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Other assessments: Case studies

“For knowledge you will use in the real world - in business, for example, or in engineering or medicine - the "what" [to think] isn't sufficient. You must know how to apply the knowledge to the real world.”

William Ellet, The Case Study Handbook

Case study assignments are common in some disciplines. Their main purpose is to show that you can relate theory to real-life situations. You also need to be able to recommend practical solutions to real-life problems.

This page is dedicated to writing case studies for undergraduate assignments, it does not tackle case studies as a research method/approach.


What is a case study?

A case study is an assignment where you analyse a specific case (organisation, group, person, event, issue) and explain how the elements and complexities of that case relate to theory. You will sometimes have to come up with solutions to problems or recommendations for future action.

You may be asked to write a case study as an essay, as part of a longer assignment or as a report.

Examples of cases


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An organisation. For example a company, a business, a school, a sports club, a health body.


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A group. For example a class of pupils, an individual team within an organisation, a project group, a sports club.


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An individual. For example a patient, a client, a specific student/pupil, a manager/leader.


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An event. For example a sporting occasion, a cultural event, a news story, an historical event.


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An issue. For example a dilemma, problem, critical event, change of practice.


Theoretical approaches

You may have to ask yourself which theoretical approaches that you have covered in your course are relevant to the particular case you have before you. In some instances this may be obvious but in others it may be less so. A theoretical approach is useful as it can give you specific questions to answer; specific things to look for. For example, in business, this may take the form of a SWOT analysis - Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) or you may look at the Porter's Five Forces model. There are similar models in other disciplines which you may have been introduced to already - or the brief may tell you which to use.

No obvious theoretical approach?

If you have not been provided with a theoretical approach don't worry. You can still ask questions. For example: 

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What is this case study about in general? What is the big picture - the main issue that this case study is an example of?

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What specific issues are associated with it? What makes this case interesting?

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What do I already know about these issues?

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How do they link with the theories we have studied? (See below)

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What alternative approaches to dealing with the issues would be appropriate?

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If an alternative approach were used, what impact might it have?


Linking to theory

The most crucial element about a case study is your ability to link the real world example to theory. This gives you more insight into both because

  • The real life example will mean you can see how theory works in practice.
  • Theory can help you see why things happened as they did and help you come up with alternative approaches and find solutions/make recommendations.

Real life is complex and messy. Do not expect it to nicely fit into theories which are by their very nature best guesses (albeit well researched) and generalisations. However, you will have been given the case specifically because it does relate to some theories you have learned or need to be aware of.

So you need to:

  • Look back through your lecture notes and reading lists to see if anything seems to fit with the case.
  • Search for research that relates to the issues you identified during your analysis. Note these will not necessarily be labelled as 'theories'. Claims made in research papers can all be described as theories. 

Now consider some or all of the questions below:

  • Do the facts and issues raised in the case support any theories?
  • Do the fact and issues raised in the case invalidate or undermine any theories?
  • Can any of the theories explain why issues arose?
  • Can any of the theories back up the actions taken?
  • Can any of the theories suggest alternative courses of action?
  • Do you think any of these alternatives would work best in your case? Why?

Armed with the answers to many of these questions, you are ready to start writing up your case study.


Writing up your case study

The most common ways to write up a case study are as essays or reports. The main differences between the two will be how you structure your work.

Structuring a case study essay

Case study essays usually have to answer a specific question using examples from your case study. They are written in continuous prose (a series of paragraphs with no subheadings). They should be structured much like any other essay with an introduction, main body and conclusion. 

Introduction

This needs to have three things:

  1. An introduction to your case (you don't need to rewrite it, just summarise it giving the important parts for your essay).
  2. A position statement (your answer to the overall question).
  3. An indication of how the rest of the essay is structured.

These do not have to be in that particular order but they do all need to be included.

Main body

Generally you will organise this thematically. Each paragraph needs to make a point and then use information from your case to illustrate and back up that point. You will also bring in theory (other reading) to strengthen your argument. It can be acceptable to occasionally start with the example from your case and then show how this links to theory and the conclusion this leads you to; however, it is better to let your reader know the point you are making first, as then they are not having to second guess this until the end of the paragraph. 

Each point in your main body should be leading back to the position statement you made in the introduction.

Conclusion

What are the main lessons you learned from the case study? How well did the theory fit with the real world example? Have you been asked to provide solutions or recommendations? If so, give them here.

Reference list

Include all the sources you have cited in your essay.

Structuring a case study report

These can vary between disciplines so check your assignment guidance. A typical case study would include:

Table of contents

See our MS Word pages or our MS Office Software SkillsGuide for instructions on how to create these automatically.

Executive summary - optional, check if required

Give an overview of your whole report including main approaches, findings and recommendations. This is a bit like the abstract of a journal article.

Introduction

  • Context (Background)
  • Purpose - what is the case study trying to achieve? 
  • Approach - are you using any particular theoretical tools or research approaches?

Discussion/Analysis

  • Identification of issues and problems
  • Links to theories that help you explain the case
  • Explanation of causes or implications of the issues identified
  • Possible solutions (if required, check your instructions)

Conclusion

These depends on what you were asked to do but could include:

  • Main lessons learned
  • Best solutions and reasons why
  • Recommendations (may have their own section)
  • Action plan (may have its own section)

Reference list

  • Include all the sources you have cited in the report.

Appendices if required

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