Case studies in the science classroom

Chandrika Muralidhar

A case study is a look at an actual event, a study of a real-life situation. In developing case studies, an event is chosen that requires the use of scientific concepts in a human context (Wheatly, 1986), students are placed into the circumstances surrounding the event with the help of documents written at the time the event occurred. This would usually involve a two or three-page hand-out, plus other document references which would support the students when they outline arguments for one of the viewpoints presented in the case. The case study approach urges them to review the facts and frame a response based on the interaction of science and society. While analyzing the problem, students experience the flavour of opposing arguments and learn to prepare rebuttals. Each student needs to develop a personal rationale to use in deciding on the outcome, thereby acknowledging individual biases and values.

An initial attempt to use case studies in a science classroom was by James B. Conant of Harvard. He organized an entire course around this mode of teaching (Conant 1949) and presented cases using the lecture method. However, this approach did not gain momentum. In another approach, newspaper extracts were used. The students were expected to provide concise responses to questions like – What is the problem being investigated? What are the details of the method used? What are the pertinent results? What specific conclusion can you draw from the study?

Ways of using case studies
• Take one or two graphs and tables from any scientific article and ask the students to interpret the graphs or plot the data, postulate the methods, and speculate on the conclusions.
• Another technique is to simply collect a series of articles focused on a single topic. These articles are put on library reserve or copied with permission from the journal involved and then given to the students. If accompanied by a short series of questions to guide their reading, an outstanding case can be developed.
• Case histories are largely finished stories and are generally less exciting than decision or appraisal cases. They can serve as illustrative models of science in action and they provide plenty of opportunities for Monday morning quarterbacking. Science is replete with cases of this type: for example, The Copernican revolution, cold fusion, or the Tuskegee syphilis study where several hundred black syphilis patients were studied for decades without modern medical treatment being provided. (Herreid 1994)

Case studies and the teacher
Case studies develop reasoning and evaluation skills. Cases make the process of scientific learning more genuine and rigorous, bringing alive classroom learning and helping students apply concepts to understand contemporary societal challenges. Together with lectures and labs, case studies assist students in acquiring content knowledge, process skills, and an understanding of the context and application of science to their daily lives.

Novice teachers often reason that going with what’s worked in the past (i.e., how they were taught) probably will work in the future. Without much training devoted to the art of teaching and learning, young teachers suspect that there’s no need to be distracted by other styles if this one seems to work fine. Case studies offer a powerful diversification tool that allows a teacher to teach across content knowledge, process skills, context, and application skills. In some instances, case studies can provide students with the kinds of skills they typically master in labs, thus offering instructors the possibility of turning non-lab classes into more robust scientific experiences. And they make the learning experience real, empowering students to want to become scientists and giving them the practical experience to do so.

For instance, using a single journal article as the focus of a case study, students can practice the scientific method; from issue identification to question formulation, hypothesis testing, experimental design, and data analysis and interpretation. They see how scientists grapple with tough issues and interpret “messy” data that often contain significant statistical uncertainty. And they can make value judgments based on the evidence, just like we do in the real world. (Camill, 2006)

Story first – start with a story. All teachers tell stories (usually a lot of them), often funny vignettes from their past or an anecdote about a famous personality. The trick is to embellish and expand that story into a full-fledged case. Likely, you will need to research to unearth details that you may have missed or forgotten. Then you will have to choose the principles or concepts that you wish to introduce into the case and how to introduce the science into the narrative. Should we weave it into the storyline or try another strategy such as using a set of guided questions to have the students look up the material or introduce it as distinct essays? It would be pertinent at this point to keep in mind the target audience, teaching method, resources, product, and assessment. Another important aspect to consider would be whether to deliver all the case details at once or in separate capsules. Once this is complete it would help to pilot it with the students followed by incorporating feedback and editing. This is one way of writing a case study and might be simpler because you already know a real story whose details you can look up.

A diagram showing two alternatives to writing cases. On the left side, a teacher can start with a story that she knows and then identify the principles that she could incorporate into the case study. On the right, a teacher can start with the principles that need to be taught and then create a storyline for the case. In either approach, the instructor must choose a teaching format, the resources that the students need, the product(s) that they will produce, and the assessment methods. Order of the steps in the later part of the diagram is not regimented.
(Source: Herried, 2019)

Concepts first – backward design. More often than not you will have to create the story yourself. Ready-made stories seldom exist for topics you cover in your classes. In such a situation identify a subject in your curriculum where you want a case study; say you want a case on pH and its impact on enzyme function. Then, first and foremost, identify the objectives that your case must achieve to be successful. This method of approach is called the backward design, (McTighe & Thomas, 2003 and McTighe & Wiggins, 2004). In a nutshell, three steps are involved in the method:
a) identify the desired results (big ideas and skills) you want the students to acquire,
b) determine what evidence you would accept in determining if you have met your goals; and
c) design activities that will allow you to achieve your goals.

Notice that the backward design model posits that you design your assessment methods even before you design the case itself. That makes sense, but it is often hard to do. So, if we were to incorporate that model into the diagram above, we would have to shift the assessment step upwards to just after the objectives are determined.

• Camill, Philip (2006). Case Studies Add Value to a Diverse Teaching Portfolio in Science Courses. Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 31-37.
• Felder, R.M. (1993). Reaching the second tier: Learning and teaching styles in college science education. Journal of College Science Teaching 23 (5): 286-290.
• Felder, R.M., and R. Brent (1996). Navigating the bumpy road to student-centered instruction. College Teaching 44 (2): 43-47.
• Herreid, Clyde Freeman (1994). Case studies in science – A novel method of science education. Journal of College Science Teachings.
• Wheatley, Jack (1986). The Use of case studies in the science classroom. Journal of College Science Teaching. Vol. 15, No. 5, pp. 428-431.

The author is a faculty member with the Azim Premji University and primarily works with the Communications and Publications team of the university. She teaches and contributes to professional development programmes. She has been working in the space of science education, teacher capacity enhancement, curricular material development, textbook writing and as an editorial member of the university publications. She can be reached at

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