The Case for Case Studies
Case studies provide an in-depth, up-close look at a situation within its real-world context. As many people learn complex topics better by working through examples than they do from having information simply laid out for them, case studies can be an effective instructional tool for certain principles, such as analyzing data and determining a course of action.
Universities and educational institutions frequently utilize case studies in areas such as law, medical, and social sciences; however, cases can be used in any environment where participants would benefit from exploring how what they are learning applies to real-world situations.
Case studies can come in many formats, but most require participants to answer open-ended questions or develop a course of action from a given situation that can have multiple potential solutions.
Most case studies have these elements:
- A group of stakeholders
- A question or problem that needs to be solved
- A description of the context
- Supporting data – this can range from outlines of the various stakeholders’ points of view, informational charts and data tables, supporting documents, images, video, or audio.
While participants can complete case studies individually, it can be beneficial to work through them as groups or teams. Not only does this divide the workload, but it also allows participants to brainstorm for ideas they may not have reached individually and experience working in a team dynamic, where differing solutions may arise.
Advantages to the use of case studies
Since case studies require participants to analyze a given situation, develop a plan of action, and state their reasoning as to why they chose a specific course, cases studies help develop skills in:
- Analytical thought processes
- Decision making in complex situations
- Dealing with conflicting or ambiguous information
- Interpersonal skills (if completed in a group setting)
Guidelines for using case studies
A case study establishes a framework for analysis. It should provide enough information for the participants to figure out solutions and state their reasoning from the provided information. Participants should then be able to identify how to apply those solutions in similar situations.
Participants are encouraged to look at all aspects of the case to determine:
- What is the issue?
- What is the purpose of the analysis?
- What is the context of the problem?
- What key facts should be considered?
- What alternatives are available?
- What is my recommendation — and why?
In group situations, participants can take on the various roles of those involved in the case. This activity can help them understand the different perspectives of the stakeholders.
Case study analysis can be written and submitted or presented in a case discussion. How to handle exercise submissions can depend on work schedules, the number of participants, topics covered, etc. However, if you chose to have the analysis presented in a discussion, participation, both quantity and quality, should be assessed to stimulate attentiveness and engagement.
Example of how we have used case studies
Case studies were included in an internal project management course that was offered to multiple departments. While the course’s instructional section was a large group setting, the case study exercise was presented as either an individual or group activity since the participants’ workloads and schedules differed.
After reading and discussing the course information, participants were either presented with a case study or chose to work on a real-world situation applicable to the individual or group.
After case analysis, the participants outlined their various courses of action in project charters, including project risks they identified in the cases and ways to mitigate those risks. After completing project charters, the participants would then use the information they pulled from the case to create a project plan for the case situation. These were submitted to the course instructor for evaluation and feedback.
Utilizing a case study allowed participants to work through a situation that was not ideal or laid out in front of them. It required them to abstract the information needed to form a course of action and put a plan into place based on a complex, real-world example.