Volume 1
February 2003
A Case for Case-Based Learning
Associate Professor Alice Christudason
Department of Real Estate
Associate Director, CDTL

Achieving our objectives.

There is already a veritable smorgasbord of teaching/learning approaches which have been proven to enhance learning outcomes. These include problem-based learning, project-based learning, role-play and field placements. The method discussed here is the use of case studies as an effective teaching/learning method. The common thread running through each of these approaches is that they are student-centred, with students taking, (or being allocated) greater responsibility for their learning.

What is a case?

A case has been described as “an account of events that seem to include enough intriguing decision points and provocative undercurrents to make a discussion group want to think and argue about them” (Barnes et al., 1994). Cases need not be literal accounts of actual incidents (though they may be); however, the characters, situations and dilemmas described must ring true and represent experiences so as to prompt meaningful discussion. Complex and information-rich, cases depict incidents that are open to interpretation—raising questions rather than answering them, encouraging problem solving, calling forth collective intelligence and varied perspectives (Hutchings, 1993).

When is it appropriate to adopt this method?

Does the teacher wish to emphasise authority, expertise, order and discipline, or to allow learning to take place through discussion-based and experiential learning arising from an exchange of ideas? If your field of specialisation can accommodate the latter (and I believe that there is much scope for this in the Humanities and selectively in the Sciences), then the case method is certainly a useful teaching/learning approach.

How may a teacher prepare the case?

It is first necessary to identify the topic/area which you wish to assess your students’ grasp of. Then the material facts, issues and calculations (if any) must be clearly presented. It may even be a good idea to throw in some ‘red herrings’. Next, it is useful to structure some of the questions and anticipate others and the students should need to use the information provided to address these questions. It would be preferable if the problem posed has no ‘correct’ answer. Students may be required to make assumptions. Last but not least, it is important for the teacher to be clear as to what direction the discussion should take.

I have found that the newspapers invariably offer an array of ‘cases’ which may be suitable for discussing a legal principle. For example, I may use just a photograph of a collapsed building, or a falling object which injures a passer-by, or a crack in the flooring to discuss the legal principles pertaining to Occupiers’ Liability or Negligence or Easements when teaching Property-Related torts and Land Law. Students will then have to glean from the picture which facts are material to the discussion at hand.

How should students be instructed to prepare for the case-based discussion?

For the case method to succeed, it is imperative that students do their part as well. They should have done the background reading, and attempted the questions the teacher has structured. For this purpose, it would be useful to require students to have engaged in sub-group discussions in preparation for the tutorial/seminar.

The tutorial/seminar.

When conducting the case-study discussion, the teacher’s task is not so much to teach the students as to encourage learning; the teacher must consciously facilitate the process of joint inquiry by shaping, moulding, questioning, suggesting, highlighting, refuting and approving.

So, how’s the discussion going?

Indicators of a successful case discussion are a high level of student-to-student discussion and involvement, and instructor direction, not domination. The emphasis is therefore on the process, although the knowledge acquired must not be undervalued. The learning outcome is enhanced in that the relationship of knowledge to practice is clearer. Although said in relation to the medical field, this remark sums up the usefulness of the case method:

To study the phenomena of disease without books is to sail an uncharted sea; while to study books without patients is not to go to sea at all
—Sir William Osler



Barnes, Louis B.; Christensen, C. Roland; & Hansen, Abby J. (1994). Teaching and the Case Method: Text, Cases, and Readings (3rd ed). Boston Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

Hutchings, Pat. (1993). Using Cases to Improve College Teaching: A Guide to More Reflective Practice. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.

Lynn, Laurence E. Jr. (1996). What is the Case Method?: A Guide and Casebook. Japan: Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development (FASID).

Lynn, Laurence E. Jr. (1999). Teaching and Learning with Cases: A Guidebook. New York: Chatham House Publishers.


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National University of Singapore
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