Teaching Chemistry With Case Studies

text: Teaching Chemistry with Case Studies

Case studies have been a staple of undergraduate and graduate education programs like medicine, law, and business, for many years. They let learners engage with simulated real-world situations, making the content more meaningful and connected to their future careers.1 As a valuable context-based learning tool, case studies are becoming more common in secondary science.2 Here, we'll explore the role that students and instructors play when learning with case studies.

Typically, case studies simulate real-world situations that encourage higher-level thinking based on Bloom's taxonomy.3 They usually take the form of a short story that outlines a factual-based situation or problem. Students analyze and evaluate the information and discover solutions by way of numerous possible pathways. In general, the students play the role of an expert, consultant, or advisor who is tasked to use their chemistry knowledge and problem-solving skills to offer expert recommendations.1 For example, in The Golden Drain,4 a case study developed by Sharma & Wolgang, students are hired as consultants for a chemical company called GoldMaker Enterprises that recently employed a chemist to carry out the company's secret chemical process. Unfortunately, the new hire's yields are insufficient, prompting students to determine how much money the company lost due to the low production yields and then recommend disciplinary action towards the new hire.

As guided inquiry activities, case studies usually include a series of questions that move students towards a final solution. Some of the questions may be very direct (e.g., Find the number of moles of product produced in the reaction?), or they can be more open-ended (e.g., What are possible sources of error with the experimental design?).

As with other problem-based learning and guided inquiry activities, case studies work well in small group settings where learners support each other while traversing a difficult task. The case study is usually distributed to each group as a single copy for all members to collaborate. The instructor acts as a facilitator asking probing questions to support students' understanding and progress towards a solution.


Role of the Instructor

As previously mentioned, the instructor acts as a coach or facilitator when teaching with a case study. Most of the time, they start class with an assignment that helps students read and understand the case. This initial assignment usually involves a series of questions that help students pick out key pieces of information, prompt background research, or solve related sample problems. After the initial assignment, the instructor should periodically initiate a whole class discussion where students communicate the dilemma from their perspective and the progress their group has made toward a solution. Finally, the instructor may individualize the learning experience by supporting struggling students with data analysis or directing underskilled groups towards a possible solution.


Roles of the Students

In the broadest sense, the students' task is to discover a solution to the dilemma presented in the case study. Since case studies are usually elaborate and complicated, it's often necessary to break the task into smaller parts. One way to divide the work is to assign each group member a role; thus, the students can learn practical collaboration methods and manage the considerable workload.

I like to assign groups of three the following roles: (1) The Manager, (2) The Communications Specialist, and (3) The Scribe.

The Manager leads their group and keeps them pointed toward the goal of solving the problem. The Manager is also responsible for making sure the work is correct, so they need to double-check each calculation. The Communications Specialist is mainly responsible for writing out the answers and thinking about how they will verbally express their solution to the class. Finally, The Scribe takes notes that focus on their groups' metacognitive processes. These notes are recorded on a document that the instructor can distribute separate from the case study. The metacognitive notes are an essential part of the learning process because case studies prompt higher-order thinking that is often novel to students. By analyzing their metacognition, students will grow more confident in working through complex and challenging problems like those they find in case studies.

The metacognitive questions relate to three categories of the regulatory skillfulness described by Cooper and Sandi-Urena.5 Not only do these prompts promote higher-level thinking, but they also move students toward a final solution to the case study.


  1. What is the problem asking? (rephrase it in your own words)
  2. What data is important to find the answer?


  1. Summarize the steps that your group took to get to the final answer.


  1. Why does your final answer make sense?


Case studies are a fantastic approach to deepen student learning about a topic and improve their problem-solving skills. Although time-consuming (I usually dedicate an entire class period for one case study), I find them a worthwhile activity compared to the standard worksheet or problem set.

Editor’s Note: Josh includes a reference for the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (a fantastic collection of case studies). Interested readers may wish to read Scott Donnelly's PICK about this website resource.

Josh shared an example of a case study: The Golden Drain - A Stoichiometry Case Study


  1. Lantz, J., & Walczak, M. (1997). The elements of a chemistry case: Teaching chemistry using the case discussion method. The Chemical Educator, 1(6), 1-22.
  2. National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science (NCCSTS). (n.d.). National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science. Retrieved May 13, 2021, from https://sciencecases.lib.buffalo.edu/
  3. Krathwohl, D. R. (2002). A revision of Bloom's taxonomy: An overview. Theory into practice, 41(4), 212-218.
  4. Sharma, A. K., & Wolfgang, D. E. (2016). The Golden Drain: A Stoichiometry Case Study for General Chemistry. Chem. Educ, 21, 77-80.
  5. Cooper, M. M., & Sandi-Urena, S. (2009). Design and validation of an instrument to assess metacognitive skillfulness in chemistry problem solving. Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 86, 2, p 240.