Case Studies: Indispensable Tools for Trainers

By Einsiedel, Albert A., Jr. | Training & Development, August 1995 | Go to article overview

Case Studies: Indispensable Tools for Trainers


Einsiedel, Albert A., Jr., Training & Development


What do experts know about case studies? And how can trainers use case studies effectively in their programs?

A trainer, Bob, is looking for a way to help class participants develop their problem-solving skills. He wants the learning to model the organization's emphasis on teamwork. And he wants to ensure that the training transfers readily to the workplace.

One solution to Bob's problem is the case method.

Sometimes known as the case-study approach, the case method has been used in education and training for many years and has evolved into a sophisticated art. Case-study aficionados have added their own unique twists to adapt the basic technique to their particular needs as well as to reflect their own assumptions about learners, learning situations, and subject matter.

As trainers, we often use case studies that we have written ourselves or adapted from others. We also use cases that have been taken from training manuals, textbooks, and case books. In fact, we rarely conduct training programs without using case studies in some way.

What are case studies?

Like mystery novels, case studies are typically presented as stories that contain several key elements:

* characters

* events

* choices and actions

* problems and issues

* background information about those elements.

A case is a type of simulation. In it, the facilitator presents learners with a description of a situation in which characters must make decisions about issues or problems. For example, a case study may describe a conflict that characters must resolve in order to achieve a key organizational objective. It may describe workers and managers who are caught up in a dispute over performance expectations.

Case studies provide opportunities for issue analysis, problem definition, evaluation, and comparison of possible solutions. They introduce learners to theoretical principles and techniques that may provide potential solutions to the case problems. They harness the power of experiential learning methods that make learning challenging and interesting - in part, because such methods are similar to those used in real-life situations.

The goal of the case method is for the learner "to learn from experience," using the example provided by a case study.

What knowledge, skills, and attitudes are relevant for effectively diag-nosing and solving case problems? They vary, depending on the case. For example, a case study that involves a merger, downsizing, or restructuring might be useful for achieving the following objectives:

* raising awareness or increasing knowledge about similar business situations

* increasing knowledge about the practices or approaches used in such a business environment

* helping learners develop or sharpen their skills in problem-solving and decision-making

* giving participants some understanding of the different values, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions that relate to the issue

* showing learners the different ways in which values, beliefs, attitudes, and perceptions can influence business choices and actions.

The "right" type of case study depends largely on the learning objective that the case is supposed to address. A trainer could use several cases to meet the same learning objective. Another trainer might use a single case to meet several different learning objectives. Some cases are versatile; we can use them to showcase several important principles, facts, techniques, or process skills. Others are structured to focus on a narrow range of learning objectives. The trick is to match the right tool with the requirements of a given job.

What do cases "look" like?

Cases vary in length and complexity. Some instructors prefer to use elaborate stories that contain well-designed plots; interesting characters; and logical, well-timed events. Many are written using an entertaining narrative style.

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