Case studies

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Case studies usually involve real-life situations and often take the form of a problem-based inquiry approach; in other words students are presented with a complex real life situation that they are asked to find a solution to. “The benefits of utilizing case studies in instruction include the way that cases model how to think professionally about real problems and situations, helping candidates to think productively about concrete experiences” (Kleinfeld, 1990 in Ulanoff, Fingon and Beltran, 2009). The case study method involves placing students in the role of decision-makers and asking them to address a challenge that may confront a company, non-profit organisation or government department. In the absence of a single straightforward answer students are expected to exchange ideas, consider possible theoretical explanations and data, and weigh up possible solutions. Based on this exchange and evaluation of mixed data they are expected to come up with a decision, and choose a solution to the particular challenge. Though case study learning and assessment may take many forms the common thread is that the case study involves a real-life situation and finding solutions is the focus of the assessment.

Advantages of case studies

  • Enables students to apply their knowledge and skills to real life situations.
  • Can be undertaken individually or as a group assessment.
  • Generally designed to assess the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (application, analysis and evaluation).
  • Well adapted to multi- or inter-disciplinary learning.
  • Calls on students to demonstrate a range of different skills such as the selection on information, analysis, decision-making problem-solving and presentation.
  • In the case of a group-based approach students are given the opportunity to demonstrate their ability to collaborate and communicate effectively.
  • Supports the development of a range of valuable employability skills which are likely to be attractive to employers and students alike.

Challenges of case studies

  • Case studies can be used in time-constrained examinations but this method of assessment really lends itself better to a coursework approach.
  • Can be a complex activity that involves negotiating a range of media that may be hard to contain in a controlled environment.
  • It is important to have realistic expectations of what actually can be achieved.
  • Planning and preparing for case study work can be time-consuming for teachers.

How students might experience case studies

There is some evidence to suggest that case studies increase students’ motivation. Students are often very interested in working on real life situations. It brings their learning alive and enables them not only to develop solutions to actual situations/problems but also to understand in new ways the valuable role that theory and relevant concepts can play as part of this process. In addition as part of their work on the case study they are clearly developing valuable transferable skills that they can take forward into the workplace and society at large. Students may not be used to this form of assessment so they will need clear guidance as to what is expected (length, format, main elements), a clear explanation of marking criteria as well as development in the different skills they will need to acquire in order to successfully complete the case study. These will in part depend on the nature of the case study - is data analysis involved?; where and how will students find relevant qualitative and quantitative data?; what is the appropriate way of citing and referencing?

Reliability, validity, fairness and inclusivity of case studies

Teaching and learning activities should be carefully designed to support the work on the case study or the development of the relevant skills and knowledge bases. From an inclusive design perspective case studies are an attractive form of learning and assessment.  Depending on the nature of the inquiry students may be given a degree of choice over their case study and thus be in a position to bring their different backgrounds and experience to bear. In any case, it is important to ensure that the chosen case studies are accessible to all students taking the course. In the case of first year students the teacher may want to provide all the relevant materials to the students. For more advanced students, they may be expected to do some research and to identify relevant supporting materials for the case study inquiry. Where group work is involved a number of options may be considered to ensure fairness. The students may complete some elements of both formative and summative work as a group as well as others individually. For example, students may complete various tasks or give a presentation on the case study as a group but write up part of the final case study individually. In addition, it is relatively common practice to ask students engaged in groupwork to write a short reflective piece discussing their experience of group work. Students can also be asked to rate their contribution and the contribution of other members of the group using one of a number of online group assessment tools such as WebPA and Teammates.

How to maintain and ensure rigour in case studies

Critical to ensuring rigour is having clarity about the different parts of the case study or, in the case of a single assessment task, the criteria against which the assessment will be marked; the weight that will be attached to different parts of the assignment, and the marking scheme.  Marking and moderation should follow departmental practice.

How to limit possible misconduct in case studies

Whether the students are working in groups or individually teachers can check that the work is the work of particular students by designing in opportunities to assess (formatively or summatively) work at several points in the assessment process. This can be done by asking students to present work in written or oral form – either by submitting assignment tasks via Moodle or making short presentations in class. In addition to serving as a check for misconduct this also provides an opportunity for teachers and peers to give constructive feedback on the development of the case study and as such constitutes good practice.

LSE examples

Further resources

University of New South Wales, Sydney: Assessment by Case Studies and Scenarios

Assessment Resources at Hong Kong University: Types of Assessment Methods: Case Study

Bonney, K.M. (2015) Case Study Teaching Method Improves Student Performance and Perceptions of Learning Gains. Journal of Microbiological Education, 16(1): 21–28

Ulanoff, S.H., Fingon, J.C. and Beltrán, D. (2009) Using Case Studies To Assess Candidates’ Knowledge and Skills in a Graduate Reading Program, Teacher Education Quarterly, 6(2): 125-142

Fry, H., Ketteridge, S. and Marshall, S. (1999) A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, Routledge, UK

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