Monthly Archives: October 2014

How I Learned to Write, Use, and Evaluate Case Studies


I have been using case studies in my courses for a few years now in order to improve student engagement. In a nutshell, case studies are stories that stimulate student interest in a topic as well as hone critical thinking skills.  Many of the cases I have used in my general biology course and my second-year nursing pathophysiology course have come from the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS) website. I was introduced to this wonderful collection of case studies through the LifeSciTRC. The NCCSTS website contains a variety of different styles of case studies for many subject areas in the sciences.  In order to expand the collection, the center offers training programs such as a five-day case study writing workshop each May in Buffalo, NY.  I decided to attend this year in order to learn how to write my own case studies.

Different Types of Case Studies

The director, Dr. Clyde (Kipp) Herreid, began the week by introducing different types of case studies and demonstrating different methods of delivering them in the classroom.  Examples of case study formats include analysis cases which involve contemporary or historical issues.  Students work through the information in the case to see what actually occurred and discuss possible measures that could have been taken to alter the outcome.  In contrast, dilemma or decision cases present students with a situation to analyze and determine for themselves what action could be taken.  Dr. Herried also informed us that the timing of case studies delivery within a course unit can vary.  Trigger cases, given at the beginning of a topic prompt the student to investigate the subject further, while capstone cases used at the end summarize the previous material and stimulate further application of concepts.

Methods of Teaching Case Studies

Dr. Herreid demonstrated various methods of case study teaching to our workshop group which included standard lecture style, directed discussions, interrupted cases, and team learning.  Interrupted case studies consist of information delivered in sequential parts, interrupted with questions for the student.  He explained additional techniques such as public hearings, debates, trials, clicker-cases, and individual, directed case studies resulting in researched, written responses from the students.

National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science Collection

A number of case studies from the NCCSTS collection can be found in the LifeSciTRC.  The most popular case based on downloads (according to Dr. Herreid) is Chemical Eric – Dealing with Disintegration of Central Control written by Eric Ribbens.  This is a fine example of the interrupted case study method chronicling a patient’s life long issues with hypersecretion of pituitary hormones.  This case study, along with the other 500 plus cases on the website, includes teaching notes and answer keys (available to educators who register).

Writing and Presenting Case Studies

After two and half days of learning about different types of case studies, we began the process of writing our own.  Some people came prepared with material to write their own case study, while others worked in partners.  This was especially appealing to those new to the process.  Not only were our workshop facilitators available to help with the writing process, we also bounced ideas off of each other.

Learning to write our own case studies for publication on the NCCSTS website was one of the main objectives of this workshop. However, to see if our cases were effective, we had to teach them to classes of paid, keen students during the remaining two days.  Watching my fellow workshop participants guide their classes of 16 students through their cases turned out to be the highlight of my week!

If you would like to learn more about the NCCSTS case study collection or find out about training opportunities for learning to write case studies, check out their website.





Julie Dais is a LifeSciTRC Scholar and Fellow who teaches at Okanagan College in British Columbia. Julie teaches a variety of first and second year courses including biology for non-majors and second-year Health Sciences. At the end of the day, she hopes her students will want to learn more about biology and health beyond the classroom.