Studying Case Studies

By Ojala, Marydee | Online Searcher, July-August 2016 | Go to article overview

Studying Case Studies


Ojala, Marydee, Online Searcher


The case study method of teaching predates by decades newer pedagogical initiatives such as the flipped classroom, spaced learning, digital curricula, distance education, and engagement. Yet it seems very modern, as it moves the emphasis away from formal lecture toward classroom discussion. For business students at both the undergraduate and graduate level, case studies are a staple.

Note the difference between case study and Case Study. A case study can also be described as a case history, a description of best practices, a benchmarking exercise, or a narrative about a particular incident. They are not necessarily about business. Case studies can be about technology, psychology, anthropology, criminal justice, and even, on a less academic plane, fixing your car or parenting. A search on Amazon for "case study" yields more than 82,000 books. A few of those are about how to write, analyze, and use case studies in the classroom and one is a fiction title. Most are actual case studies.

Some case studies use real-life examples, particularly if written in the first person. They use real companies and real people when writing about the event, situation, or incident. Others are fictionalized, presenting an amalgamation of experiences from multiple companies, many situations, and various people. The scope note in the ABI/INFORM Thesaurus for case studies says, "Used to identify articles that focus in-depth on a single company or organization." The LexisNexis scope note for the same subject term is more general: "CASE STUDIES targets in-depth examination of a single instance, individual or event."

CONTROLLED VOCABULARY

Journal articles frequently include a narrative to illustrate the point being made. Searching in a business database will automatically limit your search results to business-related case studies included in articles. Both ProQuest and EBSCO make good use of controlled vocabulary in their business databases. ABI/INFORM categorizes more than 235,000 articles as case studies; Business Source Premier only 18,109. However, a free text search on Business Source Premier for "case studies" retrieves 95,746 articles, so if the controlled vocabulary term doesn't deliver what you want, switch to a full-text search.

Having a designated index term isn't always the case. Neither the Gale Business Insights databases nor Factiva has a subject term for the case study concept. Looking at results from a free text search for "case study" OR "case studies" doesn't reveal any obvious substitute term, so you have to hope the author included the term in the body of the text. Many authors don't. The lack of the explicit term, even when the concept exists, is precisely why database producers should add value by creating and applying thesauri. When they don't, information that is relevant to the search is not findable.

JUST ONE WORD: HARVARD

The difference between a case study and a Case Study can be summed up in one word: Harvard. The Harvard Business School is the foremost proponent of teaching by the case method. The idea is to present students with a situation, grounded in reality, as a springboard to discussion. As with real life, Case Studies reflect the realities of managerial decision making. The cases don't give students complete information: Students have to decide on a course of action with limited time, and goals are both unclear and conflicting.

Harvard maintains a web presence to support the case method of teaching (cb.hbsp.harvard.edu/cbmp/pages/content/casemethodteaching). Its online Teaching Seminars last 4 weeks. It has a Case Startup Kit, which recommends up to 10 cases, with Teaching Notes, for the first-time teacher. The site also supports The Teaching Post Forum, but it seems largely inactive.

University business professors who want to assign Harvard Case Studies to students in their classes can either buy a license or require students to buy the case (most cases cost $8. …

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