Learning with the Case Method: An Invitation to the Student

Vandana Singh, Associate Professor of Physics, Framingham State University

Welcome to the Case Study Method!  

What is a Case Study?  It is a detailed description of a real-world situation, or a fictional situation based on the real world.  The Case Study Method is used to develop multiple skills along with detailed content knowledge.  Case Studies as an educational tool were first developed in law schools, followed by business and medicine. 

The Case Study approach is designed to bring the ‘messiness’ of the real world into the classroom, so that you can develop higher order thinking skills applicable in any discipline or career, including, for instance:

  1. Being able to use quantitative reasoning skills, that is, to interpret and evaluate data in order to arrive at inferences
  2. Reasoning on the basis of evidence– to identify the problem, ascertain the cause, seek solutions, and assess how well they might work
  3. Using evidence-based approaches for decision-making
  4. Understanding not only the parts of the system, but also how they interact – that is, developing systems-thinking skills that are crucial for dealing with complex real-world issues; in other words, seeing the big picture as well as the details
  5. Understanding the role of ethics and applying ethical decision-making

Note that these skills are useful for every field of endeavor that involves the real world.  Generally traditional college education divides knowledge into disciplines that appear to exist in isolation from each other, and often presents information in an idealized or oversimplified manner.  Yet students are expected to go out into the world where there are no clear boundaries between disciplines, where few issues are clear-cut, where general rules have exceptions, qualifiers and special cases, and where decisions have to be made based on multiple factors, and have real consequences on people’s lives.  How can college education prepare students for the real world?  One technique is to extend the Case Study method to other disciplines beyond law, business and medicine. 

Certain attitudes and practices are crucial for the success of the Case Study Method:

  1. An attitude of openness toward new experiences – the classroom will feel different from a traditional classroom in many ways; various disciplines will be involved, from physics and economics to biology and psychology, sometimes in the same class period.  Students used to sticking to one discipline at a time may at first find this unsettling.  You will also be learning new skills that may be unfamiliar, such as the use of concept-mapping, to develop integrative thinking and systems thinking.  In addition, case studies are as much about process as content.  It may not be possible to keep to a strict schedule or plan for each class time, since discussion might lead to exploration of related points of interest not in that day’s schedule.  Within limits this actually makes learning interesting and effective.   Understanding comes not from memorization or expectation that you will learn the “right answer” but from ‘aha’ moments during the discussion, and from the recognition that, depending on the situation, there may not be an unambiguous ‘right answer,’ or even one ‘right answer.’
  2. An attitude of interest and curiosity – having a positive, curious attitude is important.  If you approach the case study with the attitude that what you learn will be interesting, will teach you something valuable and intriguing about the world you inhabit, and will have relevance to your own life – then you will get the most out of the experience. 
  3. Preparation outside the class – it is crucial that you read ahead and view the videos before class so you can come prepared to discuss the issues and deepen your understanding during class time.  Videos and readings are generally quite short.  Since you will likely be working in small groups, other people will be depending on you to do your part.  A successful classroom discussion (and therefore the learning that might result from it) will not be possible without sufficient student preparation.  If you are used to a passive learning environment – coming to a classroom unprepared and being no more than a recipient of canned knowledge – it is even more important that you exert yourself to do the preparatory work.  The classroom experience is completely different when you come prepared, and you will find yourself more interested in the material. 
  4. Being aware of yourself as a learner – Metacognition is a term that may be described as “thinking about thinking.”  Developing a metacognitive awareness will enable you to tell, for instance, what areas of study are clear to you or not, what your academic weaknesses and strengths might be, and what strategies you can use to improve.  For instance, some students might simply think “I’m no good at math,” but having a metacognitive approach would enable such a student to state instead that “I get confused when I have to come up with equations to solve word problems, and end up applying the wrong equations.  I’ll have to practice interpreting word problems so I can translate them into the correct mathematical equations before I try to solve them.” Developing such a metacognitive awareness is possible, and has been shown to improve student learning. https://teal.ed.gov/tealguide/metacognitive.
  5. Cooperative Learning and high standards – small-group work requires the ability to share tasks fairly, to listen respectfully and to make your point clearly.  It also affords the opportunity for you, the students, to teach each other.  Peer learning is essential to deepening your understanding.  Many real-world jobs require working in teams, whether in pure science or business or social work.  Having an attitude of mutual respect, helping each other to maintain high standards (so that your work is not merely passable but excellent), considering different points of view, and taking creative risks will help you and your teammates develop intellectually.
  6. Active learning and participation – in the classroom, it is important to be prepared with key information about the case study, but to learn actively, you must also ask questions, bring in your personal perspective and experience, listen to other people fully and carefully, summarize and extend arguments, or come up with counter-arguments.  Be aware that you are practicing evidence-based reasoning at all times, and be willing to examine your own assumptions about the world.

In addition, see http://www.hbs.edu/teaching/docs/Characteristics-Effective-Case-Teaching.pdf

Also note that college learning is about extending your skills and interests into areas that you might not have thought interesting or even possible for you to study.  It is helpful to know that the human mind is capable of a great deal – students who are not good at writing, or have issues with numbers, can, with effort, hard work, a good attitude and help, turn these disadvantages into skills.  See, for instance, this article about the inspiring work of educational psychologist Carol Dweck,  “It’s Not About How Smart You Are."   

The intent of these Case Studies are to enable you to learn about major real world issues, and to develop the skills to help you understand and recognize the complex problems we face as a species.  How to work with these challenges so as to live well, individually and collectively, will enable you, the student, to not merely live in the future but to shape it. 

Welcome to the journey!