Cases and simulations both engage learners by telling meaningful stories. The purpose of a case study is to give the learners a realistic situation to which they can apply the concepts they learned in training. The closer this can come to real-world application and practice, the better. This is where the line between a “case” and a “simulation” gets blurry. Don’t worry too much about the terminology. Properly designed, cases and simulations both help learners move from theory into practice by giving them problems to analyze and solve that are relevant to their own real life situations.
Sometimes, a case is used at the beginning of a session to open up discussion on the topic. Other times, a case is used in the middle of the session as a way to put together several concepts already learned and as a change in the instructional method. A case may also be used at the end of the session as a way to have learners “put it all together” and apply what they have learned to analyze and solve a new problem. I frequently help clients use cases for this purpose. Consider how you want to use the case in the course as you think about writing it up.
Cases vs. Simulations:
The difference between a case and a simulation is that cases keep the situation in the third person for analysis and discussion, where simulations make the basic scenario and information more interactive. Cases are less daunting and more cognitive than simulations; analysis and problem solving is all that is required. Simulations require some form of action; applying concepts and skills to the simulated environment. The first step in developing a good simulation is usually to write up the case in sufficient detail.
Writing a Custom Case Study
Regardless of where you use it, follow these criteria to write a good organization-specific case:
- The issue must be one that is meaningful and helpful for the course participants to consider as they learn. If the story is drawn from a real situation (recommended), it would be very helpful to explain the real decision taken and the outcomes of that decision, both positive and negative, intended and unintended.
- There should be a story or narrative of no more than two pages (ideally one page) that explains the issue that the organization or department faces, as well as the major relevant facts about the situation. Be sure to make clear in the story how the situation is relevant to the topic of the course.
- The key people or stakeholders involved in the situation should be identified, with roles and/or titles. These should be limited to no more than five people, for practical purposes. Do not describe or name anyone who is not important to the issue. There should be a single primary character described who is the protagonist of the story. Usually, this is a person in a role that is similar to the ones that the training participants hold or are focused on attaining.
- The context or setting for the issue should be included. Why was this an issue at this point in time? This could be in the narrative or in a separate paragraph.
- The case should be one that is “safe” and okay to discuss, or names and specifics should be changed enough to make the real individuals and departments unrecognizable to participants. The goal is to preserve the reputation, credibility, and relationships of people involved in the decision, if this was a real case.
- Optionally, the obvious options or courses of action for the primary character may be described. This may be done in the narrative or in bullet format. Include between three and five options and enough detail for each to allow readers to understand the advantages and disadvantages of each option. This may not be relevant for all topics and cases.
- On a separate page or worksheet, write the questions that you want the learning groups to answer as they work through the case activity. This can be as simple as, “What should the leader in this situation do?” and “Why?” It is often helpful to include a couple of questions about the topic, as well, such as, “How did the leader apply the XYZ leadership competencies?” or “Where in the Execution model did the process break down for this leader? Why?”
- Often, the learning purpose will suggest that there is a “right answer” for the case. If this is true, provide facilitator notes to explain what to look for in a correct answer from the learners. This will help guide discussion and debrief of the case.
You can use case studies as effective learning activities for thinking, discussion, and analysis. If you want to build skill, take it a step further and turn the case into a fully-fledged simulation. Cases are great for talking, but a simulation will get learners to the point of doing.