Case study is a quite broad term – what one means by it may differ considerably depending on the context and topic. A case study written as a part of research for an academic institution will be different from a business case study aimed at a market situation, and so on. There are, however, common aspects that are shared by most case studies. In this guide we will cover them and teach you how to write a successful case study that will fit any context.
Depending on how specific your task is and how much freedom you have, some initial stages of the work may already have been done for you, narrowing down the scope of your work. Before starting with the proper writing you have to take care of the following:
- Read the case and define the task/topic;
- Determine the case study type or style;
- Look for existing case studies on the same or similar subject;
- Prepare the interview;
- Carry out the interview.
Defining the Task
Naturally, the first step you are supposed to take is to study the task at hand carefully and decide what exactly you are going to work on. Read the case and try to answer the following questions:
- What is the apparent problem? Read the case and summarize the problem as succinctly as possible.
- What is the context?
- What guidelines or instructions were you given?
- What tools are you going to use or which are required of you to be used?
- What information do you have on the problem?
- What additional information you have to obtain and where can it be found?
- How do you have to present your case study? (Deadline, size, form of presentation, necessary sections, etc.)
Determining the Case Study Type
There are four general types of case studies:
- Illustrative – describing events and situations;
- Cumulative – aggregating information from several sources or sites, sometimes at different times;
- Explorative – investigating the situation, problem or risks;
- Critical – examining a particular subject, usually that of unique interest with little attention paid to generalizations.
Of course, these are not the only types, and the boundaries between them may be vague at times. These four, however, serve as a good starting point.
You should think carefully about your situation and decide which type will best answer the needs of your research, which will ideally suit your target audience, which is going to yield the best results.
Reading Existing Case Studies
You don’t want to duplicate the already existing research. So, get busy: discuss the topic with your professors, run a web search on all possible keyword combinations, scrounge through the library. As you do it, mark down books, articles and other sources that may come in handy and read the most relevant ones outright – it will be your entry point into the topic. What you read can make you alter the topic somewhat or suggest an entirely new vista of research. If you find the new topic more interesting, don’t hesitate to replace the original one – your work hasn’t yet started in earnest anyway.
You may also pay attention to case studies similar to your current task in scope and topic – they may give you some insight as to the formatting and composition of your work.
Preparing an Interview
Sometimes this stage may not be necessary, and reviewing course readings, discussions, literature and articles on the subject may turn out to be enough to obtain the necessary solution. However, don’t count on it – in most cases preparing and carrying out an interview is considered to be one of the most important parts of research, aimed at improving your practical skills and ability to obtain information.
As it pays to be prepared, here is how you should do it:
1. Decide Whom You Are Going to Interview
It is hard to give any recommendations here, as the optimal choice heavily depends on your discipline, topic, the task at hand and the scope of your research. In most cases, it would be best to choose experts in your field and people directly involved in the studied situation (either currently or in the past). If these two overlap, that’s just perfect.
2. Decide How You Are Going to Carry out an Interview
Most importantly: whether your interview will be collective or individual. Both approaches are acceptable and useful in appropriate situations. If your research is concentrated on personal matters or you want the insights of the interviewees to be independent from each other, approach them separately. In other situations, it may be more efficient to gather them in a group and ask for a collective opinion.
3. Find out as Much as Possible both about the Situation and the Interviewees
Normally you only have one shot at an interview, so prepare for it carefully. Obtain all the information that is available from the outside sources. Study the people you are going to interview and their relation to the situation.
4. Decide on the Method of the Interview
Collective or individual, there are a number of options: personal meetings, phone calls, group activities, emails, skype, anything you can think about and arrange. Decide which will suit you best.
5. Prepare the Questions
Make sure your questions are aimed at learning the opinions of the interviewees and are concentrated around what cannot be learned from any other source. They should be plain, clear and easily understandable. Avoid controversy and subjectivity.
6. Arrange the Interview(s)
Make sure the interviewees know they are being interviewed and that their words will be used in research. In some cases it may even be necessary to have them sign appropriate wavers before you can use the information you receive from them. It is important – ignore this point at your own risk.
Carrying out the Interview
Exactly what kinds of questions you should ask depends on the situation, but there are a few tips that can improve the overall effectiveness of the process:
- Usually you want to ask all interviewees identical or similar questions. It helps you get different viewpoints on the matter.
- However, you can alter the questions depending on the positions and knowledge of the subjects.
- Questions that don’t allow the interviewee to answer simply by ‘yes’ or ‘no’ usually yield more information.
Drafting the Case Study
Once you’ve obtained all the information you need from the interviewees and other sources, it is finally time to start working on the written part of your assignment. In most cases, unless specified differently by your professor, your case study should contain the following sections:
- Main Part
- Suggested Solution
- References and Appendices
Let’s take a closer look at each of them.
Introduction is aimed at giving the reader a very basic idea of what the case is all about: what problems you are going to analyze, what is the situation, why it is important. A good way to start is to ask a question or to quote one of your interviewees.
Before you plunge into the analysis, you should set the stage – that is, provide context for it. It may include:
- Background information on the situation;
- Relevant facts;
- Why your interviewees are a valid source of information;
- Why the problem is important;
- Photos or a video that can make your work more persuasive (if the chosen case study format allows).
This is the part where you present the bulk of your data and analysis. Depending on the subject matter and your goals, it may contain:
- Quotes by individual interviewees;
- Factual and numerical data: statistics, percentages, graphs, diagrams; in other words, everything that can lend additional credibility to your findings;
- Generalized findings from the interviews and personal research;
- History of the problem’s development;
- Alternative solutions, both proposed and implemented;
- Why implemented alternatives were/are ineffective;
- Why proposed alternatives were rejected;
- What financial, situational and time constraints exist at the moment;
- Thoughts, feelings and ideas of those with first-hand knowledge of the situation;
If you make any claims in addition to what you’ve learned from the interviewees, statistical data and observation, you should be ready to carry out additional research and calculations.
You should end your analysis with proposing a solution of your own, probably building upon what some of your interviewees have already said.
- Judging by your analysis, choose a solution that you believe to be the most realistic and likeliest to succeed;
- Explain your motives for choosing it;
- Provide hard, factual evidence in support of this solution;
- Further prove your point of view by additional research and, probably, personal experience in the field.
Recommendations are specific, clearly defined actions and strategies that should be carried out to solve or alleviate the problem. For each part of the solution you should answer the following questions:
- What exactly should be done?
- What can go wrong and how to prepare for these contingencies?
- Who will do it, are they qualified enough, who else may be considered for the job?
- When should it be done?
- What are the financial implications: how much will it cost, when will it pay off, how much will be saved?
- If appropriate, you may recommend a follow-up strategy that may further improve the efficiency of the solution after it is implemented.
References and Appendices
These are pretty straightforward.
- Reference list contains all the information sources you’ve used to prepare the case study and referred to.
- Appendices encompass all the information that is relevant to your case study but couldn’t have been included before without interrupting the flow of your reasoning and disrupting the structure of the study.
Make sure to consult your professor as to the citation style you are supposed to use.
Editing, Proofreading, Alteration
No matter how good your plan is, you will find yourself in need of changing some parts of the case study. Already during writing it you will sometimes notice that the study develops in an unexpected way. If it happens, don’t worry and don’t try to keep to the original plan at whatever the cost – if your research grows organically in a different direction, perhaps it is for the best. Just make sure to make alterations, additions and deletions as necessary.
As for editing and proofreading, the rules and methods are more or less the same as with any other paper:
- Unless you are pressed for time, leave your case study alone for a day or two before starting with the final edit. It will allow you to see your work with a fresh eye;
- As you reread and edit your text, keep an eye open for grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes. They, however, shouldn’t be your primary concern;
- Reread your original task and guidelines – it will refresh them in your mind and make it immediately obvious if you steered away from what you were supposed to be doing;
- Reread the case study in its entirety and try to define if it is logically coherent, if sections flow naturally one into another, if you’ve managed to successfully prove your point of view;
- Study sections separately and decide if any changes have to be made in their structure or contents;
- Introduce the necessary changes. Pay special attention to transition sections – they are most often in need of improving due to the lack of coherence;
- Other important parts to pay attention to: graphs, figures, schemes, tables and formatting;
- Ask someone else to read the entire text, preferably someone you may trust to not simply skim through it. After working on it for a long time, reading, rereading and recompiling the info for dozens of times you may have lost the ability to perceive it objectively. An outside observer can draw your attention to the lack of logical connection between items you are too used to, or point out a blatant mistake that evaded your notice.
Preparing a case study is a long and arduous task, requiring considerable knowledge of the subject and the ability to plan ahead. We hope that this guide has got the latter covered – and it’s up to you to deal with the former.