Case studies in higher education

Case studies began as a popular teaching method in both business and medical education however other fields have since adopted them. Students apply skills and knowledge to arrive at conclusions thus bridging the theoretical and practical aspects within a field of study. Case studies reduce cognitive load by communicating implicit or tacit knowledge, support the development of trans-disciplinary competencies, such as critical thinking and encourage active learning.

At ETH the complexity of case studies can vary hugely. Current examples being used range from including the use of authentic field data, setting complex real-life problems for students to resolve and sending students into willing local businesses who function as live cases to be studied. However despite their variety, there are a number of assumptions we can make about case studies.

Case studies are a snapshot of real-life

A case study is a realistic scenario that simulates real-world situations students are likely to encounter in their chosen field upon completing their studies. Because they are relevant to the student’s future professions and are therefore meaningful students are highly motivated to engage. By answering the key question, ‘what would you do in this situation?’ they get the opportunity to practice their response and receive feedback on how they arrived there.

Case studies enable students to connect theory with practice

The case study should be as realistic as possible without any interpretation of presented facts. Students will then gather information and conduct an analysis using the skills and knowledge they have already learned. While arriving at a conclusion is important, there is usually no single correct course of action and the process that the students undertake to arrive at their conclusions is by far more valuable for learning than their final position.

Case studies use contextual and tacit knowledge

Choosing a context for the case study conveys information, which is already known to students. For example farm management practices will vary depending on the country being considered. By identifying the geographical context students can blend in other knowledge that they already have about such an environment and situation. New learning is therefore acquired more effectively as it is attached to existing knowledge.

Case studies aid the development of trans-disciplinary competencies

Students must not only apply their existing knowledge, they must utilize a range of additional skills such as communication, group work, conflict-management, problem-solving and critical thinking. These additional competencies are increasingly recognized as important in working life, yet they are not always deliberately included as course learning goals. This matches the goals of the ETHZ has they are developing resources to identify and promote such trans-disciplinary competencies as is shown by the 2015 Critical Thinking Initiative.

Case studies encourage active learning

The research evidence is clear that students learn best when they are mentally engaged or active during the learning process. When working with case studies students have been shown to engage actively with the content, use their knowledge and apply existing skills to the case. This is no doubt helped by the fact that students report that they enjoy the experience of using case studies.

These features of case studies provide a necessary extension to the traditional lecture format. The case study method is an elegant way of enhancing motivation, engaging students actively and bridging the gap between theory and practice. Considering that they can be very cost-effective to produce, the use of case studies in teaching is something that can and should be encouraged.

The question of how case studies can be encouraged is one that the ETH must consider and to which it must find answers. In addition case studies can create considerable workload for students and these efforts are not always formally or fairly recognised through the existing credit system. If the ETH is serious about increasing the focus on the acquisition of competencies then case studies are an opportunity to progress that goal.

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