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Blog 247

Blog 247

Case Studies and the Case Study Method as Pedagogical Practice

By James C. Simeon

Case studies and the case study method are the standard pedagogical practice found in professional programs such as law, business, medicine, engineering, public policy, and public administration, among others. Case studies have been described in the following terms,

Case studies is an instructional method (not a theory) that refers to assigned scenarios based on situations in which students observe, analyze, record, implement, conclude, summarize, or recommend. Case studies are created and used as a tool for analysis and discussion.[1]

Law schools use written legal judgements, case law, rendered by the courts to teach students the law in particular jurisdictions as well as legal reasoning and analysis, and an understanding of stare decisis, and to be able to distinguish the ratio decidendi from the obiter dictum. And, of course, to teach students “to think like a lawyer.”[2]

Business schools rely on case studies to instruct students on the essentials of business such as financial management, budgeting and accounting, strategic management, marketing and branding, managing people, negotiating, and so on. Perhaps the foremost case study based academic business program, and best known, is the Harvard Business School. Its two-year Master’s in Business Administration (MBA) is considered, at least reputationally, to be among the best.[3] The Harvard MBA Program is structured on the following lines:

Through the rich case- and experience-based curriculum at Harvard Business School, students build deep general management and leadership skills, setting the foundation for lifelong impact on how they lead.

The case method brings leadership to life. Students step into the shoes of case protagonists, real business leaders, and learn to make tough decisions as they are challenged by the diverse perspectives of classmates. Students then apply this learning in experiential field programs and independent studies to practice what it means to become a leader who makes a difference in the world.

… Through case method classes, FIELD projects, multimedia simulations, and more, you’ll exercise the leadership skills you will practice in business and beyond.[4]

A case studies-based curriculum with a year-long experiential education project working on a team based “real life” business venture for a large international company anywhere in the world is an entirely unique graduate educational experience that is intended to develop business leaders for the future.

Medical schools also employ the case study method for their education of physicians. One recent study found that the case study method provided medical students with highly valuable practical experience in clinical practice.

The study showed that the case method helped students find solutions required by clinical situations, as they used not only theoretical knowledge, but also acquired practical skills and clinical experience. The case method also increases students’ confidence in their professional abilities.[5] 

The case study method is widely applied in the Schools of Public Policy and Administration that offer Master’s in Public Administration (MPA), and uniquely at York University, a Master’s in Public Policy, Administration, and Law (MPPAL), that prepare students for careers in the public sector and, specifically, within the public service, whether, local, provincial, or territorial, the federal government, or within international organizations such as the United Nations. Case studies are also a staple for in-service training and professional development programs as well.[6]

Given that case studies are widely used in professional programs for the purposes of principally teaching problem solving skills within “real life” scenarios, it is very much akin to simulation exercises.[7] The case study puts the student in the role of the protagonist who must address the problem(s) and issue(s) presented in the case study. These problem-based case learning approaches and methods are vital to in-service training and ongoing professional development for those in the professions.

There are substantial benefits for the case study method of instruction for students. For instance, Niti Nohria, former professor and Dean at the Harvard Business School, has noted that students remember concepts better when they are set in a case study, they teach students how to apply theory to practice and how to induce theory from practice, and the case method cultivates the capacity for critical analysis, judgement, decision-making, and action.[8] But even more to the point, Nohria argues, the case study method teaches “meta-skills.” Meta-skills are defined as “a group of long-lasting abilities that allow someone to learn new things more quickly.”[9] Nohria identifies seven key meta-skills that students acquire through the case study method. They include:

  1. Preparation – Learning to be prepared – to read materials in advance, prioritize, identify key issues, and have an initial point of view.
  2. Discernment – The case method forces students to identify and focus on what is essential, ignore the noise, skim when possible, and concentrate on what matters.
  3. Bias Recognition – Recognizing and correcting personal bias is an essential meta-skill in the professions when leaders must work with people with different functions, backgrounds, and perspectives.
  4. Judgement – The case method develops the judgement of making decisions under uncertainty, communicating that decision to others, and gaining their buy-in, all essential leadership skills.
  5. Collaboration – Better decisions are made when there is extended give-and-take, debate, and deliberation. Students internalize the art of being able to work effectively and productively with others and get better at leading group and team discussions.
  6. Curiosity – Case studies stimulate curiosity about the range of opportunities in the world and this makes them more agile, more adaptive, and being open to doing a wider range of things in their careers.
  7. Self-Confidence – Case studies afford students with the opportunity to assume roles through the cases that far outstrip their prior experience or capability, often as leaders of teams or organizations in unfamiliar settings. These stretch assignments help to increase the students’ self-confidence as they rise to the challenge.[10]

These seven universal skills and abilities are the key and essential meta-skills that the case study method can provide to students.

The case study method relies on proven problem-solving case analysis models and techniques that develop and refine students’ individual and team-based, collective, decision-making skills that are centred on: (1) issue(s) or problem(s) identification; (2) distinguishing the core issue/problem and its cause(s) and not its symptoms; (3) develop feasible alternative issue/problem solving strategies; (4) evaluating the problem solving strategies and select the optimal solution; and, (5) developing and executing the implementation plan to achieve the optimal solution.[11] Learning how to effectively and efficiently analyze case studies develops and refines a student’s decision-making abilities and skills, and as noted, it is an essential meta-skill, judgement.

Higher education is intended to provide students with transformative learning[12] that will allow them to take on the leadership roles within society upon their graduation. Case studies and the case study method is an essential pedagogical practice in acquiring a broad set of specific skill sets, including professional practice experience, as well as these seven critical meta-skills that can lead to students being transformed by their learning experience. And, perhaps, just as critical, the necessary and essential “leadership skills” to make fundamental positive and progressive impacts across all sectors of society.

About the Author

Dr. James C. Simeon is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy and Administration (SPPA), Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies, and a former Head of McLaughlin College, Director of the SPPA, and a former Acting Director and Deputy Director at the Centre for Refugee Studies (CRS), at York University, Toronto, Canada.

[1] “Theory Name: Case Study Method of Instruction,” Instructional Design Theory Database Project, Syracuse University, (accessed August 20, 2023)

[2] Mark A. Cohen, “What Are Law Schools Training Students For?” Forbes, November 18, 2018, (accessed August 21, 2023)

[3] Anna Papadopoulos, “The Business Schools in the World for 2023,” CEOWORLD Magazine, January 4, 2023, (accessed August 21, 2023()

[4] Harvard Business School, MBA, “We Challenge You to Think Differently,” (accessed August 20, 2023) and see especially the video on this page, Harvard Business School, “Inside the Case Method.”

[5] Oleksandr Y. Korniichuk, Leonid M. Bambyzov, Valentyna M. Kosenko, Anastasiya M. Spaska, Yaroslav V. Tsekhmister, “Application of the Case Study Method in Medical Education,” International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research, Vol. 20, No. 7, pp. 175-191, July 2021, file:///C:/Users/jcsimeon/Downloads/3927-15388-1-PB%20(1).pdf. (accessed August 20, 2023)

[6] See as an example, the Institute of Public Administration of Canada (IPAC), “The Case Study Program,” (accessed August 20, 2023)

[7] Alyson Eisenhardt, DHS, and Susanne Bruno Ninassi, J.D., “The Use of Simulations and Cases to Teach Real World Decision-Making: Applied Example for Health Care Management Graduate Programs,” Journal of Learning in Higher Education, Spring 2016, Vol. 12, No. 1, pp. 71-75., (accessed August 21, 2023); “Teaching with Simulations,” Pedagogy in Action: the SERC Portal for Educators,,behavior%20by%20simulating%20a%20market. (accessed August 21, 2023). Instructional simulations are described as, “When students use a model of behavior to gain a better understanding of that behavior, they are doing a simulation.”

[8] Nitin Nohria, “What the Case Study Method Really Teaches,” Harvard Business Review, December 21, 2021,,decision%2Dmaking%2C%20and%20action. (accessed August 21, 2023)

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] James C. Simeon, “Introduction,” Case Studies in Public Management and Administration. (Concord, Ontario: Captus Press Inc., 2009); “Case Study Analysis,” UNB Writing Centre, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, file:///C:/Users/jcsimeon/Downloads/casestudyanalysis%20handout.pdf. (accessed August 21, 2023); “Writing a Case Study Analysis,” The University of Arizona, Global Campus, Writing Centre, (accessed August 21, 2023)

[12] “What is the transformative learning theory?” Teaching & Education, Western Governors University, WGU, July 17, 2020, (accessed August 21, 2023); Ivan Andreev, “Transformative Learning,” Learning Theories, Valamis, Updated July 5, 2023, (accessed August 21, 2023)