students to apply a specific technique, widely used where quantitative analysis is required

* The situation case - often includes the question "Why did things go wrong and how could this have been avoided?"

* The complex case - significant issues are immersed in a mass of data, much of which is irrelevant. Student has to distinguish between vital and superficial issues

* The decisioncase - student states what he or she would do inthe circumstances and formulates an action plan.

Common complaints about the case method

* Cases have no unique answer

* Information is ambiguous and contradictory

* The issue is not stated

* The instructor does not solve he case

* Case teaching is inefficient

* Note-taking is difficult

* The instructor is non-directive You may feel that discussing cases is a cumbersome way of learning. While less information passes from tutor to student than in a straightforward lecture, effective teaching is more than the information exchange.

Information, inany case, can be obtained from books. Classroom time can then be more usefully employed in discussion of theories.

Learning from case studies comes not only from the issues raised by the incident or situation. Much can also be learned by students from the study of their own behaviour and the behaviour of others duringdiscussion.

Who are thediscussion leaders and how does this become apparent? What are the qualities of a goodnegotiator? Who are good listeners?Who shows sensitivity to the feeling of others? Who encourages contributions from colleagues and how is this done? Who is able to build effectively on others' contributions? Who keeps the discussion going when there is a lag in the proceedings? What would your colleagues say about your role inall these activities?

Discussion is an opportunity for all involved to observe, practise and develop interpersonal skills.


The European Case Clearing House is the largest single source of management case studies in the world.

There are 16,200 titles in its case collection written by authors and faculty at leading United States and European institutions.

From its bases at Cranfield University in the United Kingdom and Babson College in the US, the ECCH supplies 430,000 cases annually to education institutions and corporate users.

There is a unit fee for each case ordered and authors are paid royalties. Forty per cent of cases also have an associated teaching note written by the case author to assist teaching staff.

The non-profit ECCH was founded in 1973. It promotes the case-study teaching method developed at Harvard University through workshops, seminars, publications and by providing a mechanism for publication and world copyrighted distribution. Its annual scholarship programmes have brought case writing wider recognition.

The ECCH international student case competition held first in 1998 helped raise the case method profile in Europe.

Details: Jeffrey A Gray, consultant director email: or http://www.

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