Case study of learning

A case study of learning, with the classroom case study as one type, is an in-depth look at teaching and how learners respond. It typically includes a description of the activities that provide the context for learning. A case may be defined in a variety of ways, e.g., related to an academic course, to an individual’s experiences, or a particular activity. It is an entity, a bounded system with interdependent parts. I think of a case as similar to Dewey’s concept of situation.

Definition and boundaries

A key question for case study researchers is to define the case and its boundaries. For example, is a school a case or individual classes held in the school? if a case is defined as a classroom learning activity, how much does it include events immediately before and after, which may shape its meaning? Although we focus on the case, the boundaries are crucial. They’re perceived by different people in different ways and they change as events occur. One consequence of this is that the researcher and other participants may conceive the case differently.


Many people argue that case studies should be driven by issues. These are ideas related to the case, which have a potential tension, or a trade-off between two ways of treating the case. Stories included in a case report address the issues defined for the case, providing pathways to reach a deeper understanding. Issues thus represent the Ask of an Inquiry Cycle. They manifest the indeterminacy in Dewey’s concept of a situation that evokes inquiry.

The story of the case

One or more incidents that provide insights into what learners were thinking, feeling, or able to do. Some would argue that we cannot infer thoughts or feelings of others, even though that is often our underlying goal. Different approaches to case studies are thus characterized by different assumptions about interpretation. Can we say that someone is happy? or just that they smiled? or only that their lips changed shape in a particular way? Of course, the choice to report any of that is itself the product of an interpretation about the meanings of the event for participants.

Stories are often presented as patches or vignettes. Describe them using dialogue, including intonation and descriptions of facial expressions, or what they were actually doing at the time, as well as you can remember it. A reader should be able to create a mental image of the events from the description that you write. happenings, events instead of feelings and thoughts. Contradictory or dissonant stories on the same happening provide multiple perspectives and voices to readers, and are often most revealing of what’s going on.

One possible strucure

A case study report may be organized in whatever way seems most appropriate to the study, but often includes the following elements:

  1. Ask: Issues
  2. Investigate:
    • Your own inquiry: What you did to learn more about the content or processes that learners were investigating, and what you learned about these.
    • Curricular goals: How did you or others want learners to develop as a consequence of their engagement with some activities, for example,
      • to be able to use a communication technology effectively
      • to learn how the first parliamentary system arose or how the Spanish language evolved
      • to learn about the adaptation of animals to their environments,
      • to be able to articulate their theories about why some things float and others sink, and to propose ways to test those theories,
      • to learn how to discuss their ideas with others,
      • to learn how to assess and address community needs.
    • The plan: A discussion of the strategies and materials designed to help learners.
  3. Create: The story
  4. Discuss: Interpretation: Insights from this experience that might help you or others understand why learners acted as they did, including what they said and produced.
  5. Reflect: Action: What might be done differently?:
    • How did you feel about the unit of activities and the extent to which the goals were achieved?
    • How did you determine this?
    • How well did it support inquiry-based learning?
    • What might you do to improve the activity?
    • What new issues emerge?

The emergence of new issues implies the continuation of the inquiry. The Reflect leads to a new Ask as one case study generates another. When the reflection also leads to action, this version of case study becomes action research.

If we think of the case as a Deweyan situation, then the cycle of reflective action can be seen as the transformation of an indeterminate situation into a more unified whole, through both substantive improvement and better understanding of its “constituent distinctions and relations.”

See also: Case study of a community information space–how ordinary people find information they need to address everyday problems, such as health care, finding a place to live, or educating children

My thanks to Iván M. Jorrín Abellán for significant contributions to this post.


Jorrín Abellán, Iván M. (2008, September 22-23). The needlework of evaluating CSCL situations. 4th MosaicLearning Workshop, Valladolid, Spain.

Ragin, Charles C., & Becker, Howard Saul. (1992). What is a case: Exploring the foundations of social inquiry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stake, Robert (1995). The art of case research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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