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HPSR Teaching Blogs

Case Studies: What are they? Why use them? How to write and teach them?

Teaching tips and techniques for HPSR

Although case studies are used in health policy and systems teaching, some educators are not comfortable with case study teaching, while others remain unaware of cases' value in achieving important educational objectives. Even educators who buy into their value and are already using them could benefit from reflection in order to improve their practice.

For these reasons, we have developed an accessible and easy-to-navigate guidance document that summarises the educational approach underpinning case studies, defines and describes different types of case studies, makes the case for using them, and gives advice on how to teach and write case studies to achieve good results.  

Case studies – basically rich narratives with an educational purpose – can be conceptualised in various ways and come in different shapes and sizes, which reflect the source materials from which they are created, the tasks they require students to perform, the cognitive demands they place on students, and their degree of difficulty. The following are examples from the literature:


Types of cases by... Examples
Cognitive abilities 
  • Critical incident / descriptive
  • Very analytical / Harvard-style
 Main student task / learning objective
  • Decision-forcing
  • Policy-making
  • Problem-defining
  • Applying concepts
  • Illustrative
Source evidence / means of presentation 
  • Field research cases
  • Desk research cases
  • Fictitious cases
  • Unprocessed secondary documents
  • Audio-visual
  • Analytical difficulty
  • Conceptual difficulty
  • Presentation difficulty


None of these typologies are definitive or exhaustive, but they help one to think about one’s own cases, the material that goes into the cases, how the cases are presented to students, and what analytical and reporting tasks are attached to cases.

The bottom line is that case studies can be very enriching for educators and students alike. For educators, they present the opportunity to break from the traditional lecturing role, hone their teaching skills, and learn new things as students collaborate with them and each other. Students get the opportunity to take more control of their learning, engage subject content in a format that is interesting and relevant to their professional concerns, and learn an array of skills that cannot be acquired while simply sitting through a lecture, including critical thinking, problem solving, persuasive argumentation and collaboration.

These benefits derive from, among other things:

  • The role of students in case study teaching: it requires active, engaged students;
  • The nature of case study content: case studies are complex, require interpretation, and don’t have just one correct answer;
  • The authenticity of case studies: they bridge the classroom and the real world of work and practice; and
  • The teaching process: it is built on free-flowing ideas, open discussion, interaction and collaboration.

If properly conceived and used to its full potential, case study teaching is inextricably linked to a socio-constructivist approach to teaching and learning. In this approach, knowledge is not a pre-packaged and static commodity that must be transmitted by the expert educator and retained and reproduced by the student.

Instead, knowledge must be constructed in a specific context. The student is central to this construction and the role of the educator shifts to that of a facilitator of inquiry and knowledge construction. This construction takes place through various mechanisms, including relating new material to the prior knowledge and perceptions of students, supporting students to engage with material by applying concepts and categories, interaction between educators and students, and interaction and collaboration between students.

In line with this approach, our guidance document provides principles, strategies and tips that will help educators to:

  • Prepare students for engaging with case study teaching by limiting resistance to the teaching method if necessary; facilitating their understanding of the material, for example by providing guiding questions for reading; and laying the groundwork for key behaviours such as respectful learning;
  • Understand their own role in case study teaching; to initiate, develop and end case study discussions; and to be aware of key behaviours such as leading discussions in a way that does not close them off, stamp too much of the educator’s authority on them or devalue the learning of students; and
  • Write case studies that meet their teaching objectives, are authentic, and grab the interest of students.

We hope this document will give aspiring or wavering educators the inspiration and tools to take the leap to start teaching with case studies and more experienced practitioners a framework within which to reflect on their own approach.

Download the guidance document

Ermin Erasmus, CHEPSAA coordinator