Case studies depict real-life situations in which problems need to be solved. Scenario-based teaching may be similar to case studies, or may be oriented toward developing communication or teamwork skills. Both case studies and scenarios are commonly used methods of problem-based learning. Typically, using these methods, teachers aim to develop student reasoning, problem-solving and decision-making skills. Case studies differ from role plays in that in the former, learning takes place largely through discussion and analysis, whereas in the latter, students assume a character or role and "act out" what that character would do in the scenario (The Teaching Gateway page Assessing with Role Plays and Simulations contains more information on using role plays for assessments.) Like role plays and simulations, case studies and scenarios aim for authenticity: allowing students to get a sense of the situations they might face in the real world upon graduation. Students can see how their learning and skills can be applied in a real-world situation, without the pressure of being actually involved in that situation with the associated constraints on research, discussion and reflection time.
Case studies and scenarios are particularly useful when they present situations are complex and solutions are uncertain. Ideally, their complexity requires group members to draw from and share their experiences, work together, and learn by doing to understand and help solve the case-study problem.
You can present a single case to several groups in a class and require each group to offer its solutions, or you can give a different case to each group or individual.
Case studies' effectiveness comes from their abiliity to:
- engage students in research and reflective discussion
- encourage clinical and professional reasoning in a safe environment
- encourage higher-order thinking
- facilitate creative problem solving and the application of different problem-solving theories without risk to third parties or projects
- allow students to develop realistic solutions to complex problems
- develop students' ability to identify and distinguish between critical and extraneous factors
- enable students to apply previously acquired skills
- allow students to learn from one another
- provide an effective simulated learning environment
- encourage practical reasoning
- allow you to assess individuals or teams.
You can use case studies to bridge the gap between teacher-centred lectures and pure problem-based learning. They leave room for you to guide students directly, while the scenarios themselves suggest how students should operate, and provide parameters for their work.
Although some students have reported greater satisfaction with simulations as learning tools than with case studies (Maamari & El-Nakla, 2023), case studies generally require less up-front preparation time, and can be less intimidating for students.
To make case studies an effective form of assessment, instructors and tutors need to be familiar with their use in both teaching and assessment. This applies whether teachers are developing the case studies for their courses themselves or using those developed by others.
Case studies reach their highest effectiveness as a teaching and assessment tool when they are authentic; ensuring that case studies accurately reflect the circumstances in which a student will eventually be practising professionally can require a considerable amount of research, as well as the potential involvement of industry professionals.
Students may need scaffolding as they learn how to problem-solve in the context of case studies; using case studies as low-stakes, formative assessments can prepare them for summative assessment by case study at the end of the course.
Learning outcomes, course outlines, and marking rubrics need to be entirely clear about how case studies will be used in the course and how students will be expected to demonstrate their learning through thee way they analyse and problem-solve in the context of case studies.
Typically, the product assessed after case study or scenario work is a verbal presentation or a written submission. Decide who will take part in the assessment: the tutor, an industry specialist, a panel, peer groups or students themselves by self-evaluation? Choose whether to give a class or group mark or to assess individual performance; and whether to assess the product yourself or have it assessed by peers.
You can assess students’ interaction with other members of a group by asking open-ended questions, and setting tasks that require teamwork and sharing resources.
Assess the process of analysis
Case studies allow you to assess a student’s demonstration of deeper understanding and cognitive skills as they address the case. These skills include, for example:
- identification of a problem
- hypotheses generation
- construction of an enquiry plan
- interpretation of findings
- investigation of results collected for evidence to refine a hypothesis and construction of a management plan.
During the problem-solving process, you can also observe and evaluate:
- quality of research
- structural issues in written material
- organisation of arguments
- feasibility of solutions presented
- intra-group dynamics
- evidence of consideration of all case factors
- multiple resolutions of the same scenario issue.
Use a variety of questions in case analysis
The Questioning page discusses in detail various ways to use questions in teaching . If your students are using the Harvard Business School case study method for their analysis, use a range of question types to enable the class to move through the stages of analysis:
- clarification/information seeking (What?)
- analysis/diagnosis (Why?)
- conclusion/recommendation (What now?)
- implementation (How?) and
- application/reflection (So what? What does it mean to you?)
Learning-management systems such as Moodle can help you track contributions to case discussions. You can assess students' interactions with other members of a group by viewing their responses to open-ended questions or observing their teamwork and sharing of resources as part of the discussion. You can incorporate the use of various tools in these systems, or others such as Survey Monkey, into students' assessment of their peers, or of their group members' contribution to exploring and presenting case studies. You can also set this peer assessment up so that it takes place anonymously.
Assessing by Case Studies: UNSW examples
These videos show examples of how UNSW faculty have implemented case studies in their own courses.
A Design for Case Studies with Undergraduate Students – Chris Walker
Authentic Assessment by Case Studies – Chris Walker
- Boston University. Using Case Studies to Teach
- Columbia University. Case Method Teaching and Learning
- Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College. Starting Point: What is Investigative Case-Based Learning?
Maamari, B. E., & El-Nakla, D. (2023). From case studies to experiential learning. Is simulation an effective tool for student assessment? Arab Economic and Business Journal, 15(1), Article 2. https://doi.org/10.38039/2214-4625.1023
Merret, C. (2020). Using case studies and build projects as authentic assessments in cornerstone courses. International Journal of Mechanical Engineering Education, 50(1), 20-50. https://doi.org/10.1177/0306419020913286
Porzecanski, A. L., Bravo, A., Groom, M. J., Dávalos, L. M., Bynum, N., Abraham, B. J., Cigliano, J. A., Griffiths, C., Stokes, D. L., Cawthorn, M., Fernandez, D. S., Freeman, L., Leslie, T., Theodose, T., Vogler, D., & Sterling, E. J. (2021). Using case studies to improve the critical thinking skills of undergraduate conservation biology students. Case Studies in the Environment, 5(1), 1536396. https://doi.org/10.1525/cse.2021.1536396