Case Studies

Words of Wisdom

The best way to sound like you know what you're talking about is to know what you're talking about.

— Anonymous

Long used in business and medicine as well as in other disciplines, case studies can provide a rich source for writing or speaking assignments. Case study methods actively engage students and are well-suited to teaming or collaborative pedagogies. They also offer a good way to expose students to different perspectives and can introduce them to situations not available in the classroom or at the university.

When case studies present students with a number of options for solutions or analysis, they will be challenged to make thinking about their discipline a part of their writing or public speaking process. 

There are three basic approaches to using case studies in the teaching of writing:

  1. Students write case studies themselves;

  2. Students analyze case studies that instructors provide; or

  3. Students write documents which arise from situations described in case studies provided by instructors.

Writing case studies. 
In disciplines where case study research is common, having students write a case study helps them understand disciplinary mores and methods. A three- to four- page case study can demonstrate:

  • whether students are able to connect theory to practical applications; and

  • whether students are able to understand issues and prioritize events.

Case study analyses. 
The analytical approach asks that students analyze a case in order to demonstrate their understanding of events or characters, as well as how the particular case connects to theory. Students may read and discuss a case and then write up an analytical report.

The problem-solving approach asks students to identify problems within the case study and suggest solutions, usually narrowing down to an optimal solution.

Writing documents arising from case studies. 
Students can be asked to provide a written response to events described in a case. Many business communications texts use case studies to describe a situation which requires the student to write a letter, memo, or report. The case study serves to provide a rhetorical situation—that is, an audience, a persona for the writer, and a situation which calls for writing—which influences the type and style of document produced. Some cases, for example, describe a personnel problem, casting the student as a manager and requiring him or her to write a memo for a personnel file.

Instructors can adapt existing case studies or write their own. If you need to write case studies yourself, there are useful websites available to help you, such as "How to Write a Case Study" by Charles Warner. Warner includes good links and discusses the advantages and disadvantages of case studies based on either fact or fiction.

Additional Resources

ReproLine's "Tools for Trainers" offers suggestions for using and writing clinical case studies in health and medicine.

For a discussion of the case study method in science education, see "The Case Study Method of Teaching Science" from SUNY Buffalo.

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