Using Case Studies in Family Science Courses by Deborah Gentry

Do you regularly use case studies when teaching your family science courses? If so, I would love to know more about your favorite case studies and, if you have assessed their effectiveness, how you went about doing that.

I am pursuing the development of a collection of family science related cases studies. As a part of this possible publication, I want to include findings from faculty efforts to measure their effectiveness. If you are interested in possibly contributing to this collection, contact me at [email protected]. In the meantime, here are some insights I have arrived at concerning the use of case studies.

Case studies are stories or narratives. They feature a wide range of problems posed for analysis. Most cases are either based on real events or are a construction of circumstances which could reasonably occur in real life settings. These stories focus on issues, conflicts, or dilemmas that need to be resolved, though there may be multiple paths to a workable solution (Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning, 1994).

Purported benefits include the following: Bridge the gap between theory and practice; develop analytical and critical thinking skills; reinforce concepts and promote lasting understanding; develop problem-solving and decision-making skills; foster collaboration and communication abilities; point out the real-world impact of incomplete information, ambiguous circumstances, time constraints, and conflicting goals; and facilitate greater engagement in and commitment to the learning process (Foran, 2001; Herreid, 2004; McFarlane, 2015).

When selecting from existing collection or writing original case studies, there are key characteristics or qualities that should be looked for or considered (Herreid, 1999/2000, 2002; McFarlane, 2015; Penn State, 2006).
1.  Consistent with course objectives and student learning outcomes.
2.  Similarly, consistent with real-world situations that may confront graduates.
3.  Relatively short length, as learners become overwhelmed by longer cases.
4.  Authentic and realistic, as well as contemporary.
5.  Well researched.
6.  Interesting and engaging “story” that is being told.
7.  Efficient, well-organized, and basic structure written in clear language.
8.  Present complex, controversial issues and problems to solve, typically with no obvious right answer.
9.  Sufficient background information to allow students to fully consider those issues.
10.  Creates empathy with central characters.

Foran, J. (2001). The case method and the interactive classroom. Thought and Action: The NEA Higher Education Journal, 19(1), 41-50.
Herreid, C.F. (1999/2000). Cooking with Betty Crocker: A recipe for case writing. Journal of College Science Teaching, 29(3), 156-158.
Herreid, C.F. (2002). The way of Flesch: The art of writing readable cases. Journal of College Science Teaching, 31(5), 288-291.
Herreid, C.F. (2004). Can case studies be used to teach critical thinking? Journal of College Science Teaching, 33(6), 12-14.
McFarlane, D.A. (Winter, 2015). Guidelines for using case studies in the teaching-learning process. College Quarterly, 18(1). Retrieved from
Penn State University [Teaching and Learning with Technology]. (2006). Writing the case. Retrieved from
Stanford University Center for Teaching and Learning. (1994). Teaching with case studies. Speaking of Teaching Newsletter, 5(2), 1-3. Retrieved from




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