What is Case Based Instruction?

On this post, we will talk about:

What is case-based instruction?

What is a case and what constitute a case?

What is case-based instruction

Cases or stories have been used in human society for thousands of years. In the ancient times, the elders passed down knowledge to the younger generation by “telling stories”.   And in daily conversation, people can quickly draw the audience’s attention and share experiences by telling either personal stories or the stories they heard.  Because the stories are real-life, relevant (e.g. last time, I did the same thing …). Most importantly, stories are interesting and easy to learn. Cases have been used in assisting students’ learning in various disciplines such as medicine, law and teacher education. This approach is often called case-based instruction or case method.

Case-based instruction presents students with a complex situation, namely a case. Students are asked to analyze and solve the problems through reflection and discussion (Allen, Otto, & Hoffman, 2000). Compared to the traditional academic curriculum of focusing on the explicit knowledge, case-based instructions focus on the development of active knowledge (Whitehead, 1929).

Case-based instructions are more effective than didactic teaching methods because they (a) more accurately represent the complexity and ambiguity of real-life problems, (b) provide a framework for making explicit the problem-solving processes of both novice (student) and expert (instructor), and (c) provide a means for helping students develop the kind of problem-solving strategies that practicing professionals use (Julian et al., 2000).

More specifically, case-based instruction can help students focus on the big picture, work forward from what they know, simultaneously consider multiple factors, generate tentative solutions and consider potential consequences and implications to become expert problem-solvers (Stepich, 2001).

Watch videos to learn how professors from Harvard Business School use case methods in teaching, and what professors and students think of this approach for assisting their teaching or learning:

Inside the Case Method, Part 1 of 2 (Harvard):

Inside the Case Method, Part 2 of 2 (Harvard):

Perspectives on the Case Method:

Case Method in Action:


Allen, B. S., Otto, R. G., & Hoffman, B. (2000). Case-based learning: Contexts and communities of practice. Training and retraining: A handbook for business, industry, government and the military. New York: Macmillan/Gale.

North Whitehead, A. (1929). The Aims of Education and Other Essays.

Julian, M. F., Kinzie, M. B., & Larsen, V. A. (2000). Compelling case experiences; performance, practice, and application for emerging instructional designers. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 13(3), 164-201.

Stepich, D. A., Ertmer, P. A., & Lane, M. M. (2001). Problem-solving in a case-based course: Strategies for facilitating coached expertise. Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(3), 53-67.

 What is a case and what constitutes a case?

Based on the suggestion from Stanford University’s Newsletter on Teaching Vol. 5, No. 2 – Teaching with Case Studies.

Most cases are either based on real events, or are a construction of events which could take place. They tell a story, usually involving issues or conflicts that need to be resolved – though most case studies do not have one obvious or clear solution. The information contained in a case study might be complex (including charts, graphs, and relevant historical background materials) or simple — a human story that illustrates a difficult situation requiring a decision.

Or in Penn Sate’s Case Writing Guide, cases “are designed to provide references to different aspects related to the problem confronted.”  Usually, cases constitute these elements:

  • A problem or situation
  • Chosen solutions
  • And the outcome of the solution

Most of time, students are asked to analyze and reason how and why a solution succeed or fails.