eCoaching Tip 118 Using Case-Studies in Online Courses — Making Content Real

January 12, 2015

eCoaching Tip 118: Using Case-Studies in Online Courses — Making Content Real


Do you shy away from using situations, problems or case studies in your course? Do you do this because you worry that you have so much to tell, to cover, to share? This is a very natural response, because we, as experts, have brains chock full of a lifetime of knowledge. We worry, we wonder,  “How can our students learn what they need to learn about this topic in a mere 8 weeks or even 15 weeks?”

Yet we know the following: For students to construct their own knowledge structures, we must immerse them in examples, scenarios, problems, stories, and case studies situated in real contexts  (Dewey, 1938; Bruner, 1963; Brown, 1989; Ericsson, 2007). So when planning our teaching, we have a dilemma. How to we balance “telling” with “student thinking and discussing?” How can we get students to deeply process course content while ensuring that we at least acquaint them with all the core ideas of a discipline?

 “Start with Stories”

The short answer is this: Start with stories.If you are teaching biology, start with the story of solving the problem of cholera in London in 1832, or the countries where cholera is still a problem today, or the 2015 challenge of how flu vaccine-making scientists can keep up with mutating strains of flu viruses. If you are teaching business leadership, consider starting with a company facing a corporate challenge, such as how to come up with a whole new category of product every 4-5 years? Or how to handle company succession when a founding father dies suddenly, or the question of why oil prices are dropping so rapidly and the effects and consequences ranging from employment, types of cars being purchased and future oil exploration.

John Seely Brown, noted scientist, thinker, and former director of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) affirmed the role of stories when he described his theory of situated cognition in 1989 (Brown, Collins, & Duguid). What is situated cognition? It is the belief that “knowledge is not independent but, rather, fundamentally ‘situated,’ being in part a product of the activity, context, and culture in which it is developed.” Thus studying knowledge in context is essential to learning well.

 What This Tip Does

This tip suggests ways of integrating stories, problems, and case studies online. Situating course content within a particular context helps students see the why, where, when and how content is important. Stories illustrating the usefulness of course knowledge draws students in to how the content is relevant to their lives, now and in the future. Exposure and discussion of a broad set of stories and cases develops confidence and expertise in a discipline or skill.

Situating content into complex, real-life contexts can be done with the use of simple stories, examples, and cases such as those populating the headlines on a daily basis or the simpler examples and scenarios in discipline resources. Integrating case studies into your courses does not mean that you abandon your textbook. Rather, it means taking advantage of our current media environment, where students can research the stories behind the headlines and bring those questions, problems, etc. to the class for discussion and then apply the content to these real life events, with the guidance and interpretation of you, the discipline expert.

So, how do you start? Where are the stories?  The problems?   The cases? And where do you use them?

 Definitions of Content Resources Containing Stories

When talking about case studies, we often think about the long, complex case studies that require many hours of work, discussion and reflection developed by a team of scholars. However we have many other options.  But lengthy case studies are only one type of content resource for bringing real life complexity and context into a course.  Here are a few other types for you to consider using. They are all similar to case studies in that they are rich, contextual and multi-dimensional. They are listed in a rough approximation of complexity.

  • An example is an illustration of a principle, or model, or a specimen or instance that is typical of the group or set of which it forms a part ( Common synonyms include illustrations, instances, samples and specimens. Sprinkle liberally through the course.
  • A situation describes a series of events leading to an event that needs to be resolved. English Language & Usage Stack Exchange
  • “An account or recital of an event or a series of events, either true or fictitious.” (
  • Case study. Case studies are “student-centred activities based on topics that demonstrate theoretical concepts in an applied setting.” (Davis & Wilcock, 2003 pp. 3-4)
  • A game is a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004).
  • A problem is “something that is difficult to deal with: something that is a source of trouble, worry.” (Merriam-Webster) Problem-based learning (PBL) is a student-centered pedagogy that strives to “teach content by presenting the students with a real-world challenge similar to one they might encounter were they a practitioner of the discipline.” (DeGallow, 2001)
  • Simulations. A simulation is a learning environment in which the student can practice difficult, exacting, life-threatening, or mission-critical skills. (Epper, Derryberry, &Jackson, 2012).  Or “Online simulationsengage students with real-life management situations that require them to make critical decisions.” Broch_FNL.pdf.
  • Scenariosare “consistent and coherent descriptions of alternative hypothetical futures that reflect different perspectives on past, present, and future developments, which can serve as a basis for action.” (Van Notten, 2005)

As can be seen, the ways in which “deliberate practice” as recommended by Ericsson, 2012) can be integrated into courses range from a very short, simple story or example to more complex, demanding and lengthy cases. It is well worth searching out stories, cases or having your students identify relevant examples and stories.

 “Continue with Cases”

What are some of the ways that you can use stories and cases in your courses?  Here are a few ideas for “continuing with cases” after “starting with stories.” Before looking at the following ideas, here is an important reminder: Be sure to select stories, problems, and cases that reinforce the core concepts, skills and learning outcomes of a course. You want to be prepared to guide the students’ analysis and understanding of the cases.  Students will likely make unusual connections and suggest surprising insights, but the case must be a good exemplar of the core concepts.

  • Launching a Course or Topic
  1. Start with a simple, but dramatic story in which someone uses course content with great results, or ignores course content with disastrous consequences. Have students respond with thoughts, insights, and suggestions.
  2. Start with a story, problem, or case study that is representative of the types of problems experts in the field face or grapple with. Gather — from the students — ideas, strategies, and thoughts, and recommendations in the face of such a problem.

Either of these story or case studies can be discussed in a forum, or simple written team assignment. Ideally, this discussion can be revisited later in the course. The goal is that students will intuitively establish more purpose for learning course content, answering the question of what knowledge or skills they might need to deal with complex issues presented by such cases and stories.

Note:  Sometimes it is effective to couch a simple story with the strategy of, “One day in the life of a leader, manager, scientist, professor, marketer, CIO.”

  • Reading Assignments
  1. When assigning a reading, assign a companion story, problem or case for evaluation, analysis, question, reflection or action.
  2. Provide a choice of 2 or 3 stories, problems or cases and have students research, respond to one of them. This is a great two-person team assignment, as students can assume different perspectives or roles.

The next step in this assignment, for more processing, can be discussing the assignment in a forum for whole class sharing. This is an efficient way of exposing students to more cases and problems based on course content.

  • Creating or Writing Assignments
  1. Create a writing, audio or media production assignment that requires more extensive evaluation or analysis of a case or problem.
  2. Create an assignment for students to find stories that exemplify the problem, or maybe even search out tweets that exemplify the concept going right or wrong. For example,
  3. Evaluate a crisis, how it evolved, and possible strategies for dealing with them.
  4. Analyze or debate issues raised in a story, relying on course content for rationales and principles.

Remember this question posed earlier?  “How can we get students to deeply process course content while ensuring that we at least acquaint them with all the core ideas of a discipline?”  The way to bridge the gap between the theory presented by course readings and the practice provided by cases, stories and problems is to guide and support students in identifying and using the core concepts. It is a discovery, rather than a telling.


The power of stories, problems and cases is that they reside in a complex context. The power of linear chapter-by-chapter content lies in its abstract simplicity. Constructing meaningful knowledge requires joining of the abstract concepts with the complexity of life.  Stories, problems and cases are one way of helping students deal meaningfully with course content.

For more about the case method of teaching, Harvard Review Publishing has many resources available to faculty. They sponsor a blog on case method teaching at  A set of free 10-minute videos of cases is at And a 12-page booklet, Hints for Case-Study Teaching, is at


Barkley, E. F., Major, C. H., & Cross, K. P. (2014). Collaborative Learning Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.  Jossey-Bass.

Brown, J. S. C., Allan; Duguid, Paul. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning.   Retrieved June 26 2003, 2003, from

Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated Cognition and the Culture of Learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), pp. 32-42.  Retrieved from 261 Papers/Situated Cognition.pdf

Bruner, J. S. (1963). The process of education. New York: Vintage Books. A quick look at Jerome Bruner’s philosophy is available at

Davis, C., & Wilcock, E. (2003).Teaching Materials Using Case Studies.   Retrieved from  This is a very useful description of using case studies in teaching. A highly recommended resource.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, New York: Macmillan Publishing.

Ellet, W. (2007) The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss, and Write Persuasively About Cases. Harvard Review Publishing.

Epper, R. M., Derryberry, A. and Jackson, S. (2012) Game-Based Learning: Developing an Institutional Strategy (Research Bulletin). Louisville, CO: EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research. August 9, 2012. Retrieved from

Ericsson, K. A. (2000). Expert Performance and Deliberate Practice: An updated excerpt from Ericsson.  Retrieved from

Ericsson, A. K., Prietula, M. J., & Cokely, E. T. (2007). The Making of an Expert Harvard Business Review, 114 – 121.

Gallow, D. (2001). What is Problem-Based Learning?Retrieved January 13 2015, from

Salen, K., & Zimmerman, E. (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Salter, A. (2011). Games in the Classroom (part 1). Chronicle of Higher Education. , August 30, 2011. Retrieved from

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher