Is a problem a case? Is an example?

In reading and thinking about case-based pedagogy, I found myself reading the word “case” so often that I lost all faith that I knew what it meant. What is a case, and what makes it different from an example, word problem, or open-ended question? I sometimes find it helpful to try and chase the history of a word or phrase in these cases (heh). New words or usages of words often start as somewhat metaphorical and it can tell you a lot about an idea to understand what other ideas it built off of when it was new.

I assumed that the case in “case method” came directly from medical case studies, especially since it’s often written about in medical schools. I’ve definitely used the phrase “case study” to describe a similar kind of assignment in the past. But, actually, the case method was first developed in law schools, and the word case was employed because it simply represented a move, in 1870, from learning laws by studying the regulations towards learning them by studying actual legal cases where the underlying meaning of the law was argued and tested in a real world context. It’s almost shocking to me that this was considered a novel method at the time, given that the study of landmark legal cases seemed extremely rote in my high school civics class. But, at least in the 19th century US elite (white, male…) higher education system, it was a paradigm shift that spread first to medical and business schools, and later many other disciplines.

None of the above is intended to correct people on terminology–I’m probably going to keep “slipping up” and calling cases for case-based learning “case studies”, and I think that communicates the intent to the students just fine. But I do find this history helpful in thinking about what a case is and where I might look for potential cases in my own field. A case, in the abstract, is an actual real world example of a situation which requires domain-specific background knowledge to solve. The background knowledge is material which might otherwise be taught in a classroom as a list of facts to be memorized. The learning of this basic material in the case method more closely parallels how learning happens on the job, through repeated location and application of relevant information as one solves larger problems.

With this unpacking of the definition of cases and how they diverged from previous methods of learning in law and medicine, I can look to the material covered in my own class and ask myself “how do I use this material in my work?” When it comes to the initial course material in sensory science, the most obvious case-analogy is a research question or project brief with a product description. Students can learn by creating a research protocol capable of giving the “solution” for a given question about food sensory properties (e.g., How does the salt concentration affect the texture of a soup? Does the time of day have an influence on preferred coffee flavor?). Writing a good protocol would involve understanding the various influences on a person’s sensory perceptions (and resulting survey responses) and the ways to isolate or test the sensations and responses of interest. Ideal solutions are probably going to require that students have the scaffolding of already knowing the commonly-used types of sensory tests (or that they know where to look for that information), but I also wonder what solutions students might come up with based on knowledge of the senses without explicitly knowing the existing methods.


  1. Servant-Miklos, V F C. (2019). “The Harvard Connection: How the Case Method Spawned Problem-Based Learning at McMaster University”. In: Health Professions Education 5(3):163-171.

One comment:

  1. I loved your exploration of the source of the word case in case based learning! It truly shows your innate abilities as an academic to try to define a word that we just take for granted. But as you mentioned at the end, the most important part of case based learning is the thought related to implementing it and the result in student learning. You also included a couple of great examples related to your discipline.

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