A primer on case-based teaching – Stephanie Verkoeyen


Last semester I was allocated a half RA-ship to develop case studies for a second year course in the Faculty of Environment. Case studies have traditionally been applied within the fields of Engineering, Business, and Health Sciences, though their application is slowly starting to trickle into other disciplines. In the social science context that I was working in, students would be applying some of the concepts and ideas discussed in lecture to a real world situation in an attempt to offer insight into some of the complexities surrounding environmental decision-making, and to get students comfortable with there being no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer.

Having never developed a case study previously, I struggled with where to start. Much of the material I read dealt directly with writing cases or teaching with cases, but did not go into detail on getting started with case-based teaching. As a result, I’ve put together a few steps to help anyone else who should wish to use case-based teaching in their own course.

  1. Integrating the case into your course

The first step is to decide how your case study fits into the existing course. This means thinking about the content it relates to (i.e. what concepts/ideas will students apply?), the amount of time required (some case studies are designed to be completed within a lecture, others span the duration of a course), as well as grade allocation, if there is to be an evaluation method attached. It is worth spending time mapping out these details because adopting a case-based teaching method can result in significant changes to how a course is taught.

  1. Defining the learning objectives

This step is closely tied to decisions relating to content. The goal here is to define why the case study is being presented – what are the goals of the discussion to take place? It is useful to refer back to lesson outcomes and/or course objectives to understand how a case study can be used to reinforce these aims. Or you may find that using a case study allows you to introduce new aims.

  1. Selecting the case

This may be the most challenging step of the whole process. Having clearly defined teaching objectives helps to simplify this stage by providing a set of parameters your case has to fit within. Once this has been established, there are a number of different suggestions about how to pick a good case example – it should be current, interesting or provocative, and/or relatable. When making my own selections, I tried to think about the range of views and opinions that might be expressed, the idea being that a broader range is more likely to stimulate discussion.

  1. Writing the case

Before writing the case, first define the questions students are expected to answer. This will determine what information needs to be included to allow students to answer these questions. Your teaching objectives will influence both the questions being asked and the presentation of the case. For example, if identifying what information is most relevant is an important learning outcome, you can also include irrelevant information in the case description. You need not restrict yourself to written materials when presenting a case study. Different multimedia, like videos and podcasts, can also be interesting alternative sources of information.

Once the case is developed, it is highly recommended that you create a teaching note. This document serves as a personal reference guide for how you will actually teach the case study, including information related to the planned agenda and your analysis of the case. The case analysis should consider the type of discussion that might result from each of the assignment questions, as well as follow-up questions that can be used to prompt this discussion.

For those interested in further information about case-based teaching, Teaching with Cases by Erskine, Leenders, and Mauffette-Leenders (2003) is an excellent resource. Developed for the Ivey School of Business, much of the information presented within can be adapted to a social science setting.