What are case studies?

Case studies are stories. They present realistic, complex, and contextually rich situations and often involve a dilemma, conflict, or problem that one or more of the characters in the case must negotiate.

A good case study, according to Professor Paul Lawrence is:

“the vehicle by which a chunk of reality is brought into the classroom to be worked over by the class and the instructor. A good case keeps the class discussion grounded upon some of the stubborn facts that must be faced in real life situations.”

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Using case studies

How you use case studies will depend on the goals, as well as on the format, of your course. If it is a large lecture course, for example, you might use a case study to illustrate and enrich the lecture material. (An instructor lecturing on principles of marketing.)

Writing a Case Study

Case studies are about real life situations. They involve an in-depth observation of a “case” such as an event, process or person. Additionally, case study assignments usually ask you to go further, to analyse the set of circumstances in relation to theory on the topic and possibly make some suggestions to solve a problem. For example, in business courses, the task may be to examine a company‟s marketing strategy, human resources policy or some other aspect of their business with which they are experiencing difficulties or which may be undergoing change. In “people oriented” professions such as teaching, nursing or human services, you may be asked about learning strategies; a client’s health or personal circumstances; or, how their healing or “self-efficacy” are being assisted. Case studies require you to demonstrate the skills of observation, analysis, problem solving, together with an understanding of ethics and professionalism. They should be written in formal, professional language.

What to include in a case study

For undergraduate students the case study situation often given to you is a fictional, written example by the lecturer. Postgraduate students, or students on Work Integrated Learning placements, may have to select a case from examples found in texts describing a real world setting or from work experience. The first thing you need to be clear about is what kind of task you have been set. Are you being asked to:

  • observe a case and explain what happened?
  • analyse the case by reference to theories on the topic?
  • identify major problems and offer solutions?
  • all of these?

Embedding the case study in theory

Relate the case you have been given to what you have already learned in your coursework. Depending on the discipline in which you are studying, you may find that you are dealing with one of the following:

  • Individual Theories – personality, behaviour, interaction.
  • Social Theories – groups, subcultures, social change in various contexts.
  • Organisational Theories – structures, procedures, performance in government or business, bearing in mind relevant statutory or industry legislation.

Structuring the case study

Case studies are usually presented in report format with sub-headed sections which may include some or all of the following:

  • Introduction
  • Literature review
  • Observations
  • Discussion
  • Conclusion/Recommendations
  • References
  • Appendices

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