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December 15, 2017

Teaching at Pitt

Case Studies: Moving from ‘Thinking’ to ‘Thinking and Doing’

Case studies can be applied across the disciplines to provide a low-tech, interactive method to engage students in problem solving and analysis. Case studies are often constructed around a central problem, which students must analyze or solve based on key contextual information. This central problem can have one or multiple solutions, which may change depending on the context or situation. This type of problem-solving asks students to synthesize multiple lines or types of evidence; progressing in a logical sequence from lower-order (e.g., identify, define, recognize, recall, explain, propose) to higher-order (solve, relate, develop, classify, diagram, examine, compare/contrast, etc.) thinking. When you construct a case study, developing your supporting questions, and related activities should guide students along this sequence of skills.

Getting Started: Designing Your Case Study

Before you embark on your case study design, consider:

  1. What specific knowledge and skills do you want students to develop through this activity?
  2. How does this activity support specific and general learning objectives?

Begin by identifying skills or knowledge areas that you want students to achieve, and use these to develop at least two targeted learning objectives. The learning objectives and the knowledge needed to support those objectives will inform the focus and structure of your case study.

Once you define your objectives and skills/knowledge focus, select a case topic and format. The type of case study you select should align with your learning goals and objectives (see Naumes & Naumes, 2012).

  • Evaluative cases direct students to apply theories and draw connections between events, persons or ideas in the context of key “facts.” Students evaluate this information to solve a problem based on some “real life” antecedent with a known solution or outcome. For example, students might be asked to review both successful and failed marketing decisions, evaluate the theories that informed these decisions and examine the end results (both intended and unintended). The focus in this case is on the process, not the ultimate outcome or solution: specifically, how students make and test predictions by assessing “real world” situations.
  • Decision-Focus cases place greater emphasis on practical thinking in that the final solution or outcome is unknown (or remains controversial). This design emphasizes problem solving by evaluating alternative outcomes based on applying different theories or methods, often in the context of missing or contradictory evidence. For example, students might be asked to analyze the physical traits of a fossil specimen and classify it by comparison with known examples. This case is ambiguous in that the specimen might include traits common to several species. Students would be directed to compare and contrast different theoretical concepts of “species” and evolutionary models in making (and supporting) a final classification.
  • Critical incident cases are open-ended and compel students to draw on their background and prior knowledge in recommending a course of action or presenting a solution. One example is a clinical scenario in which students are asked to diagnose a patient’s symptoms. This scenario might be complicated by including confounding factors that impact how the student evaluates or interacts with the patient. Students might also need to provide additional information, such as what kind of follow up work would be required to reach a final solution via proposing an appropriate treatment schedule.

Preparing Students for the Case Study

Instructors can prepare students with an introductory activity that includes defining key terms, summarizing important theories or models or brainstorming cause and effect. This will help students organize their thoughts and serve as a reference or guide throughout the problem-solving process, highlight the broader significance of the case study.

Hansen (2006) recommends facilitating student discussion and reflection both during and after the activity by:

  1. Responding to student inquiries with guiding questions such as:
  • “What is it you are trying to measure or solve for?”
  • “Tell me how you arrived at that conclusion.”
  • “What do others in the group/class think about this?”
  1. Including a follow-up activity that targets student reflection and self-assessment:
  • “In no more than three sentences, summarize the significance of X for solving Y.”
  • “Were your initial predictions supported, why or why not?”
  • “Outline the steps you took to reach your solution.”
  • “What do you see as the major limitations of this approach, how might you address these?”

Case studies and related activities, such as labs or simulations, require students to take an active role in the formation and application of knowledge. To this end, case studies prompt students to synthesize and apply key skills and knowledge to assess outcomes, make predictions and deal with uncertainty and ambiguity. Ultimately, a good case study means the instructor takes a back seat in their own classroom. While students might not remember the specific details of a case, honing their own problem-solving abilities will prepare them for careers beyond the classroom.


Hansen, D. M. (2006) Instructor’s guide to Process-Oriented Guided-Inquiry Learning. Stony Brook, NY: SUNY Stony Brook University.

Naumes, W., & Naumes, M. J. (2012). The art and craft of case writing, 3rd edition. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.


Katherine M. Pompeani is a teaching fellow for the Graduate Student Teaching Initiative at the University Center for Teaching and Learning.


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