CASE FORMAT VARIATIONS
Margaret Waterman and Ethel
Stanley copyright 2005. Available online at
This is a glossary of some common types of cases, based on formats. The format of a case can influence how you choose to use it with students. Common teaching approaches are suggested.
Extensive, detailed case study
Frequently used in business and law courses, these cases often center on the decisions that were made, the people who made them, the people affected by them, and the impact of the decisions on all parties. These cases may run 3-100 pages or more.
Common teaching method: the student reads the entire case, usually individually, in advance and prepares an analysis of the decisions with recommendations for change. The case is then discussed, often in large groups highly directed by the teacher.
An example from sociology is Separate but Safer and Shone Farm case study in sustainable agriculture. Case study of a usability lab is one of many at Georgia Tech. A case study of Hispanic migrant workers health.
Descriptive, narrative cases, parts of which may be given successively (up to 5 pages, 1-2 paragraphs per page)
This style of case originated in medical school settings and are frequently used in Problem Based Learning. Often these cases are multidisciplinary, with no clear cut right or wrong answer. The LifeLines OnLine case collection includes 65 cases for teaching college biology, environmental science, earth science and chemistry. See for example: Goodbye Honeybuckets
Teaching method: These are designed to be used over the course of two or more class meetings, and to be seen for the first time during class. The case is disclosed to the students one page at a time. The role of the teacher is as a guide, asking students to explain their thinking or to discuss the evidence for their ideas.
Students work collaboratively in small groups to analyze the case. As they do this they consider what they already know and what they need to know. They generate hypotheses and develop a set of learning goals for each part of the case. Between class meetings, students look up information as they work to understand the case. The instructor's learning objectives are revealed to the student toward the end of the case. These kinds of cases are highly student directed, so they are not usually accompanied by a set of questions to be answered.
These kinds of cases, and the minicases below, can be linked with scientific investigations, labs, activities and problem sets in a teaching method called Investigative Case Based Learning.
These are short, often only a paragraph or two long, describing a situation or dilemma. See Coldwater Lake a prelude to a modeling exercise on lake food webs and Deadly Diet Pills to lead into respiration. This University of San Diego site http://ethics.sandiego.edu/resources/cases/Home.asp has many short (and longer) caseson ethics situations pertaining to many disciplines. (Some of these can be converted to multiple choice cases, see below.)
Teaching Methods: Minicases may be used in a wide variety of settings. Designed to be used in a single class meeting, their content is usually tightly focused. Useful for introducing and grounding a new topic in lecture, for preassessing student knowledge, for helping students apply concepts, for introducing practical applications in lab settings, or as a pre-activity exercise designed to make the work more meaningful. These adapt well to distance learning when coupled with electronic discussions.
Directed Case Study
In this format, cases which may be long or short are followed immediately with highly directed questions. For example, a medical case An example about making policy about air pollution is Breathing Easy part II
Two or three sentences with a single teaching point. Similar to problems commonly used on exams. Most useful for making applications of concepts or for starting a new topic.
Teaching Method: Students discuss these cases briefly in small groups, at the time they are introduced in class (or made available for an online discussion). For example:
The space station orbits at 1200 miles above the surface of the earth at an initial launch speed of 15000 miles per hour. Supplies are running low on the space station and the shuttle is sent up from Earth. To dock with the space station, the shuttle will have to be going at almost the same speed as the station. Come up with a set of instructions for both the launch speed and the use of thrusters in space to accomplish this docking. Use the simulation on orbits at http://fearofphysics.com
Fixed Choice Options (multiple choice cases)
These can be a variation on bullet cases above, or a minicase with 4-5 plausible solutions. Multiple choice questions can convert easily to these if the choices are believably plausible. The intent is to get students to consider alternative viable solutions to a problem. Useful for policy, ethics, design decisions.
Teaching method: Give the problem and solutions to small groups (2-4 people). The group must reach consensus on and defend one solution. Good for short, in-class uses. For example:
The college doesn't have enough parking, and buying a permit just gives staff members a "license to hunt." Recently, a sign went up reserving a space for the Provost. As a member of the parking committee, you must help respond to complaints and make a decision. Here are the proposed solutions:
- Remove the sign and make the Provost find a space like everyone else. All of our jobs are essential.
- Find out why the Provost has been given the space. If there is a legitimate reason, let it be known. If not, remove the sign.
- Make a two-tiered system available to all. Those who want reserved parking can pay extra for it ($150 per month). Others can pay less to "hunt" ($20 per month).
- Ignore the complaints - everyone complains and it's just one parking space and it's for the chief academic officer.
Copyright 2005 Margaret
A. Waterman, Southeast Missouri State University
Ethel D. Stanley, BioQUEST Curriculum Consortium, Beloit WI
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