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How Case Studies Aid in Teaching Thinking

What is a Case Study?

Before we jump in to the value of using case studies to teach thinking, it’s prudent to define exactly what it is we are talking about. Case studies are a way to present content in a narrative format, followed by discussion questions, problems or activities. They present readers with an overview of the main issue, background on the organization or industry, and events or individuals involved that lead to the problem or decision presented in the case. As in real life, there is rarely a specific answer or outcome.

Case studies are typically tackled in groups, although they can be an individual assignment. Learners apply course concepts in real-world scenarios, forcing them to utilize higher-order thinking skills such as analysis, synthesis and evaluation. Case studies are very beneficial in helping learners to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Using case studies puts the responsibility for learning on the learner himself, rather than relying on an instructor or facilitator to guide the learning process; so case studies model more real-world tactics despite the fact that the content is prescribed.

Case studies in a business environment are typically used as an activity to transmit the course content; requiring an hour to a few hours of work as part of the larger course requirements. While business-based case studies are generally focused on teaching business principles, The Training Doctor uses business-based case studies to teach thinking processes.

 Case studies pack more experience into each hour of learning than any other instructional approach.

Skills Taught Through Case Study Usage

While numerous studies have concluded that case studies are beneficial to learning simply because they are engaging and participative, there are many social and business skills which are taught through the case study process as well.

If you are familiar with Bloom’s Taxonomy you know that the “higher” levels of learning outcomes are analysis and synthesis – which case studies are able to achieve by presenting lots of information pertinent to various aspects of the case, and asking the learner to dissect and/or combine that information to arrive at a well-reasoned opinion or solution.

Additionally, as much work in the 21st century is accomplished via teams, case studies provide an opportunity to learn critical business skills such as communicating, problem-solving, and group work dynamics in general.

NOTE: It is wise to ensure learners understand group dynamics, meeting management, group process (such as decision making and conflict resolution) and the like, before sending them off to work as a team. Often the benefits of the case study approach are lost due to the learner’s inability to manage themselves as a group (which is also an important learning outcome!).

Outcomes of Case Study Learning

In addition to skills learned via case studies, there are business outcomes which are achieved as well. Real-world business activities are rarely cut and dry, they are dynamic and fluid which can be reflected in a case study much more easily than in the linear presentation of content which typically occurs via lecture. Case studies prime the learner to look at an issue from multiple perspectives and – when used correctly – from multiple disciplines as well. By extrapolating a business case study to their own work environment, learners are able to grasp connections between topics and real-world application which is often difficult to do in a traditional instructor-led course.

While arriving at an answer or solution may be the stated objective of a case study (what should Fred do next?), a greater outcome is developing the learner’s ability to apply problem-solving (or opportunity revealing) management to disparate information. In organizations with workers who are more tenured, the ability to insert their own experience and knowledge is not only helpful in keeping them engaged but beneficial for younger members of the group to hear.

It is a best-practice, when using case studies in business, to utilize groups from various disciplines within the organization. Different disciplines will bring different insights to the case, allowing for a more thorough discussion. Hearing various perspectives also teaches an appreciation for the “big picture” and demonstrates the importance of gathering all relevant data. For instance, in many of our case studies we ask “Who are the stakeholders and what are their interests?,” it is difficult to answer this question if the group is all from the same department or discipline, they simply don’t see the other possibilities.

Additionally, case studies model the reality of business – there will always be incomplete information, time constraints, competing interests and conflicting goals, and one must still make the best decision one can – recognizing that in business no decision is ever “the right one.”

Where Do I Find Case Studies?

You can order case studies from Harvard Business Review or subscribe to The Training Doctor newsletter (right here, at the top of the page) where we release three new case studies each quarter. Additionally, you can always click on the “case studies” category of blog topics, on this page, to view previously published case studies.