An Introduction to the Case Study Method: Preparation, Analysis, and Participation*
A case study is a written description of a problem or situation. Unlike other forms of stories and narrations, a case study does not include analysis or conclusions but only the facts of a story arranged in a chronological sequence. The purpose of a case study is to place participants in the role of decision-makers, asking them to distinguish pertinent from peripheral facts, to identify central alternatives among several issues competing for attention, and to formulate strategies and policy recommendations. The method provides an opportunity to sharpen problem-solving skills and to improve the ability to think and reason rigorously.
Most cases depict real situations. In some instances, the data are disguised, and infrequently, the case may be fictional. Cases are not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive. Most cases are snapshots of a particular situation within a complex environment.
The focus of a case study is on a main protagonist who is shown at the point of a major decision. Typically, the information presented is only what was available to the protagonist in the real situation on which the case is based. Thus, as in real life, important information is often unavailable or incomplete. Because a case study describes reality, it may be frustrating. “Real-life” is ambiguous, and cases reflect that reality. A “right” answer or “correct solution” is rarely apparent.
Although the case study method is principally used in the development and improvement of management skill and leadership ability, its usefulness is not limited to this field. For example, case study pedagogy is also used to teach medical diagnosis to doctors, classroom skills to teachers, and legal decision-making to lawyers. This educational method is useful whenever decision-making must be derived primarily from skillful analysis, choice, and persuasion. The case study method actively engages the participant in these processes: first, in the analysis of the facts and details of the case itself; second, in the selection of a strategy; and third, in the refinement and defense of the chosen strategy in the discussion group and before the class. The case method does not provide a set of solutions, but rather refines the student’s ability to ask the appropriate questions and to make decisions based upon his or her answers to those questions.
* This note was prepared by Sharon A. McDade, Director of the Institute for Educational Management. It was based in part on information included in similar notes on the case method from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration, the Institute for Educational Management, and the Institute for Management of Lifelong Education. Copyright © 1988 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
The case study method is demanding and requires significant preparation time. It is intended to build on experiences of the class members and to allow them to learn from one another as well as from the materials and from faculty members. Differences in analysis among participants and faculty members typically arise, and conflicting recommendations emerge as participants with varied perspectives, experiences, and professional responsibilities consider the case.
Preparation of a case for class discussion varies with the background, concerns, and natural interests of participants. In general, it is helpful to follow these steps:
1. Skim the text quickly to establish the broad issues of the case and the types of information presented for analysis.
2. Reread the case very carefully, underlining key facts as you go.
3. Note on scratch paper the key problems. Then go through the case again and sort out the relevant considerations and decisions for each problem area.
4. Prioritize these problems and alternatives.
5. Develop a set of recommendations to address these problems.
6. Evaluate your decisions.
A more detailed analysis process is provided for you in the “CASE ANALYSIS RUBRIC”
• Assert your ideas and prepare to support them.
• Keep an open mind, yet be willing to change it upon new insights or evidence.
• Make a decision; do not avoid or equivocate.
• Enjoy yourself.
General Notes on Case Studies
A case should seem difficult. If a case seems difficult, it is invariably because the student is thinking and has recognized a need for additional information. There is no such thing as a state of perfect knowledge and all decisions are made under varying degrees of uncertainty. It is just as important to know what information is missing, and its relative importance, as it is to be able to decide upon a course of action.
All cases are not meant to be alike. All cases do not require identical emphasis. Many students who enjoy case analyses in one discipline may be frustrated by cases in another field. In certain disciplines, problem identification and definition alone may be emphasized because of the nature of the discipline; in other fields problems may be elusive but solutions relatively obvious. Development of alternatives may be emphasized to a greater degree in certain other cases.
CASE STUDY RUBRIC
Become familiar with case substanceWhat are the facts? What is happening? Is all relevant information available to you?
Determine central issuesWhat decisions need to be made? Who is responsible for making decisions? What factors, issues, and consequences need to be taken into account?
Identify objectives and goals to be achievedWhich outcomes are possible? Which are desirable? Which objectives are most important to whom?
Ascertain resources and constraintsWhich forces support and oppose which
actions? Which resources can be marshaled in support
of actions? What are the major obstacles?
Ascertain the nature of conflictsWhat is the substance of conflicts? Can conflicting positions and plans be reconciled?
Identify dynamics of behaviorWho is exercising leadership? Are there interpersonal conflicts? Are the persons involved effective in support of their respective positions?
Determine major alternativesAre there ideas and strategies that have not
been presented? Is compromise possible? Are the alternatives complementary or
of likely decisions
and actionsWhat actions are likely to result from the
What unintended consequences might emerge?
What are the short and long term conse¬quences for the individuals and the institutions?
45 pointsWhat are the most effective ways of
achieving and implementing the objectives