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What Is a Case Study?

When you’re performing research as part of your job or for a school assignment, you’ll probably come across case studies that help you to learn more about the topic at hand. But what is a case study and why are they helpful? Read on to learn all about case studies.

Deep Dive into a Topic

At face value, a case study is a deep dive into a topic. Case studies can be found in many fields, particularly across the social sciences and medicine. When you conduct a case study, you create a body of research based on an inquiry and related data from analysis of a group, individual or controlled research environment.

As a researcher, you can benefit from the analysis of case studies similar to inquiries you’re currently studying. Researchers often rely on case studies to answer questions that basic information and standard diagnostics cannot address.

Study a Pattern

One of the main objectives of a case study is to find a pattern that answers whatever the initial inquiry seeks to find. This might be a question about why college students are prone to certain eating habits or what mental health problems afflict house fire survivors. The researcher then collects data, either through observation or data research, and starts connecting the dots to find underlying behaviors or impacts of the sample group’s behavior.

Gather Evidence

During the study period, the researcher gathers evidence to back the observed patterns and future claims that’ll be derived from the data. Since case studies are usually presented in the professional environment, it’s not enough to simply have a theory and observational notes to back up a claim. Instead, the researcher must provide evidence to support the body of study and the resulting conclusions.

Present Findings

As the study progresses, the researcher develops a solid case to present to peers or a governing body. Case study presentation is important because it legitimizes the body of research and opens the findings to a broader analysis that may end up drawing a conclusion that’s more true to the data than what one or two researchers might establish. The presentation might be formal or casual, depending on the case study itself.

Draw Conclusions

Once the body of research is established, it’s time to draw conclusions from the case study. As with all social sciences studies, conclusions from one researcher shouldn’t necessarily be taken as gospel, but they’re helpful for advancing the body of knowledge in a given field. For that purpose, they’re an invaluable way of gathering new material and presenting ideas that others in the field can learn from and expand upon.


case studies in education research

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Case studies.

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Case studies are stories that are used as a teaching tool to show the application of a theory or concept to real situations. Dependent on the goal they are meant to fulfill, cases can be fact-driven and deductive where there is a correct answer, or they can be context driven where multiple solutions are possible. Various disciplines have employed case studies, including humanities, social sciences, sciences, engineering, law, business, and medicine. Good cases generally have the following features: they tell a good story, are recent, include dialogue, create empathy with the main characters, are relevant to the reader, serve a teaching function, require a dilemma to be solved, and have generality.

Instructors can create their own cases or can find cases that already exist. The following are some things to keep in mind when creating a case:

To find other cases that already exist, try the following websites:

For more information:

Book Review :  Teaching and the Case Method , 3rd ed., vols. 1 and 2, by Louis Barnes, C. Roland (Chris) Christensen, and Abby Hansen. Harvard Business School Press, 1994; 333 pp. (vol 1), 412 pp. (vol 2).

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Using Case Study in Education Research

Subject index

This book provides an accessible introduction to using case studies. It makes sense of literature in this area, and shows how to generate collaborations and communicate findings.

The authors bring together the practical and the theoretical, enabling readers to build expertise on the principles and practice of case study research, as well as engaging with possible theoretical frameworks. They also highlight the place of case study as a key component of educational research.

With the help of this book, graduate students, teacher educators and practitioner researchers will gain the confidence and skills needed to design and conduct a high quality case study.

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Educational Research Methods

case studies in education research

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case studies in education research

Case study in a common methodology used in educational research, and there a are many published studies in education which are considered by their authors to be case studies .

Characteristics of case study :

Case study is by its nature idiographic work, and usually tends to be interpretive .

"Studies such as these build upon the analysis of single settings or occurrences. They treat each case as empirically distinct and, in contrast to survey analysis, do not automatically presume that different instances can be thrown together to form a homogenous aggregate." (Hamilton, 1980, p.79.)

Hamilton, David (1980) Some contrasting assumptions about case study research and survey analysis, in Simons, Helen (ed.) Towards a Science of the Singular: Essays about Case Study in Educational Research and Evaluation , Norwich: Centre for Applied Research in Education, UEA, pp.78-92.

“Case study is a methodology used to explore a particular instance in detail …The instance has to be identifiable as having clear boundaries and could be a lesson, the teaching of a scheme of work in a school department, a university teaching department, a group visit to a museum by one class of students, etc. … Although case study looks at an identifiable instance, it is normally naturalistic, exploring the case in its usual context, rather than attempting to set up a clinical setting - which would often not be viable even if considered useful, as often the case is embedded in its natural context in ways that influence its characteristics (so moving a teacher and a class from their normal setting, to a special research classroom in a university, for example, is likely to change behaviours that would be exhibited in the ‘natural’ setting).”

Taber, K. S. (2014). Methodological issues in science education research: a perspective from the philosophy of science. In M. R. Matthews (Ed.), International Handbook of Research in History, Philosophy and Science Teaching (Vol. 3, pp. 1839-1893). Dordrecht: Springer Netherlands.

Case study focuses on one instance among many - the scale of what counts as a case therefor varies considerably.

The instance may be selected for its own special inherent value ( intrinsic case study ), or may be studied as a representative of a wider class of cases ( instrumental case study ).

Case study is a naturalistic form of research

Case study explores a bounded system

Case study involves collecting in-depth data , to support thick description . This is required to support any kind of generalisation from the specifics of a case study.

“...the authors opt for a 'qualitative case-study analysis'. However, quite in line with the large sample size, the analysis has been quite shallow: the fragments of student discourse are presented without any contextual interpretation, which makes it impossible as a reader to assess the validity of the given interpretations.”

Critical comments for a peer review report of an article submitted for publication

case studies in education research

Multiple case study

Sometimes researchers carry out and compare across multiple cases. In multiple case study research each case has to be studied in its own stead, before an attempt to look across cases.

This is a personal site of Keith S. Taber to support teaching of educational research methods.

( Dr Keith Taber is Professor of Science Education at the University of Cambridge.)

case studies in education research

Index of topics

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Education - Research Methods for Studies in Education

Introductory Video Clip--Case Study Research

There are many videos on research methods uploaded onto youtube.  Here is another good presentation by Graham Gibbs who teaches at the University of Huddersfield in the UK.  I really like Gibbs' many online tutorials available through the Online Qualitative Data Analysis .

Books on Case Study Research held by UVic Libraries

case studies in education research

UVic Libraries holds many titles on case study research.  Below is a listing of titles that are recently published or considered classics.  Be sure to do your own catalogue search for additional titles.  

Cover Art

case studies in education research

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Action Research Methods pp 69–79 Cite as

A Case for Case Study Research in Education

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This chapter makes the case that case study research is making a comeback in educational research because it allows researchers a broad range of methodological tools to suit the needs of answering questions of “how” and “why” within a particular real-world context. As Stake (1995) suggests, case study is often a preferred method of research because case studies may be epistemologically in harmony with the reader’s experience and thus to that person a natural basis for generalization.

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Bassey, M. (1999). Case study research in educational settings . Buckingham, England: Open University Press.

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Baxter, P., & Jack, S. (2008). Qualitative case study methodology: Study design and implementation for novice researchers. The Qualitative Report , 13(4), 544–559.

Becker, H. S. (2000). Generalizing from case studies. In E. W. Eisner & A. Peshkin (Eds.), Qualitative inquiry in education: The continuing debate (pp. 233–242). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Corcoran, P. B., Walker, K. E., & Wals, A. E. (2004). Case studies, make-your-case studies, and case stories: A critique of case-study methodology in sustainability in higher education. Environmental Education Research , 10(1), 7–21.

CrossRef   Google Scholar  

Creswell, J. (2002). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative and mixed method approaches . London, England: Sage.

Grauer, K. (1998). Beliefs of preservice teachers in art education. Studies in Art Education, 39(4) , 350–370.

Grauer, K., Irwin R. L., de Cosson, A., & Wilson, S. (2001). Images for understanding: Snapshots of learning through the arts. International Journal of Education & the Arts , 2(9). Retrieved from

Guba, E. (1981). Criteria for assessing the trustworthiness of naturalistic inquiries. Educational Resources Information Center Annual Review Paper, 29 , 75–91.

Hancock, D. R., & Algozzine, B. (2006). Doing case study research: A practical guide for beginning researchers . New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Henderson, J. (2001). Reflective teaching: Professional artistry through inquiry (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Klein, S. (Ed.). (2003). Teaching art in context: Case studies for art education. Reston, VA: National Art Education Association.

Lather, P. (1992). Critical frames in educational research: Feminist and poststructural perspectives. Theory into Practice , 31(2), 87–99.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. A. (1985). Naturalistic inquiry . Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Merriam, S. B. (1998). Case study research and case study applications in education . San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1994). Qualitative data analysis: An expanded source book (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Patton, M. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods (2nd ed.). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Richards, L., & Richards, T. (1994). From filing cabinet to computer. In A. Bryman & R. G. Burgess (Eds.), Analysing qualitative data (pp. 146–172). London, England: Routledge.

Richards, T. J., & Richards, L. (1998). Using computers in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Collecting and interpreting qualita¬tive materials (pp. 445–462). London, England: Sage.

Stake, R. E. (1995). The art of case study research . Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

VanWynsberghe, R., & Khan, S. (2007). Redefining case study. International Journal of Qualitative Methods , 6(2), 80–94. Retrieved from

Yin, R. K. (2003). Case study research: Design and methods (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

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Grauer, K. (2012). A Case for Case Study Research in Education. In: Klein, S.R. (eds) Action Research Methods. Palgrave Macmillan, New York.

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There is a growing interest in using a case study approach in educational research where questions of meaning and process can be answered only through understanding the context in which they exist. Unfortunately, most basic research courses do not deal with the case study in any substantive way. Consequently, persons interested in using this approach must become apprentices to someone experienced in the method and/or search out material that will offer them guidance in the use of this method. The purpose of this article is to review selected materials on the case study so that readers can access sources most relevant to their needs. The following three topics are addressed in this review: (1) characteristics of, and philosophical assumptions underlying, the case study; (2) the mechanics of conducting a case study; and (3) concerns about reliability, validity, and generalizability in using the case study method. On s’intéresse de plus en plus à l'étude de cas comme méthode de travail en recherche pédagogique dès qu’il devient difficile d’apporter des réponses à des questions de signification et de processus sans se référer aux situations dans lesquelles elles se posent. Malheureusement, la plupart des cours en recherche ne traitent pas de cette méthode de façon systématique. Les chercheurs qui songent à l’utiliser doivent donc se mettre en apprentissage auprès de quelqu’un qui en fait l’expérience ou chercher des écrits qui les éclaireront sur son utilisation. Le présent article a comme objet de faire une recension de matériaux choisis sur l’étude de cas afin de diriger les lecteurs vers les sources les plus pertinentes à leurs besoins. La recension aborde trois sujets: (1) les caractéristiques de la méthode en cause et sa philosophie sous-jacente; (2) comment mener une étude de cas; et (3) des questions touchant la fiabilité et la validité de cette méthode et la possibilité d’en généraliser les résultats.

The Journal of Educational Thought promotes speculative, critical, and historical research concerning the theory and practice of education in a variety of areas including administration, comparative education, curriculum, educational communication, evaluation, instructional methodology, intercultural education, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. The Journal is international in scope and qualitative in nature. It serves a broad readership: specialists in the areas mentioned, scholars, and the public in general. La Revue de la pensée Éducative a pour but de promouvoir la recherche fondamentale, critique et historique autour des questions que soulève la théorie ou la pratique de l'éducation, dans les domaines tels que l'administration scolaire, l'éducation comparée, la programmation, la communication, l'évaluation, la didactique, l'éducation interculturelle, la philosophie, la psychologie et la sociologie de l'éducation. La Revue, d'envergure internationale, dessert un large éventail de lectuers: spécialistes, chercheurs, profanes.

UCalgary offers students a high-quality educational experience that prepares them for success in life, as well as research that addresses society’s most persistent challenges. Our creation and transfer of knowledge contributes every day to our country’s global competitive advantage and makes the world a better place.

This item is part of a JSTOR Collection. For terms and use, please refer to our Terms and Conditions The Journal of Educational Thought (JET) / Revue de la Pensée Éducative © 1985 Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary Request Permissions

case studies in education research

University of Pittsburgh Library System

University of Pittsburgh Library System

Course & Subject Guides

Edd. research guide: case studies.

Education Journals

Links direct to journal homepages where you can search by keyword, browse recent articles, or locate a specific issue. 

Online Resources

Searching ERIC

The examples below demonstrate how to build a search in ERIC to locate case studies.  Utilizing the Thesaurus , combining multiple keywords, and field searching will all help provide a more comprehensive and targeted search. 

If you would like to explore either of the example topics, click on the image to be taken to the results page in ERIC. Note:  you must be logged in through Pitt Passport to access these searches. 

Building a search in the ERIC database: competency-based education AND case studies

Searching PittCat

Use PittCat to locate education case studies. This is a great place to use  subject headings  and  keywords  to quickly find materials within the catalog. A few suggested terms are listed below to get your search started: 

Books From The Catalog

Book Cover: Cases Studies in Special Education

Resources for research

Case studies in educational research

31 Mar 2011

Dr Lorna Hamilton

To cite this reference: Hamilton, L. (2011) Case studies in educational research, British Educational Research Association on-line resource. Available on-line at [INSERT WEB PAGE ADDRESS HERE] Last accessed [insert date here]

Case study is often seen as a means of gathering together data and giving coherence and limit to what is being sought. But how can we define case study effectively and ensure that it is thoughtfully and rigorously constructed?  This resource shares some key definitions of case study and identifies important choices and decisions around the creation of studies. It is for those with little or no experience of case study in education research and provides an introduction to some of the key aspects of this approach: from the all important question of what exactly is case study, to the key decisions around case study work and possible approaches to dealing with the data collected. At the end of the resource, key references and resources are identified which provide the reader with further guidance.

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′This excellent book is a principled and theoretically informed guide to case study research design and methods for the collection, analysis and presentation of evidence′ -Professor Andrew Pollard, Institute of Educaiton, University of London

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case studies in education research

case studies in education research

Using Case Studies to Teach

case studies in education research

Why Use Cases?

Many students are more inductive than deductive reasoners, which means that they learn better from examples than from logical development starting with basic principles. The use of case studies can therefore be a very effective classroom technique.

Case studies are have long been used in business schools, law schools, medical schools and the social sciences, but they can be used in any discipline when instructors want students to explore how what they have learned applies to real world situations. Cases come in many formats, from a simple “What would you do in this situation?” question to a detailed description of a situation with accompanying data to analyze. Whether to use a simple scenario-type case or a complex detailed one depends on your course objectives.

Most case assignments require students to answer an open-ended question or develop a solution to an open-ended problem with multiple potential solutions. Requirements can range from a one-paragraph answer to a fully developed group action plan, proposal or decision.

Common Case Elements

Most “full-blown” cases have these common elements:

Case assignments can be done individually or in teams so that the students can brainstorm solutions and share the work load.

The following discussion of this topic incorporates material presented by Robb Dixon of the School of Management and Rob Schadt of the School of Public Health at CEIT workshops. Professor Dixon also provided some written comments that the discussion incorporates.

Advantages to the use of case studies in class

A major advantage of teaching with case studies is that the students are actively engaged in figuring out the principles by abstracting from the examples. This develops their skills in:

Guidelines for using case studies in class

In the most straightforward application, the presentation of the case study establishes a framework for analysis. It is helpful if the statement of the case provides enough information for the students to figure out solutions and then to identify how to apply those solutions in other similar situations. Instructors may choose to use several cases so that students can identify both the similarities and differences among the cases.

Depending on the course objectives, the instructor may encourage students to follow a systematic approach to their analysis.  For example:

An innovative approach to case analysis might be to have students  role-play the part of the people involved in the case. This not only actively engages students, but forces them to really understand the perspectives of the case characters. Videos or even field trips showing the venue in which the case is situated can help students to visualize the situation that they need to analyze.

Accompanying Readings

Case studies can be especially effective if they are paired with a reading assignment that introduces or explains a concept or analytical method that applies to the case. The amount of emphasis placed on the use of the reading during the case discussion depends on the complexity of the concept or method. If it is straightforward, the focus of the discussion can be placed on the use of the analytical results. If the method is more complex, the instructor may need to walk students through its application and the interpretation of the results.

Leading the Case Discussion and Evaluating Performance

Decision cases are more interesting than descriptive ones. In order to start the discussion in class, the instructor can start with an easy, noncontroversial question that all the students should be able to answer readily. However, some of the best case discussions start by forcing the students to take a stand. Some instructors will ask a student to do a formal “open” of the case, outlining his or her entire analysis.  Others may choose to guide discussion with questions that move students from problem identification to solutions.  A skilled instructor steers questions and discussion to keep the class on track and moving at a reasonable pace.

In order to motivate the students to complete the assignment before class as well as to stimulate attentiveness during the class, the instructor should grade the participation—quantity and especially quality—during the discussion of the case. This might be a simple check, check-plus, check-minus or zero. The instructor should involve as many students as possible. In order to engage all the students, the instructor can divide them into groups, give each group several minutes to discuss how to answer a question related to the case, and then ask a randomly selected person in each group to present the group’s answer and reasoning. Random selection can be accomplished through rolling of dice, shuffled index cards, each with one student’s name, a spinning wheel, etc.

Tips on the Penn State U. website:

If you are interested in using this technique in a science course, there is a good website on use of case studies in the sciences at the University of Buffalo.

Dunne, D. and Brooks, K. (2004) Teaching with Cases (Halifax, NS: Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education), ISBN 0-7703-8924-4 (Can be ordered at at a cost of $15.00)


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