Monthly Archives: July 2014

Teach with Case Studies

boredclass“Why are we learning this?”

Ahh, the quintessential query of all students. Perhaps hearing this phrase gives you a pit in your gut; after all, having to defend your investigation of a topic with your students implies that they’re missing a core concept at the start, the why behind the what. So how can you make sure you never hear this question again?

Teach with Case Studies!

For those unfamiliar with case studies, one of the most common types, and that which I’ll be discussing in this post, is the “interrupted” case study. In this format, students are presented with a mystery or problem that must be solved. Students are then given information in a piecemeal fashion, including data, graphs, and charts, and must continually assess and reassess the available information to make a decision on a course of action. This format of problem-solving is a phenomenal way to incorporate real-world science skills in the day-to-day workings of your classroom. These cases are often complex, requiring students to develop analytical and decision-making skills for questions that are messy, complicated, and fun – just like most good science questions are! Teaching with case studies allows you to reinforce the science content you’re learning in your classroom, but more importantly, allows your students to experience how the process of science works. Many true cases also impact public policy, presenting an opportunity to discuss the need for scientific literacy among the general public.

A Few Pointers

Whether you’re new to teaching with case studies or have been teaching with them for years, a few pointers on how to make the most out of each case:

  • Be prepared! Make sure that you’re familiar with the case and have considered areas students might get lost or confused. A solid foundation with the case yourself will make for a much more productive experience.
  • Have them turn in a product! Cases often inspire excellent discussions; however, most students feel more secure in their learning if they are required to turn in some sort of product by the end. This can be as simple as a summary of the case, or can be specific questions and/or reflections on actions that should be taken in the case.
  • When possible, include various media! Particularly when using true case studies, it is often possible to find video clips from news organizations or television shows that highlight the case. Including these in your lesson adds another layer of reality and depth for your students, making them realize that these are real people and real cases, not just some activity their teacher is making them do. All cases listed below have coordinating media available on Youtube and Vimeo.
  • If you can, jump in full force! The more cases you do, the more comfortable you and your students will be with the process. This will, in turn, allow you to have more productive discussions and get the most out of each case.

A Few Examples

Cases I’ve used in my own experience, by topic:

  • Cardiovascular System/Bioethics – “Dennis’s Decision“: This particular case is a true story about Dennis, a boy with leukemia whose religious beliefs are discordant with his treatment options. I left my students hanging over Spring Break with this case, and as they left my room that day for a week off, I heard no less than three times, “Spring break needs to be over so we can find out the rest!”
  • Meiosis – “You Are Not the Mother of your Children”: This case addresses the true story of a woman who almost lost custody of her children when a DNA test indicated that she was not the biological mother of her children. This case was introduced at the beginning of our meiosis unit; students then learned the basics of meiosis, and we came back to the case study a week later. Throughout the entire week between the introduction and resolution, the first question asked at the beginning of each class period was, “Are we going to find out what happened?!”
  • Osmosis – “Water Can Kill: Exploring Effects of Osmosis” : This case follows the true stories of three individuals who all die as a result of ingesting too much water in a short period of time. In my class, we focus primarily on the case of Jennifer Strange, who died after participating in a water-drinking contest to win a video game console from a radio station. Being that so many students are athletes, this often inspires many conversations about safety in practices and training.
  • Cellular Respiration – “The Mystery of the Seven Deaths”: This true case study explores the Chicago Tylenol murders that occurred in 1982 when cyanide was added to Tylenol capsules. When I introduce this story, I don’t tell them up-front that it’s true; the shock they experience when they find out that seven people actually died under such bizarre circumstances is enough to keep them guessing for the rest of the case study.
  • Any topic of your choosing National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) and CASES Online from Emory University : There are literally hundreds of more cases in every life science subject area found at these two websites. All of the previous cases listed above came from the NCCSTS, but I have also used quite a few from CASES Online as well. Both are truly excellent resources.

Final Thoughts

So, why do I use case studies? I could say it’s because it increases their problem-solving ability, their creativity in exploring approaches, their skepticism in considering solutions, and their experience with the “dirty work” of science – all of which are incredibly true! But… you want to know the real reason I teach case studies? It changes their question from “Why are we learning this?” to “When are we learning this?” When that is the question your students ask, you can be confident that they understand the why behind the what – and finally, the real work is ready to begin.

What are some of your favorite cases that you use in your classroom? If you haven’t used any yet, what questions or concerns do you have? Leave your comments/questions/ideas below!


The following articles were used in my research for this blog post. They are all authored by Clyde F. Herreid, Director for the NCCSTS.






 Caitlin Schecker has a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Science Education, specializing in Biology education. She has absolutely loved teaching at Bishop McLaughlin Catholic High School in Spring Hill, Florida for the past five years. She has served as a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow.