Case Method (Case Study)
In the 1880s, Christopher Langdell, the dean of the Harvard Law School, revived the case method that the early Chinese Philosophers used. It slowly won acceptance in the schools of business, law, and medicine. Langdell felt students could learn more about the law by studying actual court opinions than by reading legal texts. By the early 20th century, virtually every American law school had adopted Langdell's method. In the 1960s, most schools began to introduce some form of clinical education to supplement the classroom study of cases.
Although the classic Harvard case is quite comprehensive in nature, cases used in training need not be long and detailed to excite and encourage the creative efforts of the learners.
Although many equate the Harvard case method with the Socratic method, I believe that its early ancestor is scholasticism.
Case studies normally come in two forms. The first is problem specific in that it tends to use very short and specific kinds of cases in which the problem is transparent. With this kind of case study, the learner can demonstrate her problem solving ability using theories that have been previous taught.
The second method uses cases that allow the learners to apply their knowledge and skills. This type of case study uses complex and lengthy information which must be deeply analyzed. The problems may not easily be defined. In addition, the case may not be about a problem needing a solution, but rather about engaging various perspectives on an issue. The purpose of this method is about helping learners to identify problems, issues, and opportunities, as well as about fitting solutions and developing the logic that supports both problem identification and proposed solution or actions.
It is this second method that is largely employed by Harvard, for as Harvard Business School professor C. Roland Christensen wrote:
When successful, the case method of instruction produces a manager grounded in theory and abstract knowledge, and more important, able to apply those elements.
Thus the Harvard method of case studies is far more learner-centered than it is instructor-centered. Further, in Learning by the Case Method in Marketing (Harvard Business School, 9-590-008, July 13, 1989), Professor Thomas V. Bonoma writes (p.5):
The students decide what's 'the right answer' to a case in the crucible of their deliberations, debate, and discussions. Here is the true power of the case study for experiential learning. Like a consulting physician, students see a case 'worked up' for them by someone else. They must review different facts, analyze them, reach some conclusion about the problem and its cause (often different from the instructor's and the case writer's implicit diagnoses from the same facts), and recommend some treatment. Also, as in medicine, the most powerful and interesting cases are those that permit multiple analysis of the same evidence to lead to different, but plausible solutions.