Case Method

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Definition Case Method. Description

The Case Method (CM) is a method of learning and teaching based on active participation and analyzing and discussing a case. It is a form of instructor-guided, discussion-based learning around complex and often ambiguous real-world scenarios presented in a "case study" (see below) with a main character / protagonist facing a strategic decision.

The CM is also referred to as: Case Study Method or Case Discussion Method or Case Learning Method. Also the term Discussion Leadership is used, which emphasizes the role of the facilitator of the classroom interaction, see below.

What is a Case? What is a Case Study?

Broadly speaking, a case is a description of a complex situation faced by an individual or organization. But there is no universally accepted definition of a 'case'. A definition by pioneer Carl Christensen worth knowing is:

"... a partial, historical, clinical study of a situation which has confronted a practicing administrator or managerial group. Presented in a narrative form to encourage student involvement, it provides data - substantive and process - essential to an analysis of a specific situation, for the framing of alternative action programs and for their implementation, recognizing the complexity and the ambiguity of the practical world."

Thus, broadly speaking, a case is a description of a complex situation faced by an individual or organization.

A case study (CS) is the object of study in the case method. A CS is normally a story, a written summary of a problem situation that invites the student to recommend action based on analysis. A CS is teaching material, not a journalistic or historical record. The writer of a CS aims to create a learning experience for students by re-creating the problem setting as decision-makers saw it at the time. Although a CS is necessarily an abstraction of reality, a good one will throw students into the same setting as prevailed historically to let them wrestle with the same dilemmas, and perhaps even err - all with the purpose of helping the students learn to avoid a similar mistake in professional life.


Over the last decades, the method is increasingly used for professional education in a number of fields, including law, business, medicine, and social sciences.

Role of Students

The CM asks the student to put him or herself in the shoes of the main character, typically the CEO or a manager.

Similar to Action Learning, but contrary to the traditional lecturing method - which is based on the transfer of knowledge by a teacher professing a series of content declarations without much or any interaction with the students - the focus of the CM is on developing skills and growing wisdom through participation by the students, who are supposed to think and decide like a managers or decision maker facing a problem.

The aim is for the students to experience the complexities, ambiguities, and uncertainties confronted by the original party in the case.

Role of Discussion Leader

The professor / discussion leader prepares, facilitates and guides the session through dialogue (discussion) and through asking questions (Dialectics), asking questions and eliciting participation from the entire class to enrich the discussion with contrasting viewpoints, different industry experiences, and cultural backgrounds.

In short, he is structuring and facilitating the students’ work rather than delivering information, giving explanations, or providing answers. The emphasis is on the students’ reasoning and expressions, on their capacity to structure the problem and work out a solution.

To be effective, the case discussion leader should:

  • Be well-prepared.
  • Be flexible, accepting the fact that this is necessary in using case materials. Do not to force the discussion along predetermined lines.
  • Ask questions when necessary, but ask as few as possible to support the open nature of the decision and avoiding unproductive channels.
  • Don't become emotionally involved in the case discussion; don't advocate or oppose a particular idea.
  • Summarize at the end while leaving time to pull together the key points of the case.


The roots of teaching by asking questions to stimulate active learning go back to:

  • Socrates’ dialogues as described by Plato (see for example Plato’s Meno)
  • Jesus (focus on the student, employing questioning and parables)
  • Confucius’ conversations

The case-study method was first introduced into social science by Frederic Le Play in 1829 as a handmaiden to statistics in his studies of family budgets. (Les Ouvriers Europeens (2nd edition, 1879).

Structure of a Typical Case

Writing styles depend on the person preparing a case study and the preferences of the business school, yet most cases more or less employ the following structure:

  • Title and Introduction (½ - 2 pages)
  • Background on the Company, Industry and Competitors (3-7 pages)
  • The Decision Point in more Detail (1-5 pages)
  • Exhibits and Endnotes (4-10 pages)

The Case Method Process

The typical steps or phases in the CM are as follows:

  1. Individual Case Preparation: Students are presented with a case, placing them in the role of the decision maker at the time. Students read through the situation and identify the problem they are faced with. Students perform an analysis, examine the causes and considering alternative courses of actions to come to a set of recommendations.
  2. Team Analysis and Debate: Students meet in "learning teams" (5-10 persons) to discuss their findings and compare their analysis and contrast viewpoints. Group members need to carefully listen, understand, and appreciate these different views, and thus expand their range of thinking as well as depth of analysis. For this to happen effectively, the group atmosphere should be as free as possible, and focusing on important issues.
  3. In-class Discussion under the questioning and guidance of the discussion leader (professor), probing underlying issues, comparing various alternatives.
  4. Conclusions Drawn and Lessons Learned: Together the class develops an analysis, suggests courses of action considering the objectives of the organization, and formulates key learning points.
  5. After Class Discussion and Individual Reflection: Students reflect in their learning team and individually on how their initial ideas changed as a result of the input from their learning team and from the classroom discussion. 

Benefits of the Case Method. Advantages

  • Active participation of students
  • Natural engagement of human beings with stories (see Storytelling)
  • More effective than traditional lecturing
  • Fosters critical thinking
  • Opportunity to apply theoretical concepts to a real-life scenario
  • Exercises judgment, problem solving, decision making, and action-taking skills
  • Democratic, two-way information flow
  • Inductive learning from experience
  • Encourages student responsibility for learning
  • Enlivens the classroom dynamic, more fun
  • Develops collaboration skills, group learning, time management
  • The teacher learns too

Disadvantages of the Case Method. Cons

  • Time consuming (both for discussion leader and students). May lead to delays in finishing student's year.
  • The strong focus on 1 important and complex topic may leave many other topics underexposed.
  • High demands on discussion leader. Requires extensive preparation, planning and timing.
  • Both teachers and students may be unfamiliar initially with the CM and reluctant to change.
  • Context-dependent. It's hard to generalize from a single case. The external validity (outside the organization in question) is disputable.
  • Cognitive Biases / Tunnel vision / Pygmalion effect in case selection, data collection and interpretation (there is a tendency to rely too heavily on interpretation of the case instead of external research).
  • Quieter/introvert students may find this approach challenging because they have to communicate and work with other students in teams.
  • Conclusions are subjective.
  • Not appropriate for elementary education levels.


  • Robert F. Bruner, Socrates’ Muse: Reflections on Effective Case Discussion Leadership, 2002
  • Louis B. Barnes, C. Roland Christensen and Abbey J. Hansen, Teaching and the Case Method
  • C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin and Ann Sweet (eds.), Education for Judgment, The Artistry of Discussion Leadership
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Compare with: Action Learning  |  Dialectical Inquiry  |  Organizational Learning  |  Analogical Strategic Reasoning

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