Quick Guide: Case Studies

Note: Choosing Between Case Studies and Scenarios

Case studies and scenarios help students leverage theoretical or practical information from readings and lectures to analyze or select courses of action within real-world situations.

Case studies are typically longer, detailed activities that are presented in real-world contexts using relatively set pathways. They may include facts and data and be intended for a longer critical analysis. For instance, students may need to figure out the structure of the case’s problem(s), what information may be missing, or what faulty assumptions were made.

Scenarios are typically shorter activities that are presented in realistic contexts using dynamic pathways. They include multiple decision points and related feedback or outcomes; they may also include fictional characters or exaggerated elements.

Suppose an author wanted to create an activity to support a chapter about therapeutic treatment for certain conditions but wasn’t sure if a case study or scenario would be most helpful.

  • With a case study, students could examine recommendations for a real or hypothetical patient’s therapy treatment. Students might review relevant data and/or analyze the outcome.
  • With a scenario, students could practice determining a hypothetical patient’s therapy treatment. Students would receive feedback and see customized outcomes based on their decisions.

The author would then select a case study or scenario based on goals for the activity (e.g., is it important to study how different counselors have treated or could treat this condition? Or is it important to practice deciding on a therapeutic treatment?). For more details on scenarios, see Quick Guide: Scenarios.

What Makes a Good Case Study?

Good case studies usually have the following characteristics:

  • Sufficient detail: Case studies work best when they give students enough information to understand situations and analyze their aspects. Additional facts or data may be provided, but unnecessary or irrelevant details should be omitted.
  • Suitable complexity: Too few possibilities make case studies simplistic; too many make them hard to navigate (or construct).
  • Appropriate difficulty: Case studies’ difficulty levels should align with the difficulty levels of corresponding textbooks.
  • Supportive of learning objectives/outcomes: Strong case studies clearly align with or support chapter learning objectives/outcomes. Aligning activities with objectives/outcomes helps confirm that those activities enrich, relate to, and accurately assess the textbook content, where applicable.
  • Realistic review of topics and/or practice of concepts: Case studies will provide more value when they resonate with what students are likely to experience.

Developing Case Studies

When completing case studies, students read cases and examine related approaches and/or outcomes. These activities might enable students to:

  • Choose a topic area to review or learn more about.
  • Examine the outcomes of a CEO’s business decisions.
  • Consider experts’ advice about an organization’s budgetary problem.
  • Compare trainers’ approaches to improving use of an electronic health records system (Example).

Think of a case study as an interactive method of reviewing a real-life or realistic situation. Framing the material in an interactive case study permits students to examine different possibilities related to a single situation. Students can explore different aspects of the case (approaches, opinions, outcomes) and compare them. For instance, they may consider what experts (characters in the case) did or ways in which the case could have been resolved. However, they do not make choices that affect the case or its resolution.

Case studies are often ungraded or graded based on participation. However, they may be followed by a longer critical analysis (an assessment) or incorporate assessment questions.