What is the case method? How can the case method be used to engage learners? What are some strategies for getting started? This guide helps instructors answer these questions by providing an overview of the case method while highlighting learner-centered and digitally-enhanced approaches to teaching with the case method. The guide also offers tips to instructors as they get started with the case method and additional references and resources.
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What is Case Method Teaching?
Case method 1 teaching is an active form of instruction that focuses on a case and involves students learning by doing 2 3. Cases are real or invented stories 4 that include “an educational message” or recount events, problems, dilemmas, theoretical or conceptual issue that requires analysis and/or decision-making.
Case-based teaching simulates real world situations and asks students to actively grapple with complex problems 5 6 This method of instruction is used across disciplines to promote learning, and is common in law, business, medicine, among other fields. See Table 1 below for a few types of cases and the learning they promote.
Table 1: Types of cases and the learning they promote.
|Type of Case||Description||Promoted Learning|
Presents a scenario that is followed by discussion using a set of “directed” / close-ended questions that can be answered from course material.
Understanding of fundamental concepts, principles, and facts
Dilemma or decision case 7
Presents an individual, institution, or community faced with a problem that must be solved. Students may be presented with actual historical outcomes after they work through the case.
Problem solving and decision-making skills
Presents a problem for students to solve in a progressive disclosure format. Students are given the case in parts that they work on and make decisions about before moving on to the next part.
|Problem solving skills|
|Analysis or issue case||Focuses on answering questions and analyzing the situation presented. This can include “retrospective” cases that tell a story and its outcomes and have students analyze what happened and why alternative solutions were not taken.||Analysis skills|
For a more complete list, see Case Types & Teaching Methods: A Classification Scheme from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science.
Case Method Teaching and Learning at Columbia
The case method is actively used in classrooms across Columbia, at the Morningside campus in the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA), the School of Business, Arts and Sciences, among others, and at Columbia University Irving Medical campus.
Professor Mary Ann Price on Using Case Study Method to Place Pre-Med Students in Real-Life Scenarios
Professor De Pinho on Using the Case Method in the Mailman Core
Why use the Case Method?
Case method teaching has been found to improve student learning, to increase students’ perception of learning gains, and to meet learning objectives 8 9. Faculty have noted the instructional benefits of cases including greater student engagement in their learning 10, deeper student understanding of concepts, stronger critical thinking skills, and an ability to make connections across content areas and view an issue from multiple perspectives 11.
Through case-based learning, students are the ones asking questions about the case, doing the problem-solving, interacting with and learning from their peers, “unpacking” the case, analyzing the case, and summarizing the case. They learn how to work with limited information and ambiguity, think in professional or disciplinary ways, and ask themselves “what would I do if I were in this specific situation?”
The case method bridges theory to practice, and promotes the development of skills including: communication, active listening, critical thinking, decision-making, and metacognitive skills 12, as students apply course content knowledge, reflect on what they know and their approach to analyzing, and make sense of a case.
Case Method Teaching Approaches
Though the case method has historical roots as an instructor-centered approach that uses the Socratic dialogue and cold-calling, it is possible to take a more learner-centered approach in which students take on roles and tasks traditionally left to the instructor.
Cases are often used as “vehicles for classroom discussion”13. Students should be encouraged to take ownership of their learning from a case. Discussion-based approaches engage students in thinking and communicating about a case. Instructors can set up a case activity in which students are the ones doing the work of “asking questions, summarizing content, generating hypotheses, proposing theories, or offering critical analyses” 14.
The role of the instructor is to share a case or ask students to share or create a case to use in class, set expectations, provide instructions, and assign students roles in the discussion. Student roles in a case discussion can include:
- discussion “starters” get the conversation started with a question or posing the questions that their peers came up with;
- facilitators listen actively, validate the contributions of peers, ask follow-up questions, draw connections, refocus the conversation as needed;
- recorders take-notes of the main points of the discussion, record on the board, upload to CourseWorks, or type and project on the screen; and
- discussion “wrappers” lead a summary of the main points of the discussion.
Prior to the case discussion, instructors can model case analysis and the types of questions students should ask, co-create discussion guidelines with students, and ask for students to submit discussion questions. During the discussion, the instructor can keep time, intervene as necessary (however the students should be doing the talking), and pause the discussion for a debrief and to ask students to reflect on what and how they learned from the case activity.
Note: case discussions can be enhanced using technology. Live discussions can occur via video-conferencing (e.g., using Zoom) or asynchronous discussions can occur using the Discussions tool in CourseWorks (Canvas).
Table 2 includes a few interactive case method approaches. Regardless of the approach selected, it is important to create a learning environment in which students feel comfortable participating in a case activity and learning from one another. See below for tips on supporting student in how to learn from a case in the “getting started” section and how to create a supportive learning environment in the Guide for Inclusive Teaching at Columbia.
Table 2. Strategies for Engaging Students in Case-Based Learning
|Strategy||Useful to…||Role of the Instructor||Students are asked to…||Upon completing this case activity, students will be able to…|
Debate or Trial
Develop critical thinking skills and encourage students to challenge their existing assumptions.
Structure (with guidelines) and facilitate a debate between two diametrically opposed views. Keep time and ask students to reflect on their experience.
Prepare to argue either side. Work in teams to develop and present arguments, and debrief the debate.
Work in teams and prepare an argument for conflicting sides of an issue.
Role play or Public Hearing
|Understand diverse points of view, promote creative thinking, and develop empathy.||Structure the role-play and facilitate the debrief. At the close of the activity, ask students to reflect on what they learned.||Play a role found in a case, understand the points of view of stakeholders involved.||Describe the points of view of every stakeholder involved.|
|Jigsaw||Promote peer-to-peer learning, and get students to own their learning.||Form student groups, assign each group a piece of the case to study. Form new groups with an “expert” for each previous group. Facilitate a debrief.||Be responsible for learning and then teaching case material to peers. Develop expertise for part of the problem.||Facilitate case method materials for their peers.|
|“Clicker case” 15 / Audience Response Systems (ARS)||Gauge your students’ learning; get all students to respond to questions, and launch or enhance a case discussion.||Instructor presents a case in stages, punctuated with questions in Poll Everywhere that students respond to using a mobile device.||Respond to questions using a mobile device. Reflect on why they responded the way they did and discuss with peers seated next to them.||Articulate their understanding of a case components.|
Approaches to case teaching should be informed by course learning objectives, and can be adapted for small, large, hybrid, and online classes. Instructional technology can be used in various ways to deliver, facilitate, and assess the case method. For instance, an online module can be created in CourseWorks (Canvas) to structure the delivery of the case, allow students to work at their own pace, engage all learners, even those reluctant to speak up in class, and assess understanding of a case and student learning. Modules can include text, embedded media (e.g., using Panopto or Mediathread) curated by the instructor, online discussion, and assessments. Students can be asked to read a case and/or watch a short video, respond to quiz questions and receive immediate feedback, post questions to a discussion, and share resources.
For more information about options for incorporating educational technology to your course, please contact your Learning Designer.
To ensure that students are learning from the case approach, ask them to pause and reflect on what and how they learned from the case. Time to reflect builds your students’ metacognition, and when these reflections are collected they provides you with insights about the effectiveness of your approach in promoting student learning.
Well designed case-based learning experiences: 1) motivate student involvement, 2) have students doing the work, 3) help students develop knowledge and skills, and 4) have students learning from each other.
Designing a case-based learning experience should center around the learning objectives for a course. The following points focus on intentional design.
Identify learning objectives, determine scope, and anticipate challenges.
- Why use the case method in your course? How will it promote student learning differently than other approaches?
- What are the learning objectives that need to be met by the case method? What knowledge should students apply and skills should they practice?
- What is the scope of the case? (a brief activity in a single class session to a semester-long case-based course; if new to case method, start small with a single case).
- What challenges do you anticipate (e.g., student preparation and prior experiences with case learning, discomfort with discussion, peer-to-peer learning, managing discussion) and how will you plan for these in your design?
- If you are asking students to use transferable skills for the case method (e.g., teamwork, digital literacy) make them explicit.
Determine how you will know if the learning objectives were met and develop a plan for evaluating the effectiveness of the case method to inform future case teaching.
- What assessments and criteria will you use to evaluate student work or participation in case discussion?
- How will you evaluate the effectiveness of the case method? What feedback will you collect from students?
- How might you leverage technology for assessment purposes? For example, could you quiz students about the case online before class, accept assignment submissions online, use audience response systems (e.g., PollEverywhere) for formative assessment during class?
Select an existing case, create your own, or encourage students to bring course-relevant cases, and prepare for its delivery
- Where will the case method fit into the course learning sequence?
- Is the case at the appropriate level of complexity? Is it inclusive, culturally relevant, and relatable to students?
- What materials and preparation will be needed to present the case to students? (e.g., readings, audiovisual materials, set up a module in CourseWorks).
Plan for the case discussion and an active role for students
- What will your role be in facilitating case-based learning? How will you model case analysis for your students? (e.g., present a short case and demo your approach and the process of case learning) (Davis, 2009).
- What discussion guidelines will you use that include your students’ input?
- How will you encourage students to ask and answer questions, summarize their work, take notes, and debrief the case?
- If students will be working in groups, how will groups form? What size will the groups be? What instructions will they be given? How will you ensure that everyone participates? What will they need to submit? Can technology be leveraged for any of these areas?
- Have you considered students of varied cognitive and physical abilities and how they might participate in the activities/discussions, including those that involve technology?
Student preparation and expectations
- How will you communicate about the case method approach to your students? When will you articulate the purpose of case-based learning and expectations of student engagement? What information about case-based learning and expectations will be included in the syllabus?
- What preparation and/or assignment(s) will students complete in order to learn from the case? (e.g., read the case prior to class, watch a case video prior to class, post to a CourseWorks discussion, submit a brief memo, complete a short writing assignment to check students’ understanding of a case, take on a specific role, prepare to present a critique during in-class discussion).
Andersen, E. and Schiano, B. (2014). Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide. Harvard Business Press.
Bonney, K. M. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains†. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 16(1), 21–28. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846
Davis, B.G. (2009). Chapter 24: Case Studies. In Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass.
Garvin, D.A. (2003). Making the Case: Professional Education for the world of practice. Harvard Magazine. September-October 2003, Volume 106, Number 1, 56-107.
Golich, V.L. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. International Studies Perspectives. 1, 11-29.
Golich, V.L.; Boyer, M; Franko, P.; and Lamy, S. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. Pew Case Studies in International Affairs. Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Heath, J. (2015). Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide. The Case Center, UK.
Herreid, C.F. (2011). Case Study Teaching. New Directions for Teaching and Learning. No. 128, Winder 2011, 31 – 40.
Herreid, C.F. (2007). Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science. National Science Teachers Association. Available as an ebook through Columbia Libraries.
Herreid, C.F. (2006). “Clicker” Cases: Introducing Case Study Teaching Into Large Classrooms. Journal of College Science Teaching. Oct 2006, 36(2). https://search.proquest.com/docview/200323718?pq-origsite=gscholar
Krain, M. (2016). Putting the Learning in Case Learning? The Effects of Case-Based Approaches on Student Knowledge, Attitudes, and Engagement. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 27(2), 131-153.
Lundberg, K.O. (Ed.). (2011). Our Digital Future: Boardrooms and Newsrooms. Knight Case Studies Initiative.
Popil, I. (2011). Promotion of critical thinking by using case studies as teaching method. Nurse Education Today, 31(2), 204–207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2010.06.002
Schiano, B. and Andersen, E. (2017). Teaching with Cases Online. Harvard Business Publishing.
Thistlethwaite, JE; Davies, D.; Ekeocha, S.; Kidd, J.M.; MacDougall, C.; Matthews, P.; Purkis, J.; Clay D. (2012). The effectiveness of case-based learning in health professional education: A BEME systematic review. Medical Teacher. 2012; 34(6): e421-44.
Yadav, A.; Lundeberg, M.; DeSchryver, M.; Dirkin, K.; Schiller, N.A.; Maier, K. and Herreid, C.F. (2007). Teaching Science with Case Studies: A National Survey of Faculty Perceptions of the Benefits and Challenges of Using Cases. Journal of College Science Teaching; Sept/Oct 2007; 37(1).
Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass.
Teaching with Cases, Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Features “what is a teaching case?” video that defines a teaching case, and provides documents to help students prepare for case learning, Common case teaching challenges and solutions, tips for teaching with cases.
Promoting excellence and innovation in case method teaching: Teaching by the Case Method, Christensen Center for Teaching & Learning. Harvard Business School.
National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. University of Buffalo.
A collection of peer-reviewed STEM cases to teach scientific concepts and content, promote process skills and critical thinking. The Center welcomes case submissions. Case classification scheme of case types and teaching methods:
- Different types of cases: analysis case, dilemma/decision case, directed case, interrupted case, clicker case, a flipped case, a laboratory case.
- Different types of teaching methods: problem-based learning, discussion, debate, intimate debate, public hearing, trial, jigsaw, role-play.
Resources available to support your use of case method:
The University hosts a number of case collections including: the Case Consortium (a collection of free cases in the fields of journalism, public policy, public health, and other disciplines that include teaching and learning resources; SIPA’s Picker Case Collection (audiovisual case studies on public sector innovation, filmed around the world and involving SIPA student teams in producing the cases); and Columbia Business School CaseWorks, which develops teaching cases and materials for use in Columbia Business School classrooms.
Center for Teaching and Learning
The Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) offers a variety of programs and services for instructors at Columbia. The CTL can provide customized support as you plan to use the case method approach through implementation. Schedule a one-on-one consultation.
Office of the Provost
The Hybrid Learning Course Redesign grant program from the Office of the Provost provides support for faculty who are developing innovative and technology-enhanced pedagogy and learning strategies in the classroom. In addition to funding, faculty awardees receive support from CTL staff as they redesign, deliver, and evaluate their hybrid courses.
The Start Small! Mini-Grant provides support to faculty who are interested in experimenting with one new pedagogical strategy or tool. Faculty awardees receive funds and CTL support for a one-semester period.
- The origins of this method can be traced to Harvard University where in 1870 the Law School began using cases to teach students how to think like lawyers using real court decisions. This was followed by the Business School in 1920 (Garvin, 2003). These professional schools recognized that lecture mode of instruction was insufficient to teach critical professional skills, and that active learning would better prepare learners for their professional lives. ↩
- Golich, V.L. (2000). The ABCs of Case Teaching. International Studies Perspectives. 1, 11-29. ↩
- Herreid, C.F. (2007). Start with a Story: The Case Study Method of Teaching College Science. National Science Teachers Association. Available as an ebook through Columbia Libraries. ↩
- Davis, B.G. (2009). Chapter 24: Case Studies. In Tools for Teaching. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. ↩
- Andersen, E. and Schiano, B. (2014). Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide. Harvard Business Press. ↩
- Lundberg, K.O. (Ed.). (2011). Our Digital Future: Boardrooms and Newsrooms. Knight Case Studies Initiative. ↩
- Heath, J. (2015). Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide. The Case Center, UK. ↩
- Bonney, K. M. (2015). Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains†. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 16(1), 21–28. https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v16i1.846 ↩
- Krain, M. (2016). Putting the Learning in Case Learning? The Effects of Case-Based Approaches on Student Knowledge, Attitudes, and Engagement. Journal on Excellence in College Teaching. 27(2), 131-153. ↩
- Thistlethwaite, JE; Davies, D.; Ekeocha, S.; Kidd, J.M.; MacDougall, C.; Matthews, P.; Purkis, J.; Clay D. (2012). The effectiveness of case-based learning in health professional education: A BEME systematic review. Medical Teacher. 2012; 34(6): e421-44. ↩
- Yadav, A.; Lundeberg, M.; DeSchryver, M.; Dirkin, K.; Schiller, N.A.; Maier, K. and Herreid, C.F. (2007). Teaching Science with Case Studies: A National Survey of Faculty Perceptions of the Benefits and Challenges of Using Cases. Journal of College Science Teaching; Sept/Oct 2007; 37(1). ↩
- Popil, I. (2011). Promotion of critical thinking by using case studies as teaching method. Nurse Education Today, 31(2), 204–207. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nedt.2010.06.002 ↩
- Lundberg, K.O. (Ed.). (2011). Our Digital Future: Boardrooms and Newsrooms. Knight Case Studies Initiative. ↩
- Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. Second Edition. Jossey-Bass. ↩
- Herreid, C.F. (2006). “Clicker” Cases: Introducing Case Study Teaching Into Large Classrooms. Journal of College Science Teaching. Oct 2006, 36(2). https://search.proquest.com/docview/200323718?pq-origsite=gscholar ↩