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The Case Study Method of Instruction

Updated: Mar 26, 2023

While law, medical, business, and sociology students at the university level have been using case studies as a primary vehicle of instruction for several decades, widespread use in high school science courses is a relatively recent occurrence.

Case studies stimulate curiosity in ways that lectures and textbooks cannot, and generate in-depth, multi-faceted explorations of complex real-life phenomena in context. They tell a captivating story and oblige the learner to interpret it.

Studying cases, formulating conclusions, and defending those conclusions is a far more active experience than traditional classroom instruction. It relies on debate, discussion, and disagreement, and the primary outcome is learning becomes a shared experience between the teacher and students.

While case studies vary widely in their format, the most valuable to educators include carefully formulated questions to prompt academic conflict that elicits varied yet valid positions. These require students to make a claim, justify it and subject it to peer review. This structured academic controversy activates emotions that embed nuanced understandings in our long-term memory. Think about the last time you got into a heated argument with someone. How long and deeply did you think about the situation? How quickly did you forget it?

Disagreement helps people learn. We are human, and feelings are a big part of who we are, even if we are deeply committed to the scientific method. The best scientists are excellent at observing phenomena and evaluating data, but after they form their conclusions emotions do get involved. Just go back in time to the prestigious 1927 Solvay Conference, attended by the top physicists of the day. Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr intensely debated whether or not quantum theory could be a useful theory for the whole of physics. It was because of their ignited passions that each of them was inspired to research more fervently than ever before. Case studies and the following discussions enable educators to cultivate that kind of energy. For those who are curious, by most accounts of the public debate Bohr was the victor. The happy ending is that Einstein and Bohr maintained a mutual admiration that lasted the rest of their lives

While the case study teaching method originated in Europe, Harvard Business School became renowned for exploiting its benefits in 1921. Harvard’s most successful graduates routinely credit its highly-skilled use of the Harvard Business School Case Study Method for honing the meta-skills which propelled them to elite levels of achievement. Among these are curiosity, close reading, bias recognition, discernment, communication, collaboration, and self-confidence.

Use the hyperlink or click on the QR code below if you are interested in learning more about how the Harvard Business School uses the Case Study Method.

Harvard’s Case Study Method has 4 Essential Steps:

  1. Read and analyze the case. Each case is a 10 - 20 page document providing background information and requiring key decisions to be made. Students sift through the information, incomplete by design, and decide what they would do.

  2. Discuss the case. Students bring their ideas to their classmates, sharing their findings and listening to others.

  3. Engage in class. Students change the way they think while debating with classmates about the best answers to challenging questions. Highly engaged conversations are facilitated by the teacher, but it’s driven by classmates’ comments and experiences.

  4. Reflect. The case study method prepares students for a future where they will confidently face time-sensitive decisions with limited information.

Teachers should use a diversity of instructional methods to maximize student learning. If they aren’t utilizing case studies in their teaching, they are neglecting one of the most effective instructional tools available. It should be a part of every teacher’s repertoire.

No matter what subject area or level of schooling, the case study method prepares students to understand different perspectives, communicate, and connect with people who hold opposing views, and make difficult decisions with confidence in a group of peers. Case studies prepare people to be persuasive and impactful leaders who can transcend lines of difference and solve problems with others; exactly the type of people our world desperately needs.

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