Number. 10 © CDTL 2003
The Student’s Role in Case-based Learning
Associate Professor Alice Christudason
Department of Real Estate / Associate Director, CDTL

In framing learning activities for you, your teacher has access to an extensive menu of tools and approaches such as problem-based learning, project-based learning, role-play, field placements and the case method (which is discussed here). 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 may/may not be literal accounts of actual incidents. But 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 does a teacher adopt this method?

When your teacher employs the case-method, s/he often intends to take a ‘back-seat’ and allow learning to take place through discussion-based and experiential learning arising from an exchange of ideas. This is unlike situations where the teacher lays emphasis on mastery of facts and technical processes, or formal logic of models and concepts. Hence, case-based learning may be more frequently used in the Humanities and Social Sciences than in the ‘hard’ Sciences.

Presentation/format of the case

The substance of the case study may come in various forms: text only, text and figures, text and maps, text and pictures, or even illustrations only; however, generally these are anchored on real-life situations and contain the ingredients described above. Your teacher may exploit newspaper articles as they have a currency that you can relate to. It is even possible to use just pictures or cartoons; students will then have to glean from the picture which facts are material to the discussion at hand.

How can I prepare for case-based learning?

In preparing a case for discussion, your teacher would primarily wish to assess your grasp of a particular topic/area. S/he would provide you with the material facts, issues and calculations (if any). There may be some deliberate gaps in the information provided as the teacher may expect you to make assumptions when you proceed to deal with the issues. Beware: there may be some ‘red herrings’. But be assured that your teacher will structure some, if not most, of the questions so as to focus your discussion. The questions posed may also have no ‘correct’ answer so that there is more scope for discussion and the possibility of various perspectives.

For the case method to succeed, it is imperative that students do their part as well. They should do the background reading and attempt the questions the teacher has structured. For this purpose, your teacher may have assigned parts of the questions to different students. This requires students to engage in sub-group discussions in preparation for the tutorial/seminar.

Here is a list of matters you may wish to wish to consider during your preparation:

  • What is the decision to be made?
  • What are the key issues to consider in order to reach a decision?
  • Are there specific constraints the actors may face within the environment in which the decision is to be reached?
  • Are there alternative actions the decision maker may take?
  • What would I do? Why?

Your teacher’s role

During the case-study discussion, your teacher’s role is not so much to tell the students what the answer is, but to steer the discussion so as to encourage learning. The teacher will consciously step aside to facilitate the process of joint inquiry by shaping, moulding, questioning, suggesting, highlighting, refuting and approving. This approach may be contradictory to what you have been accustomed to in your earlier years of education—where a teacher’s role was to provide answers—and thus, may take some getting used to.

How do I know if the case method works for me?

Indicators of a successful case discussion are a high level of student-to-student/student-to-teacher discussion and involvement (which presupposes preparation), and instructor direction, not domination. The emphasis is therefore on the process, although the knowledge acquired must not be undervalued. Your learning will be enhanced as the relationship between knowledge and practice become clearer to you (remember, the case study information is generally anchored on real-life situations).



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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