What Is a Case Study?

When you’re performing research as part of your job or for a school assignment, you’ll probably come across case studies that help you to learn more about the topic at hand. But what is a case study and why are they helpful? Read on to learn all about case studies.

At face value, a case study is a deep dive into a topic. Case studies can be found in many fields, particularly across the social sciences and medicine. When you conduct a case study, you create a body of research based on an inquiry and related data from analysis of a group, individual or controlled research environment.

As a researcher, you can benefit from the analysis of case studies similar to inquiries you’re currently studying. Researchers often rely on case studies to answer questions that basic information and standard diagnostics cannot address.

Study a Pattern

One of the main objectives of a case study is to find a pattern that answers whatever the initial inquiry seeks to find. This might be a question about why college students are prone to certain eating habits or what mental health problems afflict house fire survivors. The researcher then collects data, either through observation or data research, and starts connecting the dots to find underlying behaviors or impacts of the sample group’s behavior.

Gather Evidence

During the study period, the researcher gathers evidence to back the observed patterns and future claims that’ll be derived from the data. Since case studies are usually presented in the professional environment, it’s not enough to simply have a theory and observational notes to back up a claim. Instead, the researcher must provide evidence to support the body of study and the resulting conclusions.

Present Findings

As the study progresses, the researcher develops a solid case to present to peers or a governing body. Case study presentation is important because it legitimizes the body of research and opens the findings to a broader analysis that may end up drawing a conclusion that’s more true to the data than what one or two researchers might establish. The presentation might be formal or casual, depending on the case study itself.

Draw Conclusions

Once the body of research is established, it’s time to draw conclusions from the case study. As with all social sciences studies, conclusions from one researcher shouldn’t necessarily be taken as gospel, but they’re helpful for advancing the body of knowledge in a given field. For that purpose, they’re an invaluable way of gathering new material and presenting ideas that others in the field can learn from and expand upon.

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Case studies of sustained and successful development cooperation - Supporting Transformational Change Booklet

October 30, 2015.

UNDP has been engaged in development cooperation for more than 50 years. While the modalities of its projects and programmes have evolved, the ultimate purpose of its work has remained the same: to assist UN Member States to improve the living standards and life opportunities of their citizens (empow¬ered lives) by supporting the development of national capacity so that member states can manage their own development programmes (resilient nations). UNDP has not been the only development agency which has worked towards this objective, and indeed it has always worked as an integral part of the wider UN System in each country, as well as alongside many other multilateral, bilateral and non-governmental practitioners. Nonetheless, UNDP is one of those with the longest engagement, the broadest mandate, the most partner countries and the most extensive country representation.

The value of development cooperation is under renewed challenge and UNDP is embarking on a process of institutional renewal. The time is ripe, therefore, for UNDP to identify and document examples of successful and sustained development cooperation that have contributed to transformational change at the country or subregional level. These examples — presented here — help to identify generic lessons for successful development cooperation that can be applied in future programme design and implementation.

Document Type

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The Case Study Design and Development Course at Emory University uses didactic and hands-on training to develop competency in case study design and development and other pedagogical skills. Upon completion of the course, students will be able to design and develop a thoughtful, detailed, and culturally tailored public health case study for use in public health training and workshops.

case study development


Published on Let's Talk Development

Making the case for case studies in development practice, michael woolcock, this page in:.

case study development

Screenshots of the PBTETC textbook

In the textbook of PBTETC, three units focus on developing students’ understanding of the same core idea of “the properties and transformation of substances”. These three units set up tasks of different types and situations to realize the progressive development of students’ understanding of ideas, motivation to learn chemistry and collaboration. The theory of “situated learning” holds that, when acquiring information in a meaningful environment and connecting it with previous knowledge and experience, students can develop a connection between new information and previous knowledge, thus forming conceptual understanding (Blumenfeld et al., 1991 ; Krajcik & Czerniak, 2013 ). Students need to transfer the previous knowledge and experience when solving new problem. Through the study of these three units, students can achieve a gradual and in-depth understanding of concepts of substances. The types of project tasks cover designing a solution, analyzing production, designing and conducting investigation. The situation are from familiar and simple to unfamiliar and complex. PBL helps students answer questions about the world around them, thus stimulating their curiosity and sense of engagement in exploring what is happening (Krajcik & Czerniak, 2018 ). We used the frameworks in Tables A1 ~ A3 in the Additional file 1 to code “project learning objectives” in the textbook to determine the expected development level in each unit (see Fig.  2 ). When there were different levels of coding for the same ability in the goal, we took the highest level. For example, the objectives for unit 4 “Low Carbon Action” are:

Able to illustrate the main properties and uses of carbon dioxide with examples [UCI: Comprehension (level 2)]. Understand the relationship between the properties and uses of carbon dioxide and understand the transformation of carbon dioxide from the perspective of elements [UCI: Application (level 3)].

Actively participate in chemistry learning, understand the importance of implementing low-carbon actions, and cultivate students’ civic awareness [MLC: Responding (level 2)].

Actively participate in group collaboration, share their views, collaborate to complete the group low-carbon convention [COL: Collaboration consciousness (level 3)], and be able to analyze and explain the content of the convention based on the knowledge of carbon dioxide [UCI: Analysis (level 4)].

figure 2

(UCI stands for understanding of core ideas; MLC stands for motivation to learn chemistry; COL stands for collaboration.)

In addition to the competencies of understanding core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry and collaboration, these three units let students solve problems through chemical experiments, cultivate students’ scientific practice skills and problem-solving abilities. Based on the existing research on the impact of PBL on students, combined with the characteristics of these three units, in this research, we focused on the following competencies: understanding of core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry, collaboration, use of scientific practices, problem solving, and creativity.

Aims of the study

In summary, previous research on PBL has mainly studied the competencies of students in one or more aspects (Tseng et al., 2013 ; Xu & Liu, 2010 ; Williams & Simon, 2017 ), but little research has been done on the comprehensive value of PBL. Some studies have explored the changes in students’ performance over time (Harris et al., 2019 ; Marx et al., 2004 ), but students’ specific performance in PBL is not clear. Existing qualitative analyses, with relatively short time spans, cannot describe students’ development and changes across different units. We focus on determining students’ competencies as they construct artifacts in a PBL environment, tracking the learning development of the same students in different units. The detailed research questions are as follows:

RQ-1: What competencies do students demonstrate and develop as they construct artifacts in a PBL environment?

RQ-2: How do these competencies develop across the units?

As noted by Eisenhardt ( 1989 ) and Yin ( 2014 ), constructing a case study is an appropriate method when there is not much known about a topic. As little research has been done on the development of and changes in the same students across units, it is more appropriate to adopt the method of case study. To conduct this case study, we used several data sources, including classroom observation, student interviews and artifacts.

The presentation of artifacts is an important part of PBL. When students introduce their work, they present all kinds of knowledge, skills and attitudes they have acquired, which provides a good opportunity for evaluation (Krajcik & Czerniak 2018 ). At the end of each unit in PBLP, every student group will display and report their artifacts in class. At this time, experts and researchers go to the class of Huairou No. 1 Middle School for one day of research. In the morning, class observation was conducted, and a video camera was used to record the performance of students in class. In the afternoon, we invited 4 students in the selected group for interviews. After that, we communicated with the teacher of this class.


The participants in PBLP was a four-person student group (1 boy and 3 girls) from a class (40 students) in Beijing Huai Rou Number 1 Middle School, China, and all of them were local. Students in this class went directly to the school’s high school without taking China’s Senior High School Entrance Examination after graduating from 9th grade. Therefore, they did not have the pressure of the senior high school entrance examination compared with other middle school students, and they could spend more time in project-based learning. Before 9th grade, they had not studied chemistry, and the chemistry course of this class was taught by the same teacher, Ms. Xu, a young female teacher without any experience of project-based teaching.

We selected a four-person student group based on the chemistry scores of the 9th grade entrance examination, there was a significant difference of four students’ score rank in this group. The average score rank of the group was 4/8, mid-level in the class (there were 8 student groups in this class). The information of this student group is provided in Table  1 . The four members of this group were freely chosen by themselves, and they participated in the eight project-based learning units during the academic year.

Summary of chemistry curriculum in PBLP

Project-Based Teaching Experiment Textbook: Chemistry was published in 2018 and has been adopted by more than 10 middle schools in Beijing, Hebei, Shandong and other regions of China, earning extensive acclaims from teachers and students. To explore students’ understanding of “the properties and transformation of substances,” we chose three units (unit 4, unit 5 and unit 7) for research.

Unit 4 Low-Carbon Action

The greenhouse effect has had a negative influence on our lives. In this context, students will raise the driving question: How can carbon dioxide be reduced in the atmosphere to achieve a low-carbon life? In this unit, students will formulate a low-carbon convention to solve this problem. The content is so closely related to real life that it could stimulate students’ interest in learning. To formulate a low-carbon convention, students use the properties of carbon dioxide to convert it into other substances, thereby reducing the content of carbon dioxide. They work together to formulate low-carbon conventions, their sense of collaboration and environmental awareness are cultivated gradually.

Unit 5 reasonable use of metal products

Metal products are commonly used in life, this unit starts with the driving question: What problems will be encountered during the use of metal products? How do we use metal products rationally? This is a real and slightly complicated task because students should use the relevant knowledge of metal properties to analyze real vacuum cups, creatively design an instruction for vacuum cups according to users’ actual needs, and compile the manual of the designed vacuum cups. As a challenging task for individuals, it needs to be completed through group collaboration. Group members should communicate in time during the design of vacuum cups and solve problems together. In the process of completing the task, students realize the application value of the knowledge related to metal properties in life. Thus, their motivation to learn chemistry will be enhanced.

Unit 7 soil improvement

The driving question of this unit are: What are the elements required for plant growth? How do you improve the soil to make plants grow better? In this unit, students need to develop an understanding of the properties of acid, alkali and salt; explain phenomena in daily life with the properties of acid, alkali and salt; use related knowledge to plant a pot of plants they like; understand the relationship between soil acidity, soil fertility and plant growth; and establish a two-way relationship between the properties of acid, alkali and salt in real life. In this unit, students participate in a series of scientific practice, which are so motivational that students’ strong interest could be stimulated. This is an unfamiliar task, so students can better realize the importance of group collaboration to solve problems and actively participate in group collaboration.

Implementation of chemistry PBL

Student learning activities.

In each unit, students went through three types of lessons: Introductory lesson, process lesson and presentation lesson. In the introductory lesson, students understood the project background, appreciated the project value and became interested in project tasks. Teacher and students put forward driving questions together, identified the project objectives, teacher led students to break down and plan the project. During the process lessons, students needed to use the core ideas to solve a series of sub-questions and experienced diversified scientific practice activities, go through many rounds of problem solving process before finally solving the problems. The problem solving process can reflect students’ problem-solving competency, as well as what core chemistry knowledge has been learned and applied in this process. Students needed to collaborate during this process. Sometimes, the teacher asked the students to report this process in presentations. In presentation lesson, student groups introduced their artifacts through PPT, posters, cartoons and sitcoms in class.

For example, in unit 4 Low-carbon Actions, students investigated the effect of greenhouse before class, they felt the urgency of addressing environmental problems, and stimulated the motivation to participate in Low-carbon Actions. In the following process lessons, students determined the source and outlet of carbon dioxide by information searching and group communication, explored the nature of carbon dioxide through experiments, found ways to reduce carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere, and developed a low-carbon convention. Finally, the groups’ low-carbon conventions were displayed in the form of posters within the class (Table A4 in the Additional file 1 lists the main activities of three units).

Teacher training

As the chemistry teacher in this class had no previous experience in project-based teaching, a PBL expert group was specially set up to guide the teacher. The expert group consisted of three professors in the field of education from Beijing Normal University, one associate professor from Capital Normal University and four teaching and research staff members from Haidian Teachers’ Training School in Beijing. Before all units started, experts provided the teacher with professional training on PBL theory. During the implementation of each unit, the teachers participated in training twice. The first guidance was before the implementation of unit, the teacher introduced her teaching design, experts helped her revise teaching design. The second training occurred after the teaching of each unit, experts observed presentation class and then conducted interviews with the teacher and students, the teacher reflected on the teaching of the whole unit, and the experts gave advice for improving teaching.

Data collection

This research mainly collected data through classroom observations, student interviews and artifact collection (see Table  2 ). Both classroom observations and student interview data were recorded. The qualitative method was adopted in data analysis, therefore, we needed to transcribe video and audio data into words and then encode them. The main research objects were students, in the transcript, the teacher was anonymized as T, the two researchers were anonymized as R1 and R2, and four students were anonymized as S to protect their privacy. (Statement: All videos and interviews were approved by the students and the teacher.)

Classroom observations

During the presentation of each unit, observers went to the school to observe the performance of the student group in class. Observers include the first author, second author and project training experts of PBLP. The purpose of observation is that we are able to observe first-hand actual information about the students, to facilitate student interviews and to help teacher preferably improve teaching.

Focus group interviews

After student groups’ presentation, four students from the selected group were invited to participate in the interviews. Each interview lasted approximately 20 min, all interviews were conducted at the school. Interviewer and observers were the same individuals. A list of interview questions was developed, and each interview began with the same questions (see Table  3 for sample questions). The interviewee’s responses guided further questions.

With the consent of the students, we collected the students’ final artifacts of each unit and conducted an in-depth analysis of their artifacts to determine their level of understanding of core ideas. Figure  3 shows examples of student artifacts.

figure 3

Sample screenshots from student artifacts: ( a ) Low Carbon Convention Poster, ( b ) PPT screenshot of 55-degree cup introduction and ( c ) Report of Unit 7

Data analysis

The framework of Strauss and Corbin ( 1998 ) was adopted to analyze data, consisting of three steps: (1) classifying data; (2) creating patterns within each data source; and (3) examining patterns among data sources. In the following, the analysis process of each step will be detailed.

Categorizing data

To respond to the research questions, we coded the students’ performance data to determine the competencies demonstrated and developed in three units. This step was done by three coders (the first author of this paper and two master’s students majoring in chemistry education). Before coding, these three coders were trained to reach a consensus on the understanding of 6 competencies (understanding of core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry, collaboration, use of scientific practices, problem solving and creativity), and the transcribed text was then sent to the coders. They marked the text that could reflect the students’ competencies and labeled them. When 3 coders had different opinions, they resolved their differences through discussion. We did not distinguish the performance of the 4 students but evaluated the overall level of the group.

In the first round of coding, we used “interpretive” codes, which require participants’ meanings to be deciphered, and were largely conserved the sake of objectivity (Miles & Huberman, 1994 ). A brief outline of this coding scheme is presented below:

Understanding of core ideas: using core ideas to explain important phenomena in daily life, use evidence to support claims, and design or evaluate scientific problem solutions.

Problem solving: the process of finding solutions to difficult and complex issues.

Use of scientific practices: multiple ways in which students explore and make sense of the natural and design world, such as asking questions, developing and using models, planning and carrying out investigations, analyzing and interpreting data.

Collaboration: working well as member of a group, being loyal to the group, contributing to the group.

Motivation to learn chemistry: behaving or taking action for intrinsic or extrinsic reasons to learn chemistry.

Creativity: the ability to transcend traditional ideas, rules, patterns, and relationships, etc., and to create meaningful new ideas, forms, methods, and interpretations, etc.

Environmental awareness: understanding how social, economic and environmental systems interact and support life, gradually developing an energy-saving, low-carbon, green travel, and environmentally friendly lifestyle.

Perseverance: the disposition required to maintain effort or interest in an activity in the face of difficulties encountered, the length of time or steps involved or when opposed by someone or something.

During the coding process, we found that students also showed environmental awareness and perseverance. Therefore, we added them to the coding scheme.

Creating patterns

According to the results of the first round of coding, we found that the competencies of understanding core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry and collaboration appeared in all three units. In the second step, we focused on coding the levels of these 3 competencies. The frameworks of understanding core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry and collaboration (shown in in Tables A1 ~ A3 in the Additional file 1 ) were used to evaluate students’ competency levels. These three coders participated in the coding. Before coding levels, these three coders carefully read the content of the evaluation framework and tried to evaluate the same short text separately. Then, they discussed the differences of the results, selected another paragraph of text to evaluate separately and discussed again until their independent scoring results were agreed upon. After that, they completed the level evaluation of all text independently. We used SPSS 20.0 to check Kappa consistency, the consistency coefficient among these three coders was 0.929, indicating that the coding of the 3 coders was highly consistent.

Here, we show some coding fragments of unit 7 to make the coding process clearer. In this unit, students planted a pot of their favorite plants in the soil, explored the relationship between soil acidity, alkalinity, soil fertility and plant growth, wrote a complete experimental report, and reporting the research result to the class. During the project presentation, the students described the following:

“When we were determining the research topic, our members proposed to study the effect of nitrogen fertilizer on plant growth. To verify the rationality of this topic, we conducted copious literature research. We consulted the literature about the impact of soil pH on plants and understood the effect of nitrogen fertilizer on plant growth. Finally, we agreed to take “the effect of nitrogen fertilizer on the same plant” as the main research topic [collaboration level 3].

After determining the topic, we discussed which plant to choose [collaboration-level 3] . Through discussion, we found that two members planted green cirrus, so we chose this plant. We looked up the internet about the growth conditions of the green cirrus, especially the pH value [understanding of core ideas in chemistry-level 3] of the soil in which this plant lives.”

“The biggest difficulty we had was that the pH value of the soil samples in the park was not suitable for the growth of the green cirrus. We tried to add a large amount of water to the soil but could still not obtain the right soil pH value. This problem puzzled us for a long time. Finally, we thought of using an acid-base neutralization reaction to adjust the pH value of the soil , and we made it [understanding of core ideas at chemistry level 5] .”

In the after-class interview, the students said, “ In this unit, with the teacher’s help, we did many experiments after class, we also searched much data according to the teacher’s tips and finally completed this experiment. We come to know that we can solve problems by experiments. We realize that chemistry is very useful for life and study, and we are full of expectations for future study in chemistry [motivation to learn chemistry-level 4]. “.

Keywords are in bold font to judge the competencies and level of the student group, and the content in “[]” is encoded by researchers. We found that, in the same unit, the same competency was coded many times, we chose the highest level as the final competency level of the student group

Examining patterns among data sources

After coding analyses, we discussed the rationality of the above competencies and development levels with all researchers of three units, and analyzed the reasons for the development and changes of students’ competencies according to the project tasks and the teacher’s instructional design.

The competencies students demonstrate and develop as they constructed artifacts in a PBL environment

In this study, we encoded the performance of one student group in three units to determine the competencies students demonstrate in PBL. We obtained the results summarized in Table  4 . When the student group develop artifacts in a PBL environment, they demonstrated the competencies of understanding of core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry, collaboration, use of scientific practices, problem solving, creativity, environmental awareness and perseverance.

Among these competencies, these three competencies of “understanding of core idea”, “motivation to learn chemistry” and “collaboration” were demonstrated in three units (see Table  5 ).

The development of the competencies of “understanding of core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry, and collaboration”

After the learning of three units, this student group’s understanding of “the properties and transformation of substances”, motivation to learn chemistry, and collaboration improved. The student group’s understanding of the “the properties and transformation of substances” was developed from level 3 to level 5 (see Fig.  4 ), their motivation to learn chemistry developed from level 2 to level 4 (see Fig.  5 ), and their collaboration developed from level 3 to level 5 (see Fig.  6 ). Next, we used students’ specific performance to describe their development.

figure 4

The change trend of “understanding of core ideas”

figure 5

The change trend of “motivation to learn chemistry”

figure 6

The change trend of “collaboration”

Understanding of “the properties and transformation of substances”

Students’ understanding of “the properties and transformation of substances” was gradually improved on the basis of the previous unit. In unit 4, students said “we can use the production and conversion of carbon dioxide to achieve low carbon” and they applied conservation of elements to interpret why air-conditioning temperature can reduce carbon dioxide production. However, students could only formulate a low-carbon convention from the aspect of reducing carbon dioxide production, without considering the aspect of carbon dioxide absorption. From these expressions of students, we can judge that the students’ understanding of “the properties and transformation of substances” in unit 4 reached level 3 “Application” (see Table  6 ).

In unit 4, students learned to use the properties of carbonaceous substances to realize the transformation of carbonaceous substances. The context of Low-Carbon Actions was very familiar for students, and developing a low-carbon convention is a simple application-oriented task for them. In unit 5, students were not so familiar to metal products, they used vacuum flasks every day but hardly read the instruction for vacuum flasks carefully. Besides, it is not easy for students to understand the principle of the vacuum flask. Based on the study of unit 4, students could associate the properties of the substance with the characteristics of the vacuum flask in unit 5. As shown in Table 6 , students said “The innermost layer is made of stainless steel, which was chosen because of its strong thermal conductivity, high temperature resistance, and corrosion resistance.” From these words, we can see that, students knew the structure of vacuum flask and used the properties of metals and alloys to interpret the structure of each part of the vacuum flask. However, the students in this group analyzed each part in isolation and did not analyze the relationship between different parts. Therefore, they only reached level 4 of understanding of core ideas.

For students, unit 7 was the most difficult and unfamiliar one of these three units. Most students in PBLP came from urban area and had few opportunities to get in touch with traditional agriculture. This unit required students to design a complete experimental plan to solve a problem, which is extremely challenging. As shown in Table 6 , students said “Our experimental process was divided into five steps , ” and the description of each step in the table indicated that they had formed a coherent research plan to solve the problem, this is the performance of level 5 “Synthesis.”

With the progress of the units, students’ motivation to learn chemistry had undergone the following changes (see Table  7 for details). In unit 4, students’ interest in learning chemistry was mainly due to their curiosity about chemistry experiments, they did not truly realize the value of chemistry learning (Level 2: responding). In unit 5, they felt “ chemistry is very useful for life and study”, which indicated that they recognized the value of learning chemistry (Level 3: valuing). In unit 7, the students did experiments in class, they “ did many experiments after class ”, and they had a strong desire to learn chemistry (Level 4: organization). Teacher Xu also mentioned in her interview that “ Students’ enthusiasm for learning chemistry is getting higher and higher. After the school opening the chemistry laboratory to them, many students soaked in the laboratory whenever they were free. My office is always crowded with students asking questions. There was no such scene before PBL. ” However, students’ interest in chemistry had not become a part of students’ character, they had not yet reached level 5 (characterization by value or value complex) of motivation to learn chemistry.

Through Table  8 , we can sort out the changes in student collaboration. According to the student interview of unit 4, students said that, before this unit, all the work was just done by one person. In unit 4, “ Other members also do work. Slowly, everyone wants to do something for group. ” This indicated that the students gradually developed a sense of collaboration and reached level 3 (collaboration consciousness). In Unit 5, when one person encountered difficulties, students used network software to collaborate online on weekends, just as they said “ We used QQ telephone to discuss together, and sent the PPT to the QQ group after it was completed, so that we could revise PPT together. ” In this group, everyone made a certain contribution to the group, indicating that they reached level 4 (mutual contribution). In unit 7, students adopted the learning method of group collaboration throughout the project process. During the experiment, their group also encountered difficulties, but they encouraged each other to overcome difficulties, just as the student said “The four of us encouraged each other”, “We should learn from each other”. They reflected and evaluated their own and others’ performances. In this unit, students’ collaboration competence reached level 5 (valuable collaborative relationship). Teacher Xu talked about the changes of students’ collaboration: “ When I first assigned the tasks in class, the students all did their own work. Now they can quickly put into communication, and this way of learning has been adopted by other subjects. ”

Students’ competencies demonstrated in PBL

In this study, students demonstrated their competencies in the cognitive dimension, emotional and attitude dimension, and social skills in project-based learning, which is similar to the findings of existing research (Guo et al., 2020 ; Hasni et al., 2016 ). For specific competencies, consistent with existing research, we found that students demonstrated understanding of core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry, collaboration, use of scientific practices, problem solving and creativity in PBL (Hong et al., 2012 ; Mettas & Constantinou, 2008 ; Kokotsaki et al., 2016 ; Hanif et al., 2019 ; Holmes & Hwang, 2016 ; Filippatou & Kaldi, 2010 ; Williams & Simon, 2017 ), but environmental awareness and perseverance seldom appeared in existing project-based learning research. These two competencies also play an important role in the future development of students and should arouse the attention of researchers.

We found that not every competency was reflected in all three units. The following three reasons may have led to this result:

Perhaps some units have unique value for the development of students. For example, Low-Carbon Actions unit is closely related to environmental issues and can cultivate students’ environmental awareness. Therefore, we suggest that teachers could pay more attention to the key competencies emphasized in the existing literature as well as fully make sense of the unique value of units.

The fidelity of teaching implementation is very important for students’ development (Shin et al., 2019 ). In the instructional design, the teacher only paid attention to some competencies which may cause other competencies to be ignored. According to teaching design, students’ creativity and problem-solving competencies could be cultivated cross units, but these competencies were only shown in unit 5 and unit 7.

Some competencies of students could be more fully reflected in the project process, but we only collected data from students’ artifacts and interview, procedural data were missing.

The development of students’ competencies across PBL units

It is important for learners experiencing coherent curriculum to develop depth of understanding so they can effectively use their knowledge in new situations (Fortus & Krajcik, 2012 ; Roseman et al., 2008 ; Schmidt et al., 2005 ; Shwartz et al., 2008 ). PBL materials and coherent courses can promote student development (Harris et al., 2015 ; Shin et al., 2019 ). Project-Based Teaching Experiment Textbook: Chemistry was designed based on the curriculum standards of China. The difficulty of different units is progressive, which can reflect the continuity of the curriculum materials. And courses were carried out in the order of the teaching materials. The research results indicate that the teaching materials is effective for promoting students’ development.

Similar to the study of Shin et al. ( 2019 ), we found that students’ understanding of the core ideas of chemistry gradually deepened over time. Shin et al. ( 2019 ) were concerned about the impact of same chemical ideas on students of different grades, we explored the development of same students in a smaller time span, it is more instructive for the teachers to design the semester- or school-year curriculum. According to the learning goals in the textbook, we presupposed that students’ understanding of core ideas ranged from level 4 to level 5 and then to level 6. However, the actual development level of students ranged from level 3 to level 4 and then to level 5. The gap between preset and actual may be caused by the teacher’s teaching practice. For example, in the PBTETC textbook, we require students in a group to formulate a low-carbon convention with multiple items. However, in actual teaching practice, the teacher required each group to show only one clause in low-carbon convention so that students’ ideas could not be shown out completely.

The quality of experiences is essential for interest development, and students’ levels of interest were higher when hands-on activities were perceived more positively (Holstermann et al., 2010 ). These three units in this research had tasks of different difficulties to continuously stimulate students’ interest and motivation. This research shows that students’ motivation to learn chemistry can also be gradually enhanced over time, which has important implications for studying the progression of students’ motivation to learn chemistry in project-based learning. We suggest that, when designing multiple units in PBL, teachers should pay attention to the consistency within the unit and set project tasks of different difficulties to bring students a better learning experience. Driving questions are very important for stimulating students’ motivation. Students choose research questions on their own can stimulate interest more than teachers give questions to them. Therefore, teachers should master relevant teaching strategies and provide necessary guidance to students during the teaching process.

Student collaboration development requires tutoring by teachers (Krajcik & Czerniak, 2018 ). In the course of the PBL, teachers provide special training on collaboration, which helps to improve this skill.

The development of students’ competencies requires a certain process. Similar to the research by Bhuyan et al. ( 2020 ), we also find that a longer duration of experience fosters students’ knowledge and skill development as well as increased interest in PBL. This result may encourage teachers to carry out multiple units in project-based teaching. This research portrays more specific and vivid performances of students in different competencies. This study proposes three frameworks to evaluate students’ competencies, which can be used to help teachers evaluate students’ performance, as well as promote evaluation research on PBL.

It should be reminded that the participants in this study were not under the pressure of the Chinese high school entrance examination, therefore, the teacher have the courage to completely replace traditional chemistry learning with project-based learning. When other teachers are ready to implement across units in class, we suggest teachers to consider the actual situation of the school and students. Other units (except units 4, 5, and 7) may also have impact on students’ motivation and collaboration, we did not consider this impact and it can be explored in the future.


In this study, one student group was tracked over three units, and their learning materials were collected. Through qualitative analysis, it was found that, when student groups constructed artifacts in a PBL environment, they demonstrated the competencies of understanding core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry, collaboration, use of scientific practices, problem solving, creativity, environmental awareness and perseverance. The levels and changes of the competencies of understanding core ideas, motivation to learn chemistry and collaboration in these three units were analyzed. After the learning of three units, students’ levels of these three competencies improved, and a progressive development trend emerged. The research results have important implications for the curriculum design, implementation and evaluation of PBL.

Due to the limitations of personnel and time, only one group was selected for tracking and observing in this study. When multiple groups are selected, students’ development is more complicated. For the study of students’ general development, sample size should be expanded, and the integrity of the data should be enhanced in future research.

Availability of data and materials

The materials used and analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Change history

03 may 2022.

A Correction to this paper has been published: https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-022-00059-w


Compulsory Education Chemistry Course Standard

  • Project-based learning

Project-based Learning Program

Project-Based Teaching Experiment Textbook: Chemistry

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Zhao, Y., Wang, L. A case study of student development across project-based learning units in middle school chemistry. Discip Interdscip Sci Educ Res 4 , 5 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1186/s43031-021-00045-8

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The purpose of a case study is to learn as much as possible about an individual or group so that the information can be generalized to many others. Unfortunately, case studies tend to be highly subjective, and it is sometimes difficult to generalize results to a larger population.

While case studies focus on a single individual or group, they follow a format similar to other types of psychology writing. If you are writing a case study, it is important to follow the rules of APA format .  

A case study can have both strengths and weaknesses. Researchers must consider these pros and cons before deciding if this type of study is appropriate for their needs.

One of the greatest advantages of a case study is that it allows researchers to investigate things that are often difficult to impossible to replicate in a lab. Some other benefits of a case study:

  • Allows researchers to collect a great deal of information
  • Give researchers the chance to collect information on rare or unusual cases
  • Permits researchers to develop hypotheses that can be explored in experimental research

On the negative side, a case study:

  • Cannot necessarily be generalized to the larger population
  • Cannot demonstrate cause and effect
  • May not be scientifically rigorous
  • Can lead to bias

Researchers may choose to perform a case study if they are interested in exploring a unique or recently discovered phenomenon. The insights gained from such research can help the researchers develop additional ideas and study questions that might be explored in future studies.

However, it is important to remember that the insights gained from case studies cannot be used to determine cause and effect relationships between variables. However, case studies may be used to develop hypotheses that can then be addressed in experimental research.

Case Study Examples

There have been a number of notable case studies in the history of psychology. Much of  Freud's work and theories were developed through the use of individual case studies. Some great examples of case studies in psychology include:

  • Anna O : Anna O. was a pseudonym of a woman named Bertha Pappenheim, a patient of a physician named Josef Breuer. While she was never a patient of Freud's, Freud and Breuer discussed her case extensively. The woman was experiencing symptoms of a condition that was then known as hysteria and found that talking about her problems helped relieve her symptoms. Her case played an important part in the development of talk therapy as an approach to mental health treatment.
  • Phineas Gage : Phineas Gage was a railroad employee who experienced a terrible accident in which an explosion sent a metal rod through his skull, damaging important portions of his brain. Gage recovered from his accident but was left with serious changes in both personality and behavior.
  • Genie : Genie was a young girl subjected to horrific abuse and isolation. The case study of Genie allowed researchers to study whether language could be taught even after critical periods for language development had been missed. Her case also served as an example of how scientific research may interfere with treatment and lead to further abuse of vulnerable individuals.

Such cases demonstrate how case research can be used to study things that researchers could not replicate in experimental settings. In Genie's case, her horrific abuse had denied her the opportunity to learn language at critical points in her development.

This is clearly not something that researchers could ethically replicate, but conducting a case study on Genie allowed researchers the chance to study phenomena that are otherwise impossible to reproduce.

There are a few different types of case studies that psychologists and other researchers might utilize:

  • Collective case studies : These involve studying a group of individuals. Researchers might study a group of people in a certain setting or look at an entire community. For example, psychologists might explore how access to resources in a community has affected the collective mental well-being of those living there.
  • Descriptive case studies : These involve starting with a descriptive theory. The subjects are then observed, and the information gathered is compared to the pre-existing theory.
  • Explanatory case studies : These   are often used to do causal investigations. In other words, researchers are interested in looking at factors that may have caused certain things to occur.
  • Exploratory case studies : These are sometimes used as a prelude to further, more in-depth research. This allows researchers to gather more information before developing their research questions and hypotheses .
  • Instrumental case studies : These occur when the individual or group allows researchers to understand more than what is initially obvious to observers.
  • Intrinsic case studies : This type of case study is when the researcher has a personal interest in the case. Jean Piaget's observations of his own children are good examples of how an intrinsic cast study can contribute to the development of a psychological theory.

The three main case study types often used are intrinsic, instrumental, and collective. Intrinsic case studies are useful for learning about unique cases. Instrumental case studies help look at an individual to learn more about a broader issue. A collective case study can be useful for looking at several cases simultaneously.

The type of case study that psychology researchers utilize depends on the unique characteristics of the situation as well as the case itself.

There are also different methods that can be used to conduct a case study, including prospective and retrospective case study methods.

Prospective case study methods are those in which an individual or group of people is observed in order to determine outcomes. For example, a group of individuals might be watched over an extended period of time to observe the progression of a particular disease.

Retrospective case study methods involve looking at historical information. For example, researchers might start with an outcome, such as a disease, and then work their way backward to look at information about the individual's life to determine risk factors that may have contributed to the onset of the illness.

Where to Find Data

There are a number of different sources and methods that researchers can use to gather information about an individual or group. Six major sources that have been identified by researchers are:

  • Archival records : Census records, survey records, and name lists are examples of archival records.
  • Direct observation : This strategy involves observing the subject, often in a natural setting . While an individual observer is sometimes used, it is more common to utilize a group of observers.
  • Documents : Letters, newspaper articles, administrative records, etc., are the types of documents often used as sources.
  • Interviews : Interviews are one of the most important methods for gathering information in case studies. An interview can involve structured survey questions or more open-ended questions.
  • Participant observation : When the researcher serves as a participant in events and observes the actions and outcomes, it is called participant observation.
  • Physical artifacts : Tools, objects, instruments, and other artifacts are often observed during a direct observation of the subject.

Section 1: A Case History

This section will have the following structure and content:

Background information : The first section of your paper will present your client's background. Include factors such as age, gender, work, health status, family mental health history, family and social relationships, drug and alcohol history, life difficulties, goals, and coping skills and weaknesses.

Description of the presenting problem : In the next section of your case study, you will describe the problem or symptoms that the client presented with.

Describe any physical, emotional, or sensory symptoms reported by the client. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions related to the symptoms should also be noted. Any screening or diagnostic assessments that are used should also be described in detail and all scores reported.

Your diagnosis : Provide your diagnosis and give the appropriate Diagnostic and Statistical Manual code. Explain how you reached your diagnosis, how the client's symptoms fit the diagnostic criteria for the disorder(s), or any possible difficulties in reaching a diagnosis.

Section 2: Treatment Plan

This portion of the paper will address the chosen treatment for the condition. This might also include the theoretical basis for the chosen treatment or any other evidence that might exist to support why this approach was chosen.

  • Cognitive behavioral approach : Explain how a cognitive behavioral therapist would approach treatment. Offer background information on cognitive behavioral therapy and describe the treatment sessions, client response, and outcome of this type of treatment. Make note of any difficulties or successes encountered by your client during treatment.
  • Humanistic approach : Describe a humanistic approach that could be used to treat your client, such as client-centered therapy . Provide information on the type of treatment you chose, the client's reaction to the treatment, and the end result of this approach. Explain why the treatment was successful or unsuccessful.
  • Psychoanalytic approach : Describe how a psychoanalytic therapist would view the client's problem. Provide some background on the psychoanalytic approach and cite relevant references. Explain how psychoanalytic therapy would be used to treat the client, how the client would respond to therapy, and the effectiveness of this treatment approach.
  • Pharmacological approach : If treatment primarily involves the use of medications, explain which medications were used and why. Provide background on the effectiveness of these medications and how monotherapy may compare with an approach that combines medications with therapy or other treatments.

This section of a case study should also include information about the treatment goals, process, and outcomes.

When you are writing a case study, you should also include a section where you discuss the case study itself, including the strengths and limitiations of the study. You should note how the findings of your case study might support previous research. 

In your discussion section, you should also describe some of the implications of your case study. What ideas or findings might require further exploration? How might researchers go about exploring some of these questions in additional studies?

Here are a few additional pointers to keep in mind when formatting your case study:

  • Never refer to the subject of your case study as "the client." Instead, their name or a pseudonym.
  • Read examples of case studies to gain an idea about the style and format.
  • Remember to use APA format when citing references .

A Word From Verywell

Case studies can be a useful research tool, but they need to be used wisely. In many cases, they are best utilized in situations where conducting an experiment would be difficult or impossible. They are helpful for looking at unique situations and allow researchers to gather a great deal of information about a specific individual or group of people.

If you have been directed to write a case study for a psychology course, be sure to check with your instructor for any specific guidelines that you are required to follow. If you are writing your case study for professional publication, be sure to check with the publisher for their specific guidelines for submitting a case study.

Simply Psychology. Case Study Method .

Crowe S, Cresswell K, Robertson A, Huby G, Avery A, Sheikh A. The case study approach . BMC Med Res Methodol . 2011 Jun 27;11:100. doi:10.1186/1471-2288-11-100

Gagnon, Yves-Chantal.  The Case Study as Research Method: A Practical Handbook . Canada, Chicago Review Press Incorporated DBA Independent Pub Group, 2010.

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."

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Case Studies

Eradicating smallpox ..

A massive global effort spearheaded by the World Health Organization eradicated smallpox in 1977 and inspired the creation of the Expanded Programme on Immunization, which continues today.

Preventing HIV and sexually transmitted infections in Thailand .

In Thailand, the government's "100 percent condom program" targeting commercial sex workers and other high-risk groups helped prevent the spread of HIV relatively early in the course of the epidemic. Thailand had 80 percent fewer new cases of HIV in 2001 than in 1991 and has averted nearly 200,000 new cases.

Controlling tuberculosis in China .

To address the problem of tuberculosis (TB) patients' early dropout from treatment, a national TB program in China implemented the directly observed treatment, short-course (DOTS) approach in which a health worker "watches" patients with TB daily for six months as they take their antibiotic treatment. The program helped reduce TB prevalence by 40 percent between 1990 and 2000 and dramatically improved the cure rate in half of China's provinces.

Reducing child mortality through vitamin A in Nepal .

Capitalizing on the discovery that vitamin A supplementation could save child lives, the government of Nepal began the National Vitamin A Program in 1995 that has averted nearly 200,000 child deaths.

Eliminating polio in Latin America and the Caribbean .

Beginning in 1985, a regionwide polio elimination effort led by the Pan American Health Organization immunized almost every young child in Latin America and the Caribbean, eliminating polio as a threat to public health in the Western Hemisphere in 1991.

Saving mothers' lives in Sri Lanka .

Despite relatively low national income and health spending, Sri Lanka's commitment to providing a range of "safe motherhood" services has led to a decline in maternal mortality from 486 deaths per 100,000 live births to 24 deaths per 100,000 live births over four decades.

Controlling onchocerciasis in sub-Saharan Africa .

A multipartner international effort begun in 1974 dramatically reduced the incidence and impact of the blinding parasitic disease and increased the potential for economic development in large areas of rural west Africa. Transmission has been virtually halted in west Africa today, and 18 million children born in the 20-country area are now free of the threat of river blindness.

Preventing diarrheal deaths in Egypt .

Using modern communication methods, a national diarrheal control program in Egypt increased the awareness and use of life-saving oral rehydration therapy, helping reduce infant diarrheal deaths by 82 percent between 1982 and 1987.

Improving the health of the poor in Mexico .

Since 1997, Mexico's Progresa (now known as "Oportunidades") has provided a comprehensive package of education, health, and nutrition interventions to rural families through a conditional cash grants program, resulting in lowered rates of illness and malnutrition and increased school enrollment.

Controlling trachoma in Morocco .

Since 1997, the incidence in Morocco of trachoma, the leading preventable cause of blindness, has been cut by more than 90 percent among children under 10 through a combined strategy of surgery, antibiotics, face washing, and environmental changes.

Reducing guinea worm in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa .

A multipartner eradication effort focused on behavior change reduced prevalence of guinea worm by 99 percent in 20 endemic African and Asian countries. Since the start of the campaign in 1986, the number of cases has fallen from 3.5 million to less than 35,000 in 2003.

Controlling Chagas disease in the southern cone of South America .

Through surveillance, environmental vector control, and house spraying, a regional initiative launched in 1991 has decreased the incidence of Chagas disease by 94 percent in seven countries in the southern cone of Latin America. Disease transmission has now been halted in Uruguay, Chile, and large parts of Brazil and Paraguay.

Reducing fertility in Bangladesh .

In Bangladesh, strong leadership of the family planning program, a sustained outreach strategy, and a focus on access to services increased contraceptive prevalence from 3 to 54 percent (and correspondingly decreased fertility from 7 to 3.4 children per woman) over two decades, far in excess of what would have been predicted based on changes in economic and social conditions alone.

Curbing tobacco use in Poland .

Starting in the early 1990s, the transition to a market economy and a more open society paved the way for health advocates to implement strong tobacco controls in Poland, a country that had the highest rate of tobacco consumption in the world. A combination of health education and stringent tobacco control legislation has averted 10,000 deaths a year, has led to a 30 percent reduction in the incidence of lung cancer among men aged 20 to 44, and has helped boost the life expectancy of men by four years.

Preventing iodine deficiency disease in China .

China's introduction of iodized salt in 1995 reduced the incidence of goiter among children, from 20 to 9 percent, and created a sustainable system of private provision of fortified salt.

Preventing neural tube defects in Chile .

Eliminating measles in southern africa ..

Measles vaccination campaigns in seven African countries nearly eliminated measles as a cause of childhood death in southern Africa and helped reduce the number of measles cases from 60,000 in 1996 to just 117 cases four years later.

Preventing dental caries in Jamaica .

Between 1987 and 1995 Jamaica's National Salt Fluoridation Program demonstrated up to an 87 percent decrease in dental caries in schoolchildren and has been regarded as a model for micronutrient interventions.

Treating cataracts in India .

Preventing hib disease in chile and the gambia ..

A national Hib vaccination program in Chile reduced prevalence of Hib disease by 90 percent in the early 1990s. In 1997, The Gambia introduced Hib vaccines into its national immunization program and has virtually eliminated the disease from the country.

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