LEARN Center

Improving Use of Case Studies

Strategies, Ideas, and Recommendations from the faculty Development Literature

Case Studies

  • Prepare cases that are conducive to discussion.
    A good case poses a challenging problem. Cases can be detailed descriptions, running ten to twenty pages with supporting documentation, or brief accounts of a specific problem in a paragraph or two.
    Cases can be from newspapers, magazine articles, journal reports, personal experience, and the experiences of professional and practitioners in your field. Long cases should be distributed in advance while short cases can be handed out at the beginning of class and read during the first few minutes.
  • Consult collections of case studies.
    It is time consuming to prepare case studies, you may want to begin by reviewing case studies developed by others to see if they are appropriate.

Christensen. C. R., and Hansen. A. J. Teaching and the Case Method.

Boston: Harvard Business School, 1987. Cases related to teaching in colleges and universities.

Mandell, B. R., and Schram, B. Human Services: An Introduction.

(2nd ed.) New York: Wiley, 1993. This text includes numerous cases.

Sasser, W. E., and others. Cases in Operations Management:

Analysis and Action. Homewood, Ill.:Irwin, 1982. Business cases.

Silverman, R., and Welty, W.M. Mainstreaming Exceptional Students:

A Series of Cases. New York: Center for Applied Research, Pace University, 1988. Cases related to educating students with disabilities.

HBS Case Services. Published by Harvard Business School,

Boston, Mass., 02163. Cases in accounting, finance, general management, organizational behavior, marketing, and production and operations management.

Case Research Journal. Published by the North American Case Research

Association, 1775 College Road, Columbus, Ohio, 43210. Business cases.

Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Case Program

Publication Series. 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, Mass., 02138. Cases in political analysis, policy analysis, and public management.

  • Select or prepare cases that are engaging.
    Features that characterize a good case study are as follows:
    • Tells a "real" story
    • Raises a thought-provoking issue
    • Has elements of conflict
    • Promotes empathy with the central characters
    • Lacks an obvious or clear-cut right answer
    • Encourages students to think and take a position
    • Demands a decision
    • Is relatively concise

True-to-life cases have an inherent appeal and offer closure, but hypothetical cases can also capture students' imagination and interest. Hansen (1987b) also offers practical advice on writing your own case studies.

  • Give students guidance on how to read and prepare to discuss a case.
    It is recommended by experienced teachers that you give students a list of study questions to guide them through the case. Encourage students to form study groups to review the case before coming to class. Some teachers request the students to prepare a brief memo to be completed before the start of class, outlining their recommendations for action. Students may also follow these tips on how to prepare for case discussions (adapted from Hansen, 1987a; McDaniel, n.d.):
    • Skim the case quickly to get a general sense of issues; then read the case carefully.
    • Don't take everything in the case at face value.
    • Mentally prepare responses to the following questions: "Exactly what did Kady do?" "What might Kady have done, given what is practical and feasible?" "What will Kady do now?" "Why" "What would you have done?" What should have been done?"
  • Prepare yourself for leading a case study discussion.
    In addition to knowing the content of the case, plan how to get the discussion started, and draw up a set of questions you want to pose to your students to highlight the key points. Experienced teachers recommend these procedures for leading discussions on case studies:
    • Hand out the case in advance and instruct the students to read it.
    • Introduce the case by summarizing the situation (or ask a student to) also reiterate the protagonist's dilemma. Do not analyze the case or go beyond the facts presented.
    • Ask: "Who would like to begin the analysis of the case by identifying one or two issues that it raises?" As students present their views, ask for clarification and reactions by the others. Keep a list on the board of all the issues for a more in-depth discussion later.
    • If the question falters, ask appropriate questions: "What possibilities for action are there?" "What are the consequences of each?"
    • Ask groups of students to speak for different interests within the case.
    • Consider staging a role-playing activity in which students assume the roles of various characters in the case study.
    • Write noteworthy points on the board as the discussion progresses.
    • If the case has a real-life conclusion, distribute the conclusion to the students and hold a brief discussion of what happened. Compare the actual conclusion with the recommendations made during class.
    • At the conclusion of the discussion, summarize key points and help students discuss how the content from the day's session relates to the rest of the course.

(Sources: Boehrer and Linsky, 1990; Hansen, 1987a; Lang, 1986; Olmstead, 1974; Welty, 1989)

  • Adopt a nondirective, facilitative approach.
    In discussing case studies, you will want to pose questions and guide the discussion toward points of importance, but avoid lecturing or telling your students the "right" answers. Use probes, questions, challenges, and rephrasing to help students analyze each case for themselves.


The Strategies, Ideas and Recommendations Here Come Primarily From:

Gross Davis, B. Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, 1993.

And These Additional Sources…

Boehrer, J., and Linsky, M. "Teaching with Cases: Learning to Question."

In M.D. Svinicki (ed.), The Changing Face of College Teaching.  New Directions for Teaching and Learning, no. 42.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1990.

Christensen, C.R. "Teaching with Cases at the Harvard Business School."

In C. R. Christensen and A. J. Hansen, Teaching and the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1987.

Christensen, C. R., Garvin, D. A., and Sweet, A. (eds.)

Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1991.

Erickson, B. L., and Strommer, D. W. Teaching College Freshmen.

San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991.

Frederick, P. "The Dreaded Discussion: Ten Ways to Start." 

Improving College and University Teaching, 1981, 29(3), 109-114.

Fuhrmann, B. S., and Grasha, A. F. A Practical Handbook for College Teachers.

Boston: Little, Brown, 1983.

Hansen, A. J. "Suggestions for Seminar Participants."

In C.R. Christensen and A. J. Hansen, Teaching and the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1987a.

Hansen. A. J. "Reflections of a Casewriter: Writing Teaching Cases."

In C. R. Christensen and A. J. Hansen, Teaching and the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School, 1987b.

Jacobson, R.L. "College Teaching by the Case Method:

Actively Involving Students Is the Aim." Chronicle of Higher Education, July 25, 1984, pp.17,20.

Lang, C. Case Method Teaching in the Community Colleges.

Newton, Mass.: Education Development Center, 1986.

McDaniel, R. Teaching with Cases. Austin: Center for Teaching Effectiveness,

University of Texas, n.d.

McKeachie, W.J. Teaching Tips. (8th ed.) Lexington, Mass.: Heath, 1986.

Olmstead, J. A. Small-Group Instruction: Theory and Practice. Alexandria, Va.: Human Resources Research Organization, 1974.

Shannon, T.M. "Introducing Simulation and Role-Play."

In S.F. Schomberg (ed.), Strategies for Active Teaching and Learning in University Classrooms. Minneapolis: Office of Educational Development Programs, University of Minnesota, 1986.

Welty, W.M. "Discussion Method Teaching." Change, 1989, 21(4), 40-49.

Zeakes, S.J. "Case Studies in Biology." College Teaching, 1989, 37(1), 33-35.

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