Teaching case studies: why they are a great teaching tool and key questions to consider if developing or selecting one for teaching
Figure 1: The value of case studies
Case studies can play a central role in face-to-face and online post-graduate teaching. However, despite case studies’ potential to be highly effective teaching tools, educators are not always clear on all the reasons for using them and how to create good case studies. In this blog, Marsha Orgill and Nikki Schaay, both post-graduate university educators, shed some light on this.
Why use case studies?
Reflecting on our experiences as lecturers and students, we brainstormed our top reasons why case studies are valuable teaching tools (Figure 1).
Indeed, our reflections weren’t far off the mark. Lane (2007) writes: “Cases put students in an active learning mode…(they) invite students to do specific tasks and to think about the things they are doing. In essence, cases present students with opportunities to analyse and solve relevant real-world practical problems...Moreover, cases promote transfer. Active learning and engagement in solving problems causes students to better apply what they learn to similar problem situations in the real world”.
According to Kunselman & Johnson (2010), case studies can help students to: understand complex and complicated issues as well as describe interrelated processes, discuss policy and decision-making ideologies regarding politically or socially charged issues, and engage in informative and focused classroom discussion.
Developing and using case studies for teaching: some generic steps to consider
The very first step in this process is to think about the case study within the context of your full course curriculum. The curriculum is the starting point and describes all the learning outcomes (knowledge, skills and attitudes) expected to be achieved during a course, the resources to support the delivery of the course, the core teaching modes and tools, and learning assessment (CHEPSAA 2013; McKimm 2007).
Part of curriculum design is being clear about the level of thinking you are hoping to engage your students in. Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives can help you determine this. The targeted level of thinking will influence:
- The design of your case study, e.g. the ability to evaluate and synthesise are typically graduate thinking skills and involves the ability to make decisions and support views using evidence and criteria as well as the ability to combine information that is unique and justified (CHEPSAA 2013; Krathwohl 2002); and
- The level of difficulty within the case and the type of case you will design or select. For example, a decision case (which presents a problem that must be solved) or directed case (which primarily enhances students’ understanding of fundamental concepts, principles, and facts) might engage very different types of thinking (University of Buffalo).
CHEPSAA’s 2013 Curriculum development workshop report is an easy-to-read guide on what a curriculum is, designing learning outcomes and how to use teaching tools appropriately. For online learning, see The process of transitioning from face-to face to distance teaching and learning in post-graduate public health education for health systems development.
Next, you should focus on the learning outcomes for your course – you must know, in detail, what knowledge, skills and attitudes you want students to walk away with after doing your course! Only after detailing this, can you design the components of your course.
Within the context of a course curriculum, case studies are teaching tools that help you achieve your learning outcomes. You therefore have to think about how the case study will contribute to achieving these learning outcomes, taking into consideration all the other tools and learning materials. For example:
- Which specific learning outcomes will the case study speak to?
- When will the case will be introduced into the course – at the beginning, in the middle, or as a final assessment – and how will this timing influence the use of other teaching tools?
- Will students work with the case during the class, before the class as individuals or in groups? How will this interact with the venues and modes of other teaching activities?
Whatever approach is used, a case study should include teaching notes to guide students through the use of the case study.
Developing and using case studies for teaching: selected more specific issues to consider
We brainstormed questions and ideas to help you develop or select a case study. To inform our brainstorm session we read the following guides from Stanford University and the University of Hong Kong to support and develop our thinking:
In conclusion, cases can be very useful teaching tools and can definitely be rewarding, but developing a case study or selecting an existing one to use in your course also require hard work and serious thinking.
Marsha Orgill, Senior Lecturer, School of Public Health and Family Medicine, University of Cape Town & Nikki Schaay, Senior Researcher, School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape