Case Study Method Of Instruction Definition

The case method is a teaching approach that uses decision-forcing cases to put students in the role of people who were faced with difficult decisions at some point in the past. In sharp contrast to many other teaching methods, the case method requires that instructors refrain from providing their own opinions about the decisions in question. Rather, the chief task of instructors who use the case method is asking students to devise and defend solutions to the problems at the heart of each case.[1]

Comparison with the casebook method of teaching law[edit]

The case method described in this article should not be confused with the casebook method used in law schools. While the case method calls upon students to take on the role of an actual person faced with difficult problem, the casebook method asks students to dissect a completed case-at-law. In other words, where the case method asks students to engage in acts of prospective synthesis, the casebook method requires them to engage in an exercise in retrospective analysis.[2]

Comparison with the "case study method"[edit]

The terms "case study method" and "case method" have long been used interchangeably. Of late, however, the meanings of the two expressions have begun to part ways. One cause of this divergence is the popularity of an approach, called the "case study method," in which the Socratic conversation is replaced by written reports and formal presentations.[3]

In the course of replacing the Socratic conversation with written reports and formal presentations, the "case study method" encourages students to augment the reading of case materials with their own research. This is in sharp contrast to the hard-and-fast rule of the "case method", which asks students to refrain from engaging in any sort of preparation that might "spoil" the case.

Decision-forcing cases[edit]

A decision-forcing case is a kind of decision game. Like any other kinds of decision games, a decision-forcing case puts students in a role of person faced with a problem (often called the "protagonist") and asks them to devise, defend, discuss, and refine solutions to that problem. However, in sharp contrast to decision games that contain fictional elements, decision-forcing cases are based entirely upon reliable descriptions of real events.

A decision-forcing case is also a kind of case study. That is, it is an examination of an incident that took place at some time in the past. However, in contrast to a retrospective case study, which provides a complete description of the events in question, a decision-forcing case is based upon an "interrupted narrative." This is an account that stops whenever the protagonist finds himself faced with an important decision. In other words, while retrospective case studies ask students to analyze past decisions with the aid of hindsight, decision-forcing cases ask students to engage problems prospectively. [4]

Criticisms of decision-forcing cases[edit]

In recent years, following corporate scandals and the global financial crisis, the case method has been criticized for contributing to a narrow, instrumental, amoral, managerial perspective on business where making decisions which maximise profit is all that matters, ignoring the social responsibilities of organisations.[5] It is argued that the case method puts too much emphasis on taking action and not enough on thoughtful reflection to see things from different perspectives. It has been suggested that different approaches to case writing, that do not put students in the ‘shoes’ of a manager, be encouraged to address these concerns. [6]

Role play[edit]

Every decision-forcing case has a protagonist, the historical person who was faced with the problem or problem that students are asked to solve. Thus, in engaging these problems, students necessarily engage in some degree of role play.

Some case teachers, such as those of the Marine Corps University, place a great deal of emphasis on role play, to the point of addressing each student with the name and titles of the protagonist of the case. (A student playing the role of a king, for example, is asked "Your Majesty, what are your orders?") Other case teachers, such as those at the Harvard Business School, place less emphasis on role play, asking students "what would you do if you were the protagonist of the case."[7]

Historical solution[edit]

After discussing student solutions to the problem at the heart of a decision-forcing case, a case teacher will often provide a description of the historical solution, that is, the decision made by the protagonist of the case. Also known as "the rest of the story", "the epilogue", or (particularly at Harvard University) "the 'B' case", the description of the historical solution can take the form of a printed article, a video, a slide presentation, a short lecture, or even an appearance by the protagonist.

Whatever the form of the description of the historical solution, the case teacher must take care to avoid giving the impression that the historical solution is the "right answer." Rather, he should point out that the historical solution to the problem serves primarily to provide students with a baseline to which they can compare their own solutions.

Some case teachers will refrain from providing the historical solution to students. One reason for not providing the historical solution is to encourage students to do their own research about the outcome of the case. Another is to encourage students to think about the decision after the end of the class discussion. "Analytic and problem-solving learning," writes Kirsten Lundgren of Columbia University, "can be all the more powerful when the 'what happened' is left unanswered.[8]

Complex cases[edit]

A classic decision-forcing case asks students to solve a single problem faced by a single protagonist at a particular time. There are, however, decision-forcing cases in which students play the role of a single protagonist who is faced with a series of problems, two or more protagonists dealing with the same problem, or two or more protagonists dealing with two or more related problems.

Decision-forcing staff rides[edit]

A decision-forcing case conducted in the place where the historical decisions at the heart of the case were made is called a "decision-forcing staff ride." Also known as an "on-site decision-forcing case", a decision-forcing staff ride should not be confused with the two very different exercises that are also known as "staff rides": retrospective battlefield tours of the type practiced by the United States Army in the twentieth century and the on-site contingency planning exercises (Stabs Reisen, literally "staff journeys") introduced by Gerhard von Scharnhorst in 1801 and made famous by the elder Hellmuth von Moltke in the middle years of the nineteenth century.

To avoid confusion between "decision-forcing staff rides" and staff rides of other sorts, the Case Method Project at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, has adopted the term "Russell Ride" to describe the decision-forcing staff rides that it conducts. The term is an homage to Major GeneralJohn Henry Russell Jr.,USMC, the 16th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps and an avid supporter of the applicatory method of instruction. [9]

Sandwich metaphors[edit]

Decision-forcing cases are sometimes described with a system of metaphors that compares them to various types of sandwiches. In this system, pieces of bread serve as a metaphor for narrative elements (i.e. the start, continuation, or end of an account) and filling of the sandwich serves as a metaphor for a problem that students are asked to solve.

A decision-forcing case in which one protagonist is faced with two problems is thus a "triple-decker case." (The bottom piece of bread is the background to the first problem, the second piece of bread is both the historical solution to the first problem and the background to the second problem, and the third piece of bread is the historical solution to the second problem.) Similarly, a decision-forcing case for which the historical solution is not provided (and is thus a case with but one narrative element) is an "open-face" or "smørrebrød" case.[10]

A decision-forcing case in which students are asked to play the role of a decision-maker who is faced with a series of decisions is sometimes called a "White Castle" or "slider" case.[11]

Case materials[edit]

Case materials are any materials that are used to inform the decisions made by students in the course of a decision-forcing case. Commonly used case materials include articles that were composed for the explicit purpose of informing case discussion, secondary works initially produced for other purposes, historical documents, artifacts, video programs, and audio programs.

Case materials are made available to students at a variety times in the course of a decision-forcing case. Materials that provide background are distributed at, or before, the beginning of the class meeting. Materials that describe the solution arrived at by the protagonist and the results of that solution are passed out at, or after, the end of the class meeting. (These are called "the B-case", "the rest of the story", or "the reveal.") Materials that provide information that became available to the protagonist in the course of solving the problem are given to students in the course of a class meeting. (These are often referred to as "handouts.") [12]

Case materials may be either "refined" or "raw." Refined case materials are secondary works that were composed expressly for use as part of decision-forcing cases. (Most of the case materials that are available from case clearing houses and academic publishers are of the refined variety.) Raw case materials are those that were initially produced for reasons other than the informing of a case discussion. These include newspaper articles, video and audio news reports, historical documents, memoirs, interviews, and artifacts.[13]

Published case materials[edit]

A number of organizations, to include case clearing houses, academic publishers, and professional schools, publish case materials. These organizations include:

The narrative fallacy[edit]

The presentation of a decision-forcing case necessarily takes the form of a story in which the protagonist is faced with a difficult problem. This can lead to "the narrative fallacy", a mistake that leads both case teachers and the developers of case materials to ignore information that, while important to the decision that students will be asked to make, complicates the telling of the story. This, in turn, can create a situation in which, rather than engaging the problem at the heart of the case, students "parse the case materials." That is, they make decisions on the basis of the literary structure of the case materials rather than the underlying reality. [14]

Techniques for avoiding the narrative fallacy include the avoidance of standard formats for case materials; awareness of tropes and clichés; the use of case materials originally created for purposes other than case teaching; and the deliberate inclusion of "distractors" - information that is misleading, irrelevant, or at odds with other information presented in the case.

Purpose of the case method[edit]

The case method gives students the ability to quickly make sense of a complex problem, rapidly arrive at a reasonable solution, and communicate that solution to others in a succinct and effective manner. In the course of doing this, the case method also accomplishes a number of other things, each of which is valuable in its own right. By exciting the interest of students, the case method fosters interest in professional matters. By placing such things in a lively context, the case method facilitates the learning of facts, nomenclature, conventions, techniques, and procedures. By providing both a forum for discussion and concrete topics to discuss, the case method encourages professional dialogue. By providing challenging practice in the art of decision-making, the case method refines professional judgement. By asking difficult questions, the case method empowers students to reflect upon the peculiar demands of their profession.[15]

In his classic essay on the case method ("Because Wisdom Can't Be Told"), Charles I. Gragg of the Harvard Business School argued that "the case system, properly used, initiates students into the ways of independent thought and responsible judgement." [16]

Incompatible objectives[edit]

While the case method can be used to accomplish a wide variety of goals, certain objectives are at odds with its nature as an exercise in professional judgement. These incompatible objectives include attempts to use decision-forcing cases to:

  • provide an example to be emulated
  • paint a particular person as a hero or a villain
  • encourage (or discourage) a particularly type of behavior
  • illustrate a pre-existing theory

Thomas W. Shreeve, who uses the case method to teach people in the field of military intelligence, argues that "Cases are not meant to illustrate either the effective or the ineffective handling of administrative, operational, logistic, ethical, or other problems, and the characters in cases should not be portrayed either as paragons of virtue or as archvillains. The instructor/casewriter must be careful not to tell the students what to think—they are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with wisdom. With this method of teaching, a major share of the responsibility for thinking critically about the issues under discussion is shifted to the students, where it belongs." [17]


Case materials are often emblazoned with a disclaimer that warns both teachers and students to avoid the didactic, hortatory, and "best practices" fallacies. Here are some examples of such disclaimers:

This case is intended to serve as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either the effective or ineffective handling of a situation.

This decision-forcing case is an exercise designed to foster empathy, creativity, a bias for action, and other martial virtues. As such, it makes no argument for the effectiveness of any particular course of action, technique, procedure, or convention.

This case is intended to serve as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate either the effective or ineffective handling of a situation. Its purpose is to put the student in the shoes of the decision-maker in order to gain a fuller understanding of the situations and the decisions made.

Use of the case method in professional schools[edit]

The case method is used in a variety of professional schools. These include the:

University of Fujairah- MBA Program

See also[edit]



  • Corey, Raymond (1998), Case Method Teaching, Harvard Business School 9-581-058, Rev. November 6, 1998. 
  • Gudmundsson, Bruce Ivar (2014), Decision-Forcing Cases(PDF), Marine Corps University, Quantico, VA. 
  • Hammond, J.S. (2002), Learning by the case method(PDF), HBS Publishing Division, Harvard Business School, Boston, MA 
  • Herreid, Clyde Freeman (2005), "Because Wisdom Can't Be Told: Using Case Studies to Teach Science", Peer Review (Winter 2005). 
  • Lundgren, Kirsten (2012), The Case Method: Art and Skill. 
  • McNair, Malcolm P., ed. (1954), The Case Method at the Harvard Business School: Papers by Present and Past Members of the Faculty and Staff, New York: McGraw-Hill. 
  • Siddiqui, Zehra (2013), How to write a case study(PDF), William Davidson Institute, University of Michigan, Ann-Arbor, MI. 

Case Studies

What are case studies?

Case studies are stories. They present realistic, complex, and contextually rich situations and often involve a dilemma, conflict, or problem that one or more of the characters in the case must negotiate.

A good case study, according to Professor Paul Lawrence is:

“the vehicle by which a chunk of reality is brought into the classroom to be worked over by the class and the instructor. A good case keeps the class discussion grounded upon some of the stubborn facts that must be faced in real life situations.”

(quoted in Christensen, 1981)

Although they have been used most extensively in the teaching of medicine, law and business, case studies can be an effective teaching tool in any number of disciplines. As an instructional strategy, case studies have a number of virtues. They “bridge the gap between theory and practice and between the academy and the workplace” (Barkley, Cross, and Major 2005, p.182). They also give students practice identifying the parameters of a problem, recognizing and articulating positions, evaluating courses of action, and arguing different points of view.

Case studies vary in length and detail, and can be used in a number of ways, depending on the case itself and on the instructor’s goals.

  • They can be short (a few paragraphs) or long (e.g. 20+ pages).
  • They can be used in lecture-based or discussion-based classes.
  • They can be real, with all the detail drawn from actual people and circumstances, or simply realistic.
  • They can provide all the relevant data students need to discuss and resolve the central issue, or only some of it, requiring students to identify, and possibly fill in (via outside research), the missing information.
  • They can require students to examine multiple aspects of a problem, or just a circumscribed piece.
  • They can require students to propose a solution for the case or simply to identify the parameters of the problem.

Finding or creating cases

It is possible to write your own case studies, although it is not a simple task. The material for a case study can be drawn from your own professional experiences (e.g., negotiating a labor dispute at a local corporation or navigating the rocky shoals of a political campaign), from current events (e.g., a high-profile medical ethics case or a diplomatic conundrum), from historical sources (e.g., a legal debate or military predicament), etc. It is also possible to find published cases from books and on-line case study collections. Whatever the source, an effective case study is one that, according to Davis (1993):

  • tells a “real” and engaging 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
  • portrays actors in moments of decision
  • provides plenty of data about character, location, context, actions
  • is relatively concise

Using case studies

How you use case studies will depend on the goals, as well as on the format, of your course. If it is a large lecture course, for example, you might use a case study to illustrate and enrich the lecture material. (An instructor lecturing on principles of marketing, for example, might use the case of a particular company or product to explore marketing issues and dilemmas in a real-life context.) Also in a large class you might consider breaking the class into small groups or pairs to discuss a relevant case. If your class is a smaller, discussion-format course, you will be able to use more detailed and complex cases, to explore the perspectives introduced in the case in greater depth, and perhaps integrate other instructional strategies, such as role playing or debate.

Regardless of the format in which you employ case studies, it is important that you, as the instructor, know all the issues involved in the case, prepare questions and prompts in advance, and anticipate where students might run into problems. Finally, consider who your students are and how you might productively draw on their backgrounds, experiences, personalities, etc., to enhance the discussion.

While there are many variations in how case studies can be used, these six steps provide a general framework for how to lead a case-based discussion:

  1. Give students ample time to read and think about the case. If the case is long, assign it as homework with a set of questions for students to consider (e.g., What is the nature of the problem the central character is facing? What are some possible courses of action? What are the potential obstacles?)
  2. Introduce the case briefly and provide some guidelines for how to approach it. Clarify how you want students to think about the case (e.g., “Approach this case as if you were the presiding judge” or “You are a consultant hired by this company. What would you recommend?”) Break down the steps you want students to take in analyzing the case (e.g., “First, identify theconstraints each character in the case was operating under and the opportunities s/he had. Second, evaluate the decisions each character made and their implications. Finally, explain what you would have done differently and why.”). If you would like students to disregard or focus on certain information, specify that as well (e.g., “I want you to ignore the political affiliation of the characters described and simply distinguish their positions on stem-cell research as they are articulated here.”)
  3. Create groups and monitor them to make sure everyone is involved. Breaking the full class into smaller groups gives individual students more opportunities for participation and interaction. However, small groups can drift off track if you do not provide structure. Thus, it is a good idea to make the task of the group very concrete and clear (e.g., “You are to identify three potential courses of action and outline the pros and cons of each from a public relations standpoint”). You may also want to designate roles within each group: for example, one individual might be charged with keeping the others on task and watching the time; a second individual’s role might be to question the assumptions or interpretations of the group and probe for deeper analysis; a third individual’s role might be to record the group’s thoughts and report their decision to the class.  Alternatively, group members could be assigned broad perspectives (e.g., liberal, conservative, libertarian) to represent, or asked to speak for the various “stake-holders” in the case study.
  4. Have groups present their solutions/reasoning: If groups know they are responsible for producing something (a decision, rationale, analysis) to present to the class, they will approach the discussion with greater focus and seriousness. Write their conclusions on the board so that you can return to them in the discussion that follows.
  5.  Ask questions for clarification and to move discussion to another level. One of the challenges for a case-based discussion leader is to guide the discussion and probe for deeper analysis without over-directing. As the discussion unfolds, ask questions that call for students to examine their own assumptions, substantiate their claims, provide illustrations, etc.
  6. Synthesize issues raised. Be sure to bring the various strands of the discussion back together at the end, so that students see what they have learned and take those lessons with them. The job of synthesizing need not necessarily fall to the instructor, however; one or more students can be given this task.

Some variations on this general method include having students do outside research (individually or in groups) to bring to bear on the case in question, and comparing the actual outcome of a real-life dilemma to the solutions generated in class. 

Sources referenced:

Barkley, E. F, Cross, K. P. & Major, C. H. (2005) Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Christensen, C. R. (1981) Teaching By the Case Method. Boston: Harvard Business School.

Davis, B. G. (1993) Tools for Teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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