Teaching History Through the Case Method

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T he case method is typically synonymous with business school curriculum. Through active case discussion, students put themselves in the proverbial shoes of a case protagonist, often a manager or leader of a company or organization facing a difficult business challenge. Students apply critical thinking skills to work through complicated problems and process contending points of view, then engage with their classmates in developing a solution together. This intellectual energy is the pedagogical “magic” instructors strive for.

Perhaps a lesser-known power of the case method, however, is in its applicability across a variety of topics and student levels. Take, for instance, history, government, civics, and democracy—topics that feel particularly pertinent given the roller-coaster US election and other polarizing political events around the world.

In an effort to bring these important topics, particularly American history, to life, historian David Moss, the Paul Whiton Cherington Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School (HBS), has taken the case method’s magic from the business school to the high school. In 2015, Moss launched a pilot program in 11 public, charter, and private high schools across the United States. He provided 23 history and civics teachers with historical cases that showcase the foundations of US democracy—as well as worksheets, assignment questions, and teaching plans. He then made the cases available for free to high school students to encourage case teaching among this group.

The goal of this program, called the Case Method Project , is to demonstrate that teaching with cases can strengthen high school and college education as well as ensure “a more exciting, relevant, and effective experience for students and teachers across a range of subjects,” according to its site.

“The results [of the Case Method Project] have been incredibly positive, especially in terms of strengthening students’ critical thinking, their retention and understanding of course material, and their civic interest and engagement.” David Moss

Since its initial launch, the program has grown considerably. Today Moss is working with over 350 teachers in more than 250 high schools across 45 states and the District of Columbia. “We’ve now reached well over 30,000 students as part of the initial pilot,” he says. “The project has grown considerably over the last several years, and the results have been incredibly positive, especially in terms of strengthening students’ critical thinking, their retention and understanding of course material, and their civic interest and engagement. Because of this success, we’re aiming to reach much larger numbers of teachers and students going forward through the new Case Method Institute for Education and Democracy, which started up this summer.”

The case method has proven remarkably effective in teaching high schoolers the critical thinking skills that the world’s future leaders so greatly need. Here, to help educators see the different ways and venues in which case teaching can be used, we showcase the collection of cases Moss authored and provided in support of this effort.

Democracy Cases to Use in Class

Here is a list of Moss’s cases , which you can use to engage students in conversations about US history and democracy. We hope you find these cases helpful.

James Madison, the ‘Federal Negative,’ and the Making of the U.S. Constitution (1787) and as a supplement: In Detail: Debt and Paper Money in Rhode Island (1786)

Battle Over a Bank: Defining the Limits of Federal Power Under a New Constitution (1791)

Democracy, Sovereignty, and the Struggle over Cherokee Removal (1836)

Banking and Politics in Antebellum New York (1838)

Property, Suffrage, and the "Right of Revolution" in Rhode Island, 1842

Debt and Democracy: The New York Constitutional Convention of 1846

The Struggle Over Public Education in Early America (1851)

A Nation Divided: The United States and the Challenge of Secession (1861)

Reconstruction A: The Crisis of 1877

Reconstruction B: Jury Rights in Virginia, 1877-1880

An Australian Ballot for California? (1891)

Labor, Capital, and Government: The Anthracite Coal Strike of 1902

The Jungle and the Debate over Federal Meat Inspection in 1906

The Battle Over the Initiative and Referendum in Massachusetts (1918)

Regulating Radio in the Age of Broadcasting (1927)

The Pecora Hearings (1932-34)

Martin Luther King and the Struggle for Black Voting Rights (1965)

Democracy and Women’s Rights in America: The Fight over the ERA (1982)

Manufacturing Constituencies: Race and Redistricting in North Carolina, 1993

Leadership and Independence at the Federal Reserve (2009)

Citizens United and Corporate Speech (2010)

Do you use the case method to spark discussion and debate on topics outside of business disciplines? Let us know .

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In This Section

  • Reflective Essay
  • Project Summary

How to Use This Case Study: A Guide for Students and Teachers

  • Migration and the Twentieth-Century South: An Overview
  • Study Questions
  • Population Statistics
  • Agricultural Statistics
  • Images of Farming
  • Business, Industry, and Government
  • Annotated Bibliography of Primary Sources
  • Acknowledgements


This case study is intended to help students develop a better understanding of why and how migration takes place and what the impact of migration is on the places people migrate to and the places people leave. More specifically, it is designed to help students develop a better understanding of migration in the twentieth century American South and of the role of migration in Southern history. The case study is also intended as an exercise in the use of primary sources and how the writing of good history depends on finding and carefully interpreting primary sources. The audience for this case study is college history students, although advanced high school students are more than capable of making use of it also.

Three North Carolina counties located on the Virginia border will be examined during the period from 1940-1999. A collection of primary sources* has been assembled that consists of on-site sources and links to primary sources at other web sites. These sources include interviews, statistics drawn from U.S. Census records, and photographs. Secondary sources** are also available in the form of a brief overview of migration on-site and links to a number of other sites with more extensive studies of migration and economic and social change in the South. A sizeable body of primary and secondary source material is thus available to students. In fact, there is more information on this site and at the web sites linked to this site than the typical student has the time or interest to read through. Students must, therefore, be selective with their reading both as to the sites they choose to explore and how closely they read particular texts. This too is what good historians do and indeed what all of us must learn to do in order to manage the tremendous amounts of information that come our way in this "Age of Information."

The study questions are the key to this case study; they are really a navigational aid that enables students to steer through the primary sources. Ideally, the answers derived from digging through the assembled primary sources will make the general analysis in the overview more meaningful and will flesh out with details what were before only seemingly vague generalizations. We hope students may also get a better handle on the "why" of migration by studying a small area so intensely. Questions in each unit in the study guide are organized from simple questions requiring simple answers to questions that require complex, analytical answers. The idea here is that the exercise will help students work through the step-by-step process of writing an historical analysis, a process that often leaves students sitting mystified behind piles of books and stacks of note cards. Teachers may assign a group of questions to students or, for a more extensive project, all of the questions. Teachers might also assign groups of questions to different discussion groups in a class and have each group develop an oral presentation based on their findings.

Where to begin? Begin with the " Overview ." Make your decision at that point as to whether you will to read some of the other secondary sources linked to the "Overview." Then move to the " Study Questions ." They will guide you to particular primary sources on and off thisweb site.

*Primary sources are firsthand accounts of a period or event in history by someone who was there or who talked to someone who was there. Government documents, pictures, newspaper accounts, diaries, government statistics, memoirs and interviews are all examples of primary sources. These sources need not be concerned with "major" events; they might record the annual harvest in a county, an industrial fire, a corn shucking, or the national divorce rate.

**Secondary sources are what historians do with primary sources. A secondary source is thus an analysis of a topic or issue that employs primary sources and other secondary sources. Is it possible to create a secondary source solely by relying on other secondary sources? The answer is "yes" but historians are suspicious of the validity of historical observations based solely on research in the secondary sources just as a farmer might be suspicious of anyone who claims to farm but never has dirty hands. While students may have no interest in writing history, most historians feel students should at least be aware of the connection between primary and secondary sources. This awareness, we believe, enhances the ability of students to critically assess secondary source material.

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The History of the Case Study at Harvard Business School

faculty and student engaged in a classroom case discussion

  • 28 Feb 2017

Many first-time HBS Online participants are surprised to learn that, often, the professor is not at the center of their learning experience. Instead of long faculty lectures, the HBS Online learning model centers on smaller, more digestible pieces of content that require participants to interact with each other, test concepts, and learn from real-world examples.

Often, the professor fades into the background and lets the focus shift to interviews with executives, industry leaders, and small business owners. Some students might be left thinking, "Wait, where did that professor go? Why am I learning about a grocery store in Harvard Square?"

In the words of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy , “Don’t panic.” These interviews, or cases, feature leaders at companies of all sizes and provide valuable examples of business concepts in action. This case study method forms the backbone of the Harvard Business School curriculum.

Back in the 1920s, HBS professors decided to develop and experiment with innovative and unique business instruction methods. As the first school in the world to design a signature, distinctive program in business, later to be called the MBA, there was a need for a teaching method that would benefit this novel approach.

HBS professors selected and took a few pages to summarize recent events, momentous challenges, strategic planning, and important decisions undertaken by major companies and organizations. The idea was, and remains to this day, that through direct contact with a real-world case, students will think independently about those facts, discuss and compare their perspectives and findings with their peers, and eventually discover a new concept on their own.

Central to the case method is the idea that students are not provided the "answer" or resolution to the problem at hand. Instead, just like a board member, CEO, or manager, the student is forced to analyze a situation and find solutions without full knowledge of all methods and facts. Without excluding more traditional aspects, such as interaction with professors and textbooks, the case method provides the student with the opportunity to think and act like managers.

Since 1924, the case method has been the most widely applied and successful teaching instrument to come out of HBS, and it is used today in almost all MBA and Executive Education courses there, as well as in hundreds of other top business schools around the world. The application of the case method is so extensive that HBS students will often choose to rely on cases, instead of textbooks or other material, for their research. Large corporations use the case method as well to approach their own challenges, while competing universities create their own versions for their students.

This is what the case method does—it puts students straight into the game, and ensures they acquire not just skills and abstract knowledge, but also a solid understanding of the outside world.

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Encyclopedia of Case Study Research

  • Edited by: Albert J. Mills , Gabrielle Durepos & Elden Wiebe
  • Publisher: SAGE Publications, Inc.
  • Publication year: 2010
  • Online pub date: December 27, 2012
  • Discipline: Anthropology
  • Methods: Case study research
  • DOI: https:// doi. org/10.4135/9781412957397
  • Print ISBN: 9781412956703
  • Online ISBN: 9781412957397
  • Buy the book icon link

Reader's guide

Entries a-z, subject index.

Case study research has a long history within the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, dating back to the early 1920's. At first it was a useful way for researchers to make valid inferences from events outside the laboratory in ways consistent with the rigorous practices of investigation inside the lab. Over time, case study approaches garnered interest in multiple disciplines as scholars studied phenomena in context. Despite widespread use, case study research has received little attention among the literature on research strategies.

The Encyclopedia of Case Study Research provides a compendium on the important methodological issues in conducting case study research and explores both the strengths and weaknesses of different paradigmatic approaches. These two volumes focus on the distinctive characteristics of case study research and its place within and alongside other research methodologies.

Key Features

Presents a definition of case study research that can be used in different fields of study; Describes case study as a research strategy rather than as a single tool for decision making and inquiry; Guides rather than dictates, readers understanding and applications of case study research; Includes a critical summary in each entry, which raises additional matters for reflection; Makes case study relevant to researchers at various stages of their careers, across philosophic divides, and throughout diverse disciplines

Academic Disciplines; Case Study Research Design; Conceptual Issues; Data Analysis; Data Collection; Methodological Approaches; Theoretical Traditions; Theory Development and Contributions

From Case Study Research

Types of Case Study Research

Front Matter

  • Editorial Board
  • List of Entries
  • Reader's Guide
  • About the Editors
  • Contributors
  • Introduction

Reader’s Guide

Back matter.

  • Selected Bibliography: Case Study Publications by Contributing Authors
  • Case Study Research in Anthropology
  • Before-and-After Case Study Design
  • Action-Based Data Collection
  • Activity Theory
  • Case Study and Theoretical Science
  • Analytic Generalization
  • ANTi-History
  • Case Study Research in Business and Management
  • Blended Research Design
  • Bayesian Inference and Boolean Logic
  • Analysis of Visual Data
  • Actor-Network Theory
  • Chicago School
  • Case Study as a Teaching Tool
  • Case Study Research in Business Ethics
  • Bounding the Case
  • Authenticity and Bad Faith
  • Anonymity and Confidentiality
  • Colonialism
  • Authenticity
  • Case Study in Creativity Research
  • Case Study Research in Education
  • Case Selection
  • Author Intentionality
  • Case-to-Case Synthesis
  • Anonymizing Data for Secondary Use
  • Autoethnography
  • Constructivism
  • Concatenated Theory
  • Case Study Research in Tourism
  • Case Study Research in Feminism
  • Causal Case Study: Explanatory Theories
  • Archival Records as Evidence
  • Base and Superstructure
  • Critical Realism
  • Conceptual Argument
  • Case Study With the Elderly
  • Case Study Research in Medicine
  • Case Within a Case
  • Contentious Issues in Case Study Research
  • Chronological Order
  • Audiovisual Recording
  • Case Study as a Methodological Approach
  • Critical Theory
  • Conceptual Model: Causal Model
  • Collective Case Study
  • Case Study Research in Political Science
  • Comparative Case Study
  • Cultural Sensitivity and Case Study
  • Coding: Axial Coding
  • Autobiography
  • Dialectical Materialism
  • Conceptual Model: Operationalization
  • Configurative-Ideographic Case Study
  • Case Study Research in Psychology
  • Critical Incident Case Study
  • Dissertation Proposal
  • Coding: Open Coding
  • Case Study Database
  • Class Analysis
  • Epistemology
  • Conceptual Model in a Qualitative Research Project
  • Critical Pedagogy and Digital Technology
  • Case Study Research in Public Policy
  • Cross-Sectional Design
  • Ecological Perspectives
  • Coding: Selective Coding
  • Case Study Protocol
  • Existentialism
  • Conceptual Model in a Quantitative Research Project
  • Diagnostic Case Study Research
  • Decision Making Under Uncertainty
  • Cognitive Biases
  • Case Study Surveys
  • Codifying Social Practices
  • Contribution, Theoretical
  • Explanatory Case Study
  • Deductive-Nomological Model of Explanation
  • Masculinity and Femininity
  • Cognitive Mapping
  • Consent, Obtaining Participant
  • Communicative Action
  • Formative Context
  • Credibility
  • Exploratory Case Study
  • Deviant Case Analysis
  • Objectivism
  • Communicative Framing Analysis
  • Contextualization
  • Community of Practice
  • Frame Analysis
  • Docile Bodies
  • Inductivism
  • Discursive Frame
  • Comparing the Case Study With Other Methodologies
  • Historical Materialism
  • Equifinality
  • Institutional Ethnography
  • Healthcare Practice Guidelines
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: ATLAS.ti
  • Consciousness Raising
  • Interpretivism
  • Instrumental Case Study
  • Pedagogy and Case Study
  • Pluralism and Case Study
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: CAITA (Computer-Assisted Interpretive Textual Analysis)
  • Data Resources
  • Contradiction
  • Liberal Feminism
  • Explanation Building
  • Intercultural Performance
  • Event-Driven Research
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: Kwalitan
  • Depth of Data
  • Critical Discourse Analysis
  • Managerialism
  • Extension of Theory
  • Intrinsic Case Study
  • Exemplary Case Design
  • Power/Knowledge
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: MAXQDA 2007
  • Diaries and Journals
  • Critical Sensemaking
  • Falsification
  • Limited-Depth Case Study
  • Extended Case Method
  • Computer-Based Analysis of Qualitative Data: NVIVO
  • Direct Observation as Evidence
  • North American Case Research Association
  • Functionalism
  • Multimedia Case Studies
  • Extreme Cases
  • Researcher as Research Tool
  • Concept Mapping
  • Discourse Analysis
  • Decentering Texts
  • Generalizability
  • Participatory Action Research
  • Congruence Analysis
  • Documentation as Evidence
  • Deconstruction
  • Paradigm Plurality in Case Study Research
  • Genericization
  • Participatory Case Study
  • Holistic Designs
  • Utilitarianism
  • Constant Causal Effects Assumption
  • Ethnostatistics
  • Dialogic Inquiry
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Indeterminacy
  • Content Analysis
  • Fiction Analysis
  • Discourse Ethics
  • Indexicality
  • Pracademics
  • Integrating Independent Case Studies
  • Conversation Analysis
  • Field Notes
  • Double Hermeneutic
  • Postcolonialism
  • Processual Case Research
  • Cross-Case Synthesis and Analysis
  • Postmodernism
  • Macrolevel Social Mechanisms
  • Program Evaluation and Case Study
  • Longitudinal Research
  • Going Native
  • Ethnographic Memoir
  • Postpositivism
  • Middle-Range Theory
  • Program-Logic Model
  • Mental Framework
  • Document Analysis
  • Informant Bias
  • Ethnography
  • Poststructuralism
  • Naturalistic Generalization
  • Prospective Case Study
  • Mixed Methods in Case Study Research
  • Factor Analysis
  • Ethnomethodology
  • Poststructuralist Feminism
  • Overdetermination
  • Real-Time Cases
  • Most Different Systems Design
  • Eurocentrism
  • Radical Empiricism
  • Plausibility
  • Retrospective Case Study
  • High-Quality Analysis
  • Iterative Nodes
  • Radical Feminism
  • Probabilistic Explanation
  • Re-Use of Qualitative Data
  • Multiple-Case Designs
  • Language and Cultural Barriers
  • Process Tracing
  • Single-Case Designs
  • Multi-Site Case Study
  • Interactive Methodology, Feminist
  • Multiple Sources of Evidence
  • Scientific Method
  • Spiral Case Study
  • Naturalistic Inquiry
  • Interpreting Results
  • Narrative Analysis
  • Front Stage and Back Stage
  • Scientific Realism
  • Reporting Case Study Research
  • Storyselling
  • Natural Science Model
  • Socialist Feminism
  • Rhetoric in Research Reporting
  • Number of Cases
  • Naturalistic Context
  • Symbolic Interactionism
  • Statistical Generalization
  • Outcome-Driven Research
  • Knowledge Production
  • Nonparticipant Observation
  • Governmentality
  • Substantive Theory
  • Paradigmatic Cases
  • Method of Agreement
  • Objectivity
  • Grounded Theory
  • Theory-Building With Cases
  • Method of Difference
  • Over-Rapport
  • Hermeneutics
  • Theory-Testing With Cases
  • Multicollinearity
  • Participant Observation
  • Underdetermination
  • Multidimensional Scaling
  • Imperialism
  • Polar Types
  • Institutional Theory, Old and New
  • Problem Formulation
  • Pattern Matching
  • Personality Tests
  • Intertextuality
  • Quantitative Single-Case Research Design
  • Re-Analysis of Previous Data
  • Isomorphism
  • Quasi-Experimental Design
  • Regulating Group Mind
  • Questionnaires
  • Langue and Parôle
  • Quick Start to Case Study Research
  • Relational Analysis
  • Reflexivity
  • Layered Nature of Texts
  • Random Assignment
  • Replication
  • Life History
  • Research Framework
  • Reliability
  • Logocentrism
  • Research Objectives
  • Rival Explanations
  • Repeated Observations
  • Management of Impressions
  • Research Proposals
  • Secondary Data as Primary
  • Researcher-Participant Relationship
  • Means of Production
  • Research Questions, Types of Retrospective Case Study
  • Serendipity Pattern
  • Situational Analysis
  • Sensitizing Concepts
  • Modes of Production
  • Standpoint Analysis
  • Subjectivism
  • Multimethod Research Program
  • Socially Distributed Knowledge
  • Statistical Analysis
  • Subject Rights
  • Multiple Selfing
  • Theoretical Saturation
  • Native Points of View
  • Statistics, Use of in Case Study
  • Temporal Bracketing
  • Triangulation
  • Negotiated Order
  • Textual Analysis
  • Use of Digital Data
  • Network Analysis
  • Thematic Analysis
  • Utilization
  • One-Dimensional Culture
  • Visual Research Methods
  • Ordinary Troubles
  • Theory, Role of
  • Organizational Culture
  • Webs of Significance
  • Within-Case Analysis
  • Performativity
  • Phenomenology
  • Practice-Oriented Research
  • Primitivism
  • Qualitative Analysis in Case Study
  • Qualitative Comparative Analysis
  • Self-Confrontation Method
  • Self-Presentation
  • Sensemaking
  • Signifier and Signified
  • Sign System
  • Social-Interaction Theory
  • Storytelling
  • Structuration
  • Symbolic Value
  • Symbolic Violence
  • Thick Description
  • Writing and Difference

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  1. Teaching History Through the Case Method

    November 7, 2020 T he case method is typically synonymous with business school curriculum. Through active case discussion, students put themselves in the proverbial shoes of a case protagonist, often a manager or leader of a company or organization facing a difficult business challenge.

  2. How to Use This Case Study: A Guide for Students and Teachers

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  3. The History of the Case Study at Harvard Business School

    The History of the Case Study at Harvard Business School 28 Feb 2017 Yannis Normand Many first-time HBS Online participants are surprised to learn that, often, the professor is not at the center of their learning experience.

  4. Methods of Analysis Historical Case Study

    historical case is a particular someone or something in the past that can be conceptually aggregated and temporally limited (e.g., a person, couple, family, group, collaborative, community, network, etc. or controversy, event, discovery, invention, medium, phenomenon, situation, text, etc.).

  5. Sage Research Methods

    Case study research has a long history within the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities, dating back to the early 1920's. At first it was a useful way for researchers to make valid inferences from events outside the laboratory in ways consistent with the rigorous practices of investigation inside the lab.