Using Case Studies to Assess Student Learning

Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we focus on what a case study is, how they can be used in a classroom setting, and the characteristics of a situation or issue which can make it a good case study.

Case Studies

The Law of Supply and Demand. The Theory of Gravitation. The First Amendment. Whether you are studying economics, physics, or politics, these are some pretty important laws and theories. But laws and theories are relatively unimportant completely on their own. They explain real life phenomena, but in order to understand a law or theory one needs practice implementing it.

That is where case studies come in. In this lesson we will discover exactly what a case study is as well as its strengths and weaknesses.


Case studies can take on a different look and feel depending on the issue being discussed. Broadly, however, case studies are stories or situations which can be used to apply a principle, theory, or law, or used to illustrate a broader truth. They should be realistic scenarios, and in fact many good case studies are taken directly from a past event or situation. After all, the laws demonstrated by case studies are usually describing something previously observed, so it makes sense that real life scenarios could be appropriated to illustrate them.

For example, there are numerous case studies from history illustrating how the First Amendment is applied. One such case, 1969's Tinker v. Des Moines School District demonstrates clearly how a school board violated its students' First Amendment rights by suspending them for wearing armbands to silently protest the Vietnam War.

Using Case Studies

Case studies should be used to demonstrate important principles and to give students experience in logic, problem solving, and identifying key concepts. Case studies can be used in classrooms of any size.

When a case study is first introduced to a class, students should be give plenty of time to read the study and think it over themselves. Teachers or instructors should also give a little guidance in terms of how a problem should be approached. This allows students to think critically about the problem and develop their own ideas.

Case studies can be approached and used differently depending on how the study is designed. If every student is expected to analyze the same situation simultaneously, classes should be broken down into small groups of four to six people. In groups of this size, students can more readily discuss their viewpoints outside of the spotlight of the entire class. Furthermore, students interacting in smaller groups have greater time to flesh out their thoughts with their classmates.  

After a set period of time, each group should appoint a spokespersons who presents their group's thoughts and findings about the case study to the class. This should include what they found interesting, what they found difficult, and what they believe is the correct outcome of the case study (if there is one). Once each group has presented their findings, the class as a whole can move to a more teacher-led discussion about the case and the merits of each group's findings. If the case study is taken from a real life example, the teacher should also reveal the real-life outcome of the situation in a way that is both instructive and reinforces the principle or laws on display in the case study.

Other case studies are structured differently and require students to take on roles. For example, a courtroom scenario might require one student to act as the judge, a few to act as lawyers, and the rest to act as the jury. Just as in the other type of case study, students should be broken down into groups small enough so that each student has a role to fill. Then the students can act out the case study according to their roles.

After the class has worked their way through the case study, the class should hold a larger discussion examining what happened in their case study and why. It is important for students to understand not only what happened, but the forces at work, either in the structure of the scenario itself or the actions of the participants, that caused what happened. Working through these, either on their own or with their class, will help them understand the principles at work in the case study and how they were applied.

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