The SoTL Advocate

Supporting efforts to make public the reflection and study of teaching and learning at Illinois State University and beyond…

Interrupted Case Studies and Unexpected Results

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Written by Bill Anderson, Associate Professor in the Department of Family and Consumer Sciences at Illinois State University

Note: Work on this project was supported by a 2016 SoTL Small Grant from the Office of the Cross Endowed Chair in SoTL at ISU

It is generally agreed that the value of fundamental course content is as a means to deeper learning. Specifically, learning to successfully apply the content to problem-solving and to transfer knowledge to future, more meaningful applications. Often, the most significant improvement teachers can make is giving students more application opportunities and real-world observational experiences related to the subject material. However, less class time is typically available for this perhaps more meaningful learning. When authentic application is impractical or not possible, other forms of classroom doing and observing can be valuable. Past experience has taught me that utilizing case studies can help provide an opportunity to apply content that students might not have otherwise.

From this idea, I began searching for available case studies relevant to one of my graduate classes, FCS 408 – Human Development in Social Context. Finding very few satisfactory materials, I decided to use a long-lived documentary, 56-Up, directed by Michael Apted, as an interrupted video case study (IVCS). 56-Up follows several children from the time they were seven-year-olds in 1964, revisiting them every seven years until age 56, in 2013. Each week students encountered the same group of real people, seven years older. Following this interrupted case-study format, and using the subject matter of the course, students applied relevant theoretical positions to anticipate growth and change as a collection of unique lives progressed. Students worked with incomplete information, made preliminary predictions, gathered missing information, refined their hypotheses, and continued with tentative predictions in weekly reflective essays and class discussions.

A pre-test consisting of 39 questions relating to established theories in the Human Development field (i.e. Erikson’s Psychosocial Development, Perry’s Reflective Judgment, Bronfenbrenner’s Bioecoogical model) was administered prior to viewing 56-Up. Post-test results at the completion of the documentary indicated essentially a two letter grade improvement from pre-test. These results were further substantiated utilizing a Pattern-Matching analysis (Yin, 2009) that indicated a significant increase of critical thinking across the seven-week period. However, there were unanticipated findings as well, as the IVCS was found to successfully address limitations frequently associated with case-based instruction (CBI). For instance, Mayo (2004) cited two common limitations with CBI addressed in this study:

  • most case studies are limited in length and relate to only a few course concepts
  • because many case studies are fictional, students may likely find it less valuable.

56-Up reflects real lives over almost 50 years, making it possible to apply multiple important theories across the lifespan. Results also indicated that narratives of actual events are indeed perceived by students as more engaging and evocative.

Egleston (2013) also sees CBI as somewhat limited, reporting that if a student is presented with a case study as a set of questions, what is very likely being assessed is simply the student’s ability to locate predetermined answers openly available within the case itself. In such an instance, Egleston reports that students do not learn where, or how, to ask appropriate questions; they learn to answer those asked by others. In effect, they simply learn that the answers are in front of them. In addition, it appears that many currently available case studies now have student responses, instructor write-ups, and class presentations readily available online. So, instructors must be aware of this possibility. 56-UP, as an IVCS, was wholly developed in real time with no readily available answers for students to cite or easily download.

Finally, because I served in the role of both teacher and researcher for this particular experiment, and despite my efforts to control factors that could have influenced the results, I acknowledge the potential for experimenter bias. Still, I am certainly pleased with the outcome and will continue using the interrupted format for the foreseeable future. I’ve also recently come across a very similar documentary, Angus Gibson’s 21-Up South Africa, which also shows great potential in teaching. I hope to begin developing this idea and use this second documentary next year.


Blog References

Egleston, D.O. (2013). The interactive, progressive case study. Business Education Innovative Journal, 5(1), 101-104.

Mayo, J.A. (2004). Using case-based instruction to bridge the gap between theory and practice in psychology of adjustment. Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 17, 137-146.

Yin, R.K. (2009). Case study research: Design and methods. London: Sage.


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