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.


19 thoughts on “Teach with Case Studies”

Great info, Caitlin! I love that you gave us some examples that you’ve actually used in your classes. Sometimes case studies can be totally above my freshmen’s heads, but adding in additional media would help I’m sure!

    Case studies can definitely be a bit high-level for our freshmen; I hear you on that! However, I’ve found that a fair amount of them can be adapted to fit freshmen-level Biology objectives. It may require a bit of legwork in writing new questions, but it absolutely pays off 🙂

I’m sold. Great blog entry, I use one or two case studies per year, but after thinking about what you wrote, I will be using them more and more often. Thanks again, really well done.

    That’s great to hear, Daniel! What you said is actually one of the strongest recommendations from the NCCSTS; the more you can add case studies into your instruction, the better. It helps both you and the students become familiar with that type of learning process and problem-solving, which makes them more skilled at it the more you do it. Can’t wait to hear about the new cases you use this year!

Thanks for the post! I’ve used case studies from NCCSTS in my upper level college course, but I think that now I will try a couple you’ve recommended for my Intro Bio course.

    The kids love them! One of the things I always love hearing is the kids saying, “Oh, you can just call me Dr. Smith”, subbing in their own last name of course 🙂 Even when it’s just this “role-playing” in a case study, the kids have told me that the process actually makes them consider going to med school or being a doctor, even though they’d never considered it before. It really opens their eyes to how exciting it is to “diagnose” and come up w/ a treatment plan for a patient!

    Also, which upper level college course do you primarily use them for? Are there particular topics that you’re considering using a case study for in your Intro Bio course? Perhaps I’ve got a few other recommendations of ones I’ve used successfully. I’m always happy to share everything I’ve used!

Thank you for the post, great blog! I am new to case studies and look forward to using them in the fall. How would you say using case studies differs between a regular Bio and AP Bio class? I am trying to decipher how much the classes should look similiar and how much they should differ? Do you have any advice?
Thank you,
Cathia Acton

    This is a phenomenal question. I’m actually teaching AP Biology for the first time this coming year; so far, I’ve only personally used case studies in 9th-grade Bio and Anat/Phys. However, from what I’ve gathered as I’ve prepared my AP Bio course, there’s 2 main things I think should be differentiated between 9th grade Bio and AP Bio.

    When using cases in AP Bio, try to focus on:
    1) Using cases that represent a “breakdown” in a process. As you know, the AP Bio exam has a lot of application-style questions. Finding a case that makes the kids examine a “breakdown” in one of the processes they’ve had to learn is a good tie-in to an AP-style question. The case that jumps out at me for this is the Tylenol case I referenced above; it’s all about how cyanide blocks oxygen as the final electron acceptor in the ETC, thereby stopping oxidative phosphorylation. That same case provides them with data (another AP connection) that they then have to examine and compare to the steps of aerobic cellular respiration. All of these skills tie into the Science Practices laid out by the College Board. The Tylenol case is obviously just one example, but I would try to keep a keen eye for other cases that satisfy at least some of those requirements. (With all that being said – I use this Tylenol case w/ my 9th grade Bio kids and they still love it. It takes them a bit longer, and I edit down some of the data/questions provided, but it can still work for them quite well.)

    2) Using a case study to help students apply what they know, especially in a unit that’s mostly prior knowledge. One that jumps out at me would be like using the “Water Can Kill” case to review osmotic solutions. Your kids should have learned about hyper-, hypo-, and isotonic solutions in 9th-grade Bio. Rather than doing direct instruction (or video instruction) to remind students of these, try giving them a case study first at the beginning of the unit and seeing how much they can remember, researching what they don’t, and then picking up as a class once they’ve “solved” the case.

    As you can see, I really love talking about how to best use these in class – if you’ve got more questions, please feel free to ask!

What are some of the most productive, as compared to the worst methods, of incorporating case studies into the classroom? I view my courses as multi-faceted in which not all activities take place exclusively within the classroom. I often incorporate case studies as out-of-class assignments that will also provide a theme for other class work over the course of 1-2 weeks.

    I love your idea of using them as an “out-of-class” assignment, Carol! For the most part, I’ve used my cases in “regular” level classes (as wells as Honors Biology); however, I really think that it would be quite reasonable to assign some of these as an at-home assignment for my AP Bio kids. Thanks for the great idea!

    Most productive versus worst methods – I truly think the best thing you can do when working with case studies is BE PREPARED (yes, it requires caps!). I have found very few case studies that I can use “out of the box” with my students; the majority of them require some editing in some way, like the order I’ll present them, the questions that are asked, the vocabulary used, etc. If you DON’T take this time to become familiar with the case and thoughtfully consider how your students can best experience the case, it’s easy for the students to become frustrated. Things you’ll want to look out for when adapting cases for a high school level class are:
    1) Perhaps the questions are a bit too high-level
    2) They haven’t been taught all the prior knowledge they need.
    3) It’s even possible that the “flow” of the case isn’t really conducive to the grade level you’re working with; for instance, perhaps the students are given a large amount of necessary data, but not enough “breaks” within which to digest the information.

    Now, I know that hearing that we have to invest time into planning a new lesson is nearly always the kiss of death – who has the time?! But, I PROMISE you, investing the time to make a case custom-fit for your students will pay you incredible dividends. The time investment doesn’t even have to be huge – possibly only an hour. And, just like all of our other lessons – once you invest the time one time, you’re likely to save all that time for the next year!

    Final note – I personally prefer to use the “interrupted case study” style the most, the one I described in my blog. There are others, such as “clicker-cases” where the class gets all the info at the same time in a larger group, they “vote” on particular possible diagnoses, etc… But I’ve found that for high-schoolers, they typically don’t have the attention span or prior knowledge necessary for these cases to flow well. However, I would love to hear feedback from any other teachers who use any other style of case study often!

I really like teaching with case studies because it gives students a more open opportunity to discover information. I particularly like using them when teaching content that is more ambiguous such as environmental science. Case studies can be used as individual assignments where students read and prepare a response or they can be used in preparation for classroom debates. My seniors have become quite adept to preparing their own case studies based on current events but I always appreciate the ones that have been thoughtfully prepared by experts (and especially the ones that don’t present a one-sided argument). I’ve found doing case studies based on issues in other parts of the world also gets my students to think more globally. It also makes me popular with the history and literature teachers when we can address science along with culture.

    What grade level do you typically assign cases to as individual assignments? I haven’t done that up to this point yet, but am interested in how other teachers have implemented that process.

    I like the idea of having your seniors develop their own cases! Do you have an assignment description that outlines expectations for students to create their own? If so, I’d love to see it; that would be a great item to add to the LifeSciTRC!

    I love your idea of using cases that encourage students to think globally; I haven’t used many like that just yet, but what a fantastic idea!

Great article Caitlin. I have some experience using case studies in my upper division physiology classes, but not in my general biology classes. Your article has inspired me to include case-studies with freshmen-level students. Too often general biology students can’t make the connection to the topics discussed (mitosis/meiosis, properties of water, chemistry of life, etc.) to their own lives. The case study examples you used are excellent examples for how biology is REAL today. Thanks for sharing.

    Thanks for your feedback, Jessica! I really do love using them with my general biology classes. As you said, they’re a really great way for kids to make connections to the real world. As we know, all the current pedagogical research shows that “discovery” style learning translates to longer-term storage of information. I had our Chemistry teacher come to me one day and say, “So, we were talking about water today, and Sally was so excited about swelling of the brain caused by drinking too much!” When I heard that, I knew it was a case I had to keep 😛

    Let me know what cases you decide to use with Bio this year!

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Thank you Caitlin,
I just started using case studies in my undergraduate anatomy class. I agree that the students like to hand in a document. I wish I would have thought through some of the possible confusing areas because in some case studies, what looked obvious to me, was confusing to the students. It did prove to be a good point of discussion ion the class though.

Thank you for posting this!  It is one of the things that I always think about doing more of in class but didn’t know exactly where to start!

I also use case studies, but I have only used them as an application of material after we have learned it. I love your idea of starting them before the content! The most recent case study I used was from the database you mentioned and is about mercury in fish. I used it as an application of food webs and the concept of bioaccumulation. I added a few things to what was written on the case study sheet to make it more of a project. I ended it by having them look up local mercury advisories (the case study was about mercury in a different state than ours).

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