How to use case studies

Choosing a case study

If you’re planning to use a case study in a meeting or training session, you must first answer these two questions:

  • What is the primary objective of this meeting?
  • What other goals must be achieved?

Your answers will determine: which case study you should use; which aspects of the case study your meeting will focus on; the questions you might use as discussion prompts; and the types of tasks you set for participants.

Good case studies are about people and situations the participants can identify with. If you take the time to choose the right case study, it will help you to meet the objectives and goals of your meeting. The right case study raises the right issues, and introduces content that is useful to the participants. This could be anything from University rules, policies and procedures, to alternative ways of organising supervision, to the results of research on postgraduate students.

Strategies for using case studies

Although a good case study invariably gets participants actively involved in the meeting’s activities, there are some strategies you can use to encourage even deeper engagement with the issues:

  • Individual task followed by a discussion
  • Small-group task followed by a plenary
  • Group brainstorming session
  • Role-play

Individual task followed by a discussion

One way to get everyone in the group to engage seriously with your case study is to set them a task based on the material. For instance, your case study includes comments about their department made by four students who have quit their PhD candidatures. Ask participants individually to write a list of three to five things the department should be concerned about. (Writing items down is better than just thinking them. People concentrate better and produce more items.)

Next, ask each person in the group in turn to share one of their items, until no-one has a new item left to share.

This is a good strategy for getting everyone focused on the meeting’s topic, right from the beginning. Collecting their responses in a sort of round-robin ensures that everyone participates.

Small-group task followed by a plenary

When you set a small group task, the most important thing is to make sure it is not too open-ended (the task needs to have a specific purpose).

Here is an example. Your case study is about the appointment of co-supervisors for a mature PhD candidate. One of the supervisors is senior, experienced and sceptical about co-supervision. The other is junior, inexperienced and untenured.

If your goal is to explore supervision relationships in a more open-ended and general way, and you have quite a lot of time (at least three hours), then you could ask small groups to identify the potential problem areas for the three people in the case study.

This might be a good place to begin, and from there the group could explore more specific and focused issues.

For example, if your goal is to encourage supervisors in joint supervision arrangements to work together more productively, you could ask the groups to identify what issues need to be taken into account by each supervisor, and what should be agreed on in advance by each supervisor, before accepting the shared supervisory role.

You could then lead a plenary session in which the small groups share the results of their work with the whole group.

Group brainstorming activity

When you want to involve all members of the group and encourage some creative and lateral thinking, a brainstorming activity can be very useful. Imagine that your department has had a troubling case of a failed PhD. It’s a small department, so everyone is aware of the situation at least in general terms. Your discipline does not have a long tradition of research activity and PhD supervision. No one wants to be the next supervisor of a student who fails.

As postgraduate student coordinator, you convene a department meeting to consider how to avert a similar disaster. You ask the group to brainstorm things the department might do. Encourage participants to say anything that comes into their heads, even if it sounds silly or impractical – for example, ‘stop enrolling PhD candidates’. Write everything down on whiteboards or butchers’ paper and keep going until the group runs out of ideas.

The next phase is to consolidate similar ideas, drop or develop ideas, and gradually get to some well-considered recommendations. For instance, ‘stop enrolling PhD candidates’ might have become ‘stop enrolling poorly qualified PhD candidates’. It might also have led to some recommendations about how to assess candidates’ prior learning in academic and/or professional settings, establishing probationary enrolment periods, and offering some preparatory programs in research methods.

The good thing about brainstorming is that it can get a group laughing, as well as thinking ‘outside the square’.


Here is a situation in which a role-play might be appropriate.

Your department has recently had some problems with thesis examination. The higher degree committee has had to deal with reports that did not agree on the merits of the thesis under examination, and there have been conflicts among members. In addition, junior members of staff have said they do not feel confident about examining theses themselves, nor do they know how to interpret the reports their students are getting.

You have a case study which describes a situation in which one examiner of a PhD recommends outright failure, one wants a substantial rewrite and re-examination, and one says maybe a rewrite to the satisfaction of the higher degree committee would do. The materials include a summary of two of the reports and a copy of the third which includes many strong criticisms of the thesis as well as implied criticism of the supervision.

You decide that your primary goal is simply to highlight that in this case study there is no absolute right and wrong, nor any black and white solutions to situations where examiners disagree. However, there are University procedures and precedents and if everyone shares knowledge of these, it will be much easier to deal with the problem cases.

You also want to raise awareness of the fact that people interpret examiners’ reports differently. For instance, even if there is a recommendation to accept a thesis with minor revisions, if the tone of the report is critical of aspects of the work, some people will accept the recommendation at face value and others will insist that the examiner really means that there should be a major rewrite.

These goals can be addressed in many ways, but this could be a perfect time for using a role-play. Participants could be asked to break up into committee-sized groups and consider the summary of the two reports plus the one example. (You don’t give them three full reports because it will take too long for them to read and digest all that material.) Their task would be to pretend that they are the higher degree committee and to recommend what happens to this student. The ‘committees’ then report their decisions and their reasoning to the whole group.

This activity gives everyone a chance to see that there are lots of ways of looking at such a situation. It is quite likely that there will be different committee recommendations and rationales. In addition, reading one report gives inexperienced staff some exposure to the genre, and discussion of the summaries should suggest that examiners approach the task in a variety of ways.

You also have choices about how to introduce the ‘content’ you want to get before the group. Prior to the ‘committee meetings’ you could give a mini-lecture about University rules, distributing copies of relevant documents pertaining to examining prior to the committee meetings. Then you would be hoping that the committees act in accordance with established procedures, but you would expect discussion to turn up some of the gaps in those procedures.

You could have a senior and experienced resource person attend to listen to the committee reports and comment on their recommendations, highlighting the procedures or precedents that people need to know about. Documents could be distributed at this time. Sometimes people seem to absorb such information better after discovering that there was something they did not know and should have.


There are many ways you could mix and match these processes. The point is that a lecture on rules and regulations will not address the goal of highlighting how complicated examining theses really is, and telling people something is complicated is nowhere near as effective as showing them. So you want to plan activities that make participants experience the complications, and process the information you are offering.


This information was originally developed by:
Dr Peggy Nightingale
fIRST Consortium consultant

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