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Why Case Studies Help to Accelerate Learning

Why Case Studies Help to Accelerate Learning

When an individual needs development, or needs to learn new skills or behaviors in some way, there are several options that are available. This might include on or off the job training, coaching, mentoring, attendance at a conference or seminar, or even completing a relevant e-learning module. However, these will all offer mainly theoretical advice and input and be short on practical learning opportunities for the individual. An excellent alternative, is to offer individuals a well-constructed case study which can offer practical challenges but in the safe environment of an exercise which can be openly discussed and debriefed (and be then readily applied to real work life situations).

A well-constructed case study will offer a line manager, facilitator or professional trainer or coach a compact and self-contained story of one or more individuals who find themselves in a challenging situation of some kind.  The case study itself can be written to be short or long but should describe both the situation and the challenge is clear and compelling ways.

Although case studies can go on to ask a number of very specific questions about what appears to be going on in the situation described, there are often three standard questions which can be put to individuals reading the case study to help them to think about the issues raised. In broad terms these questions are typically as follows. They are about:

  1. Reflecting on what is going on in the case study (from the participants’ perspective and that of the person described within it).
  2. Diagnosing where the main areas where attention could be focused given the description and analysis given (again from the participants’ perspective and that of the person described within it).
  3. Coming up with different ways of behaving or new priority actions that could be taken by this individual or individuals, based on both the reflection and diagnosis above.

Most case studies can be displayed visually (as an overhead or projection slide) if being used in a group situation or simply handed out to be read by individuals as well. Individuals can then either work alone or can be formed into teams of 2, 3 or 4 people, depending upon overall group size, and then given time to read the case study and to answer the  questions asked. This may be as little as 15 minutes but for longer of involved case studies this may run for 30 minutes or even an hour. At the end of the allotted time each individual or team can present its findings back to the whole group.

Once the presentations are completed, a facilitator is not only well-served to hold a discussion with the individual or team but to offer some new insights. This is simply because a debrief discussion is always one of the most valuable parts of the process and helps to reinforce people’s learning.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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One Comment

  1. Jeff Griffiths, CMCOctober 18, 2013 at 3:07 pm

    Case studies (if they are properly constructed) are great learning tools – as evidenced by the case method used by Harvard Business School and their emulators. We use them in our practice, especially wit HR cases, discipline, or critical thinking/problem solving. The best cases have multiple possible solutions, no “pat answers” – they generate a great deal of introspection and discussion within the group. I think that’s the real value, and why they work – the key to REALLY driving home the lesson is in forcing people to not only think about what to do, but WHY.

About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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