Engaging Students with Case Studies

The case study method is a pedagogical approach which asks students to investigate real-world problems presented as a descriptive case about which decisions must be made. The case is a narrative, often presented without a conclusion. Case studies are distinctly problem-centered assignments, often completed in a group format – requiring students to work together with others as a team, analyze a problem, synthesize knowledge, and apply their learning to communicate a resolution to the case’s central challenge. All well-designed case studies clearly indicate student learning objectives and include assignments, enabling authentic assessment of student work. Case studies can be used at many levels and in many settings; they are widely used in undergraduate general education classes, as well as in courses for the major. 

Although faculty sometimes create their own case studies for use in the classroom, many organizations provide peer-reviewed case studies for classroom use, free of charge or for a modest subscription fee. Below are two case study banks in science education, available to WSU faculty.

STIRS. In 2012, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) launched its Scientific Thinking and Integrative Reasoning Skills (STIRS) initiative. The STIRS Framework encompasses four elements based on the central concept of evidence: what it is, how it’s collected, and its use in solving problems and in making decisions.  An example from the STIRS collection is physicist Vandana Singh’s case study, ‘”To Drill or Not to Drill? A Dilemma in the context of Climate Change in the Arctic,” in which students are required to consider the scientific basis of climate change as they develop recommendations for local communities – to “drill or not” for oil and gas.  STIRS peer-reviewed cases offer compelling narratives and topics for general education and for the major, including cases about bird flu, cell phones and cancer, organic foods, and congressional redistricting.

NCCSTS. Likewise, with support from the National Science Foundation, among others, the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) at Buffalo University has curated nearly 700 individual peer-reviewed case studies in science and technology – from aerospace engineering to zoology. This repository features brief “plug-and-play” modules for use in a single class session to more complex inquiry-driven projects in which elements of the case are progressively revealed, requiring a full term to complete successfully. The NCCSTS case studies focus on helping students make science more relevant to their lives while learning and applying critical thinking, information literacy, and scientific and quantitative reasoning skills. This award-winning collection of science-based case studies allow for active learning in many instructional formats, and makes them ideal for embedding assessment of student learning within the case study course module.

Use in many disciplines.  Case studies benefit student learning in science. Students report greater motivation to learn and more engagement with the subject matter. Assessments of student learning demonstrate other advantages to case studies, with significant gains in students’ ability to synthesize complex scientific concepts as they considered difficult analytical questions, as science educator Kevin Bonney has written in the Journal of Microbiology and Biology Education.

Case studies have been used in other fields, as well: WSU Vancouver’s Public Affairs program has utilized case studies from the Electronic Hallway collection to help their students develop professional communication skills.  Guides to collections of peer-reviewed case studies in these and many other disciplines are available through the STIRS resources page.

Using case studies effectively. Most peer-reviewed case studies provide the case, supplementary documents, teaching notes, and assessment tools. While case studies engage students in active learning experiences that most find meaningful, using the method requires that faculty assume a different role – that of facilitator who must guide students to take control over their own learning, provide assistance in wading through piles of sometimes contradictory evidence, and help students manage emotions that aspects of a case may trigger. If you are interested in adopting the case study method in your classes, the NCCSTS Teaching Resources page offers many publications helpful to faculty preparing to adopt this method.

For an example of how a WSU program has utilized case students in a course in the major, please see the Public Affairs assessment spotlight. For additional information, contact ATL.