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The Case Study Teaching Method

It is easy to get confused between the case study method and the case method, particularly as it applies to legal education. The case method in legal education was invented by Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School from 1870 to 1895. Langdell conceived of a way to systematize and simplify legal education by focusing on previous case law that furthered principles or doctrines. To that end, Langdell wrote the first casebook, entitled A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts, a collection of settled cases that would illuminate the current state of contract law. Students read the cases and came prepared to analyze them during Socratic question-and-answer sessions in class.


       Case Study Method:

  • Uses a narrative of a legal dilemma to exemplify principles of law
  • Employs skill-building as well as discussion and teamwork between participants
  • Analyzes the dilemma as it unfolds

      Case Method:

  • Uses a court decision to exemplify principles of law
  • Employs “hub-and-spoke” discussion between professor and student, otherwise known as the Socratic method
  • Analyzes the dilemma after it has been resolved


The Harvard Business School case study approach grew out of the Langdellian method. But instead of using established case law, business professors chose real-life examples from the business world to highlight and analyze business principles. HBS-style case studies typically consist of a short narrative (less than 25 pages), told from the point of view of a manager or business leader embroiled in a dilemma. Case studies provide readers with an overview of the main issue; background on the institution, industry, and individuals involved; and the events that led to the problem or decision at hand. Cases are based on interviews or public sources; sometimes, case studies are disguised versions of actual events or composites based on the faculty authors’ experience and knowledge of the subject. Cases are used to illustrate a particular set of learning objectives; as in real life, rarely are there precise answers to the dilemma at hand.


       Case studies:

  • Engage readers in active learning
  • Can involve participant-led presentations, exercises, role plays, debates, guest speakers, and informational lectures
  • Are appropriate for undergraduate students, graduate students, continuing legal education, executive education, and professional development
  • Typically require at least one class session to fully implement, with some multi-part or multi-player role plays requiring more time
  • May incorporate additional readings or multimedia

      Teaching manuals include:

  • the basic premise of the case study
  • how a case study can be used within a course
  • learning objectives
  • assignment questions
  • a typical class discussion flow
  • key takeaways
  • additional information such as board plans, informational slides, exercises, volunteer instructions, and updates or epilogues to the case study




  • Are put squarely in the shoes of real people wrestling with real dilemmas
  • Argue and defend their advice for the protagonist
  • Learn how to approach and solve problems
  • Interact with their peers through debate, presentations, and ad hoc role plays


  • May assign questions prior to class to focus participants on particular issues
  • Identify participants who hold opposing views and ask questions to stimulate debate
  • Assign participants to stakeholder groups with different points of view of the situation
  • Encourage input from all sides until the participants uncover most or all of the learning points
  • Lead participants to an “aha” moment during which conventional wisdom is trumped by deeper, more seasoned insights


Our suite of free materials offers a great introduction to the case study method. We also offer review copies of our products free of charge to educators and staff at degree-granting institutions.


For more information on the case study teaching method, see:

Watch this informative video about the Problem-Solving Workshop:


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