Case Study Reliability Models And Misconceptions


Patrick N. Foster

Central Connecticut State University


Case-study analysis is an appropriate choice for educational researchers who investigate a topic in depth. There are a number of recent examples of the application of case-study models in Canadian and European research of technology and industrial education, but far fewer from the U.S. This paper provides researchers with information useful in identifying problems suitable for case-study research, conducting methodological literature reviews, and employing the methodologies associated with case-study analysis. Two types of sources were consulted to identify the theory and application of casestudy analysis for technology education: the recent methodological literature, and recent ethnographic studies which used case-study models. Such models were found to be appropriate to answer unresolved questions in technology education research. The paper concludes with recommendations for the application of case-study models to such research questions.


Case-study analysis is often an appropriate choice for technology and industrial-education researchers who seek to investigate a topic in depth. In addition, such models may be wellsuited to answering many questions recognized by the field as requiring further research.

The goal of this paper is to provide researchers with information useful in identifying problems suitable for case-study research, conducting methodological literature reviews, and employing the methodologies associated with case-study analysis. The paper concludes with recommendations for the application of case-study models to such research questions.


Case-study analysis is one means researchers have for testing research questions. In technology and industrial education, the most typical procedure is for the researcher to visit a site many times, conducting observations and interviews, which are recorded by hand or mechanically on audio- or videotape. The data from these visits are then analyzed and synthesized in response to the research questions. A straightforward example is Evanciew and Rojewski's (1999) skill-andknowledge acquisition study.

Although they had several specific research questions, the overarching goal of Evanciew and Rojewski's research was to "explore, examine, and describe…interactions that occurred between mentors and apprentices" in youth work programs (p. 26). The researchers selected a casestudy model because it allowed them to actually "see and understand the types of interactions…between mentors and apprentices in workplace settings" (p. 28).

Case-study research was an appropriate choice for Evanciew and Rojewski's study-as well as for several other recent industrial-education studies-not only because these studies seek to investigate a topic in depth, but also because they investigate an area in which little prior research has been done; thus, they are exploratory. Case-study models are often appropriate in exploratory research because such research necessarily has ill-defined research questions.

There are several good examples of the application of case-study models in Canadian and European research of technology and industrial education. Dhillon and Moreland (1996) investigated competency-based teacher in-servicing; Hansen (1998) studied the socialization experiences of two technology teachers; and Twyford and Järvinen (2000) studied how children form technological concepts (see also Järvinen & Hiltunen, 2000) . In a rare example of a personal experience case-study, Braundy (2000) used first-person language to describe the struggles of a woman in a male-dominated field.

There are fewer examples from the U.S. (e.g., Evanciew & Rojewski, 1999 ; Foster & Wright, 2001 ), although the attitude of U.S. journal editors seems to be favorable to qualitative research in general ( Lewis, 1999 ; Custer, 1997 ; Hoepfl, 1997 ) and despite their publication of case-study research from abroad. Only a few researchers have expressed concern that too little experimental research is reported in technology-education journals ( Haynie, 1998 ; cf. Petrina, 1998 ).


We in technology education must employ the paradigm that can best answer the questions we wish to have answered. If we stick to tried and true paradigms, the consequence is that certain key kinds of questions will not be asked or answered. ( Lewis, 1999 , p. 52).

Hoepfl (1997) cites reports by Karen Zuga and Scott Johnson, two of the best-known researchers in the field, calling for the increased use of qualitative methods. Several other influential writers in the field (e.g. Lewis, 1999 ; Petrina, 1998 ) have agreed with this assessment.

In proposing a research agenda for technology education, Foster (1996) noted that "rhetoric abounds, but what is needed now is hard data" (p. 33). An article by Jackson (1996) , a firstgrade teacher, illustrates this point relative to technology education. From her own experience as a classroom teacher, she asserts that "the instructor does not have to be mechanically inclined to achieve success" in technology education (p. 11). Although this assertion falls on the "rhetoric" side of Foster's rhetoric-hard-data dichotomy, it is nonetheless valuable information, as it relates the practical experience of a teacher. Yet it is not research-based data. As Zuga (1996) wrote, few claims made for technology education have been substantiated with structured research.

Krathwohl (1993) identified several types of educational problems appropriately addressed via qualitative methods. At the top of this list are problems where "research is lacking in an area and must emphasize discovery rather than validation or confirmation" (p. 352). Krathwohl also suggested these characteristics of problems suitable for qualitative analysis: a "well-grounded explanation of a phenomenon" is desired; "the focus of the study is on a process…more than on a product;" and "side effects or unexpected consequences may be important" (p. 352-353). See Hoepfl (1997) for a primer on qualitative methods in technology education research.

The implication of comments made by those who have observed trends in recent technology education literature is that (a) the field lacks foundational research in many areas (e.g., Foster, 1996 ), and that (b) much of the available research may be "methodologically flawed" ( Johnson, 1993 , p. 29). Custer (1997) has noted an increase in the use of non-quantitative methods in industrial education in general.

In fact, a reasonable argument could be made that given the dearth of foundational research in technology education, nearly all research in the field could be regarded as exploratory-and that therefore qualitative methods may be appropriate for many areas of technology education research.


For the purposes of this paper, qualitative research methods yield data that cannot be manipulated mathematically; they are thus differentiated from quantitative methods. Ethnographic research attempts to explain the interrelationships of individuals, groups, and phenomena. It almost always relies on several methods, which are usually qualitative. Thus ethnography and qualitative methods are often treated simultaneously in the literature (e.g., Charles & Mertler, 2002 ; c.f. Badke, 2000 , who devotes a chapter to case studies). Case-study research often uses ethnographic methods ( Stake, 1994 , 1998 ).


Regarding ethnographic research methods, Cole (1991) noted that "methods associated mainly with the field of anthropology are gaining in popularity and use in the educational research community" (p. 185). Despite this popularity, ethnographic methods in education "have not become the predominant mode of educational inquiry" ( Goodson & Magan, 1991 , p. 25). Some of the reasons for this are external, such as funding problems and the popularity of increasing complex quantitative designs. Another problem is that interpretations of ethnographic data are largely subjective ( Peshkin, 2000 ).

In technology education, the argument for ethnography and other qualitative research has often been that quantitative or descriptive studies are insufficient for the questions the field needs to have answered ( Zuga, 1997 ; Lewis, 1999 ; Petrina, 1998 ).

The purpose conducting a case study, Stake (1998) wrote, is to learn as much as possible from that case, not to generalize beyond that case. Mitchell (1984) defined case study analysis as "the detailed presentation of ethnographic data relating to some sequence of events from which the analyst seeks to make some theoretical significance" (p. 237); "As a form of research," Stake suggested, "case study is defined by interest in individual cases, not by the methods of inquiry used" (p. 86).

Disadvantages of Case-Studies . While case study models can provide rich and meaningful data not easily yielded by other means, they bring with them several disadvantages. Except in unusual circumstances, findings from case studies are not generalizable to a larger population ( Stake, 1998 ). Even when this is recognized, Stake noted, the power of a case study can be blunted if too much attention is placed on generalization or the generation of an overarching theory. Case-study analysis also is susceptible to the same reliability and validity pitfalls of all qualitative research.


Most writers share a common concern with accuracy and so seek to gauge how close measures come to reflecting the true state of affairs. Yet different writers use terms like agreement, reliability, and validity and mean quite different things by them… ( Bakeman, 2000 , p. 149).

Notions of reliability and validity in case-study research are difficult to conceptualize, much less quantify. As Jansen and Peshkin (1992) put it, "those in qualitative research who have become comfortable with subjectivity…are reconciled to phenomena that they perceive, interpret, and construct and that they take as ambiguous, protean, and complex" (p. 717). When a methodological decision must be made in studying a case site, Stake (1994) said, "each researcher will make up his or her own mind" (p. 238)-unlike the experimental researcher whose decisions may be standardized.

Validity . In general research, "validity is the term most used to judge the quality or merit of a particular study" ( Gliner & Morgan, 2000 , p. 82). Before the 1980s, "valid research was distinguished from invalid research in terms of the extent to which the proper procedures were properly applied" ( Smith, 1990 , p. 168-169). This empirical view is slowly being replaced by a view that good methodology alone will not guarantee quality research. Guba and Lincoln (1998) have identified three prevailing conceptions of how the "goodness or quality" (p. 213) of a study should be evaluated: postpositivism, or the use of "conventional benchmarks of rigor;" constructivism, which focuses on "trustworthiness" and "authenticity;" and critical theory, which is to be judged by the "extent to which it provides a stimulus to action" (p. 213-214). Seale (1999) describes several perspectives on critical theory, all of which "argue that the quality of research should be judged in terms of its political effects" (p. 9). Given the technology education field's goals of better positioning the study of technology in U.S. public education, critical theory research may be very appropriate for technology education.

Reliability . In some areas of ethnographic research, identification of reliability is straightforward. If answers to interview or questionnaire items may be termed "correct" or "incorrect," for example, the Spearman-Brown Prophesy Formula may be employed to identify the reliability of the item set ( Weller & Romney, 1988 ). But when the answers are not known ahead of time, substitutions may have to be made for such traditional methods of estimating reliability.


There are four general considerations in designing a study using a case-study model: case selection, the role of the researcher in the classroom, data collection, and data analysis and interpretation. The following sections discuss each of these in turn.


It seems self-evident that selecting an appropriate case to study is essential to quality case-study analysis. Krathwohl (1993) developed this typology of cases: model cases , which are clear-cut, representative cases, but not necessarily exemplary ones; contrary cases , which are missing one or more defining characteristics, and are useful in identifying the boundaries of the research territory; borderline cases , which more precisely elucidate these boundaries, and which may or may not be useful to study; related cases , which are almost the same as the cases under study, but for some reason (other than simply missing a defining characteristic) are not representative; and invented cases , constructed by the researcher (p. 149; 150-153).

The instance of a commercially commissioned study of the effectiveness of Synergistic modules in middle-school technology education may be illustrative. In addition to their primary focus site, Harnisch, Gierl, and Migotsky (1995a, 1995b) studied four other sites, constituting a design that implies that they sought to reduce error by increasing the number of cases. In experimental research, this would demand that random sampling be employed for case selection. It made sense for Harnisch and his associates to employ (nonscientific) sampling, however, because (a) the program being studied existed in hundreds of U.S. schools at the time, and (b) the program is somewhat standardized. But these are uncommon circumstances in studies appropriate for ethnographic research.

Searching for and studying what he called the "typical" case is often an attempt at the randomization or adequate sampling expectations in qualitative research. Mitchell (1984) suggested that finding and reporting a "telling" case can "serve to make previously obscure theoretical relationships suddenly apparent" (p. 239). The argument in favor of studying the exemplary case is compelling, but so is the notion that, since recommendations from many educational ethnographies will necessarily be made for the typical classroom, there is merit to the argument that the typical case be studied; indeed, in educational research, the typical classroom cannot be ignored.


When a classroom is selected to be studied, an important decision to be made before datacollection strategies can be identified is the explanation-if any-the students will be given about the researcher's presence. Fine and Sandstrom (1988) discussed this issue in detail, presenting three basic tactics the researcher can use: deep cover, shallow cover , and what may be termed no cover . Fine and Sandstrom acknowledged that entering the classroom with no pretenses is without ethical peer in the short term. But, they noted, this too has its drawbacks. Regardless of the stance taken, the researcher will always affect his or her research; this is an accepted consequence of ethnography. "The potential for ethical problems is exacerbated as a result of the development of nontraditional research methodologies" such as participant observation ( Hammack, 1997 , p. 247).


After deciding on a case to study and the role of the researcher in the classroom, the researcher should anticipate the range of data collection strategies to be used. While it is not essential to determine all of these in advance, as a researcher would in an experimental study, such planning will help ensure that the researcher has the necessary resources (e.g., tape recorders, interest inventories, etc.) in the field when they are needed (see Fontana & Frey, 1994 ; Hall, 1999 ).

To address their research questions, ethnographers typically use several research methods, which in turn yield several types of data (see Weller & Romney, 1988 ). The structured and overlapping employment of multiple research methods, multiple researchers, and/or multiple data sources is referred to as triangulation . In technology and industrial education research, the three most common forms of data collection are observation, interviews, and document analysis ( Genzuk, 2001 ; e.g., Evanciew & Rojewski, 1999 ; Foster & Wright, 2001 ).


Data from observations vary from "written text that follows a free-association form" to highly structured inventories ( Adler & Adler, 1994 , p. 380). Notes should refer to "participants, interactions, routines, rituals, temporal elements, interpretations, and social organization" (p. 380). Adler and Adler echoed Goodson and Magan (1991) , who noted that observations over time typically evolve from being unfocused, general, and descriptive to being more focused, selective, and in-depth.

Most educational researchers choose participant observation as a means of gathering observation data; essentially they become involved, however tangentially, in the teaching and learning they are observing. Participant observation has a number of drawbacks, most notably that due to its high level of subjectivity, it always requires additional techniques for triangulation. If a researcher decides to employ participant observation, then, additional methodologies must be selected as well. "Clearly, observation is not enough" ( Pitman, 1991 , p. 97).


"Ethnographers supplement what they learn through participant observation by interviewing people who can help them understand the setting or group they are researching" ( Hall, 1999 , n.p.). Interviewing has long been considered central to, and of equal importance to, observation in ethnographic study ( Genzuk, 2001 ). In most of the ethnographic literature, interviewees are referred to as informants ; interviews with multiple informants are often called focus groups ( USAID, 1996 ).

Johnson (1990) discussed two basic criteria for the selection of informants. One was theoretical qualification; the second was innate abilities. This, he said, allowed informants to be selected via a planned procedure.

Procedural matters . In addition to the selection of informants, the researcher must decide the degree to which each interview will be structured. According to Fontana and Frey (1994) , the possibilities range from highly structured interviews "in which an interviewer asks each respondent a series of preestablished questions with a limited set of response categories" (p. 363) to radically unstructured interviews. Hall (1999) recommends keeping the questions unrestricted. "Plan open-ended questions which require paragraph answers. If the informant goes off on a tangent…this often leads to very useful information that we didn't know was needed!" (n.p.) Cohen (1984) also recommended open-ended questions because "were we simply to pursue a schedule [of interview questions] of our own devising, we would then be displaying the contrivances of our own minds, rather than discovering the minds of those we want to study" (p. 225). The highly structured question list is also problematic because it is necessarily constructed on the assumption it can apply to all informants ( Fontana & Frey, 1994 ).

Other procedural decisions which need to be made will vary from informant to informant. Not all informants will provide the same quality and quantity of data, so the questions they are asked may vary, especially if time is limited. Also, environmental conditions may not permit the use of tape recording, so the interviewer may resort to manual notetaking, which often distracts the informants and the researcher.


"In addition to participant observation and interviews, ethnographers may also make use of various documents in answering guiding questions. When available, these documents can add additional insight or information to projects" ( Genzuk, 2001 , n.p.). Because the data collected via educational ethnography is qualitative and context-specific, it is difficult to construct multiplechoice data-collection documents for ethnography, as most of these instruments yield data which is neither rich nor descriptive ( Delamount & Hamilton, 1976 ). But documents created, modified, or used by students and teachers being observed may generate additional data to either help triangulate information or to inform interview questions. A wide variety of documents may be considered, including

…budgets, advertisements, work descriptions, annual reports, memos, school records, correspondence, informational brochures, teaching materials, newsletters, websites, recruitment or orientation packets, contracts, records of court proceedings, posters, minutes of meetings, menus, and many other kinds of written items ( Genzuk, 2001 , n. p.).

Documents containing qualitative data may be analyzed quantitatively using sophisticated computer programs ( Stemler, 2001 ; Rosenberg, Schnurr, & Oxman, 1990 ), but are usually analyzed visually by the researcher.


The prescriptive literature in the ethnography field is replete with recommendations to continually review collected data throughout the data collection process. Regardless of whether data review occurs during or after its collection, most ethnographers recommend a schedule of analysis and interpretation with these general steps: case-study data must be analyzed; the analysis must be examined and reorganized; the reorganized data must be synthesized; and the synthesis must be interpreted (e.g., Hall, 1999 ).

Qualitative data garnered in case-study research is treated similarly to data from other types of ethnographic studies. Mitchell (1984) noted the usefulness of case studies in demonstrating "how general principles deriving from some theoretical orientation manifest themselves in some given set of particular circumstances" (p. 239). Stake (1994) concurred: "case study can be seen as a small step toward grand generalization" (p. 238).

Levstik and Barton (1996) and VanSledright (1995) both used case study models to investigate history education, focusing on chronological thinking and historical understanding respectively. Both extensively employed interview strategies. Levstik and Barton selected a subsample of the interview data and based their coding scheme on it. They reported examples from each of their dozens of categories, devoting comparably little space to synthesis and interpretation. VanSledright took a very different approach. He synthesized his data into three categories and reported these.

Data Reduction . As mentioned above, since analysis may begin during data collection, it is unlikely that any ethnographic study will have exclusive time periods of data collection and data analysis. Even more exactly, Erickson (1992) pointed out, "analysis actually begins while in the field. Choosing which events or persons to record involves making initial analytic decisions" (p. 216). Erickson (1992) suggested a five-stage procedure for the analysis of recorded observations or interviews in field-based educational research:

  1. Review the whole event, from start to finish without stopping, taking field notes. During this stage, potential points of interest may be noted.
  2. Identify the parts of the event, such as introduction, activity, conclusion.
  3. Within each part of the event, identify the organization of the children and the teacher. How do they influence each other?
  4. After careful selection of subjects, focus on them, transcribing their words and actions precisely, and just as precisely, pertinent words, actions and reactions of others.
  5. Compare the results of analysis steps 4 and 5 with analogous instances from elsewhere in the body of recorded observations.

To analyze written data, Hall (1999) recommended the following procedure: read and re-read the data; code the data based on similarities; categorize the coded data; do a "reality check" of the categorization; and triangulate the data. This process is then repeated as necessary to refine the categories and help identify which items are useful and which are not.

Keeler (1996) was very specific about the data-analysis process in her article describing changes in an elementary classroom when networked computers were introduced:

The interviews were first transcribed onto a word processing program. The verbatim text was then sorted and ordered…Themes and patterns that emerged from several readings of the narrative data were then coded and the narrative data was then sorted by codes. The comments were further condensed and factors of importance began to emerge from the text. Direct quotes were preserved where they served to enhance classroom profiles and illuminate themes. (p. 332-333)


According to Genzuk (2001) , "interpretation involves attaching meaning and significance to the analysis, explaining descriptive patterns, and looking for relationships and linkages" (n.p.). Often the researcher will use a logical-organizational process to kick-start the interpretation phase. In Kinney's (1995) study of the impact of educational change on elementary students in inner-city Baltimore, "fieldnotes from observations and student statements from interviews were sorted and categorized based on their consistency and similarity to specific issues and concerns" (p. 8). These issues and concerns were essentially his research questions. Kinney also consulted a nationally recognized expert to help interpret the data. Ennis (1996) , who investigated the impacts of disruptive students on curriculum in ten U. S. high schools, used a different approach. She first wrote narratives describing each of her ten cases, then examined these for "tentative assertions, common themes, and discrepancies" (p. 148).

Interpretation, or theorizing , is followed by the selection of episodes or facts which exemplify, or in some cases challenge, the theory. Incidents which refute the theory under certain circumstances may prove useful in further refining the theory ( Stemler, 2001 ). Items selected in this stage may be used to demonstrate the veracity of the theory, and may be used in the explication of the theory as well (see Krathwohl, 1993 ).


Three recent prescriptive reviews of the technology education research base provide scores of potential case-study research projects in areas where research is lacking. These papers are Zuga's (1996) Review of technology education research , Petrina's (1998) content analysis of the first eight volumes of the Journal of Technology Education , and Lewis's (1999) "Research in technology education-Some areas of need."

Zuga (1996) summarized needed technology education research in two points, the first being "researching the effectiveness of technology education via the ability to meet goals which the professionals in the field purport to hold" (p. 11). Clearly the methods used to answer research questions about the effectiveness of technology education for delivering-as an example- related academic content could be measured quantitatively via standardized academic tests. But delivering related academic content is only one of those "goals which the professionals in the field purport to hold." Technology education is also believed to increase students' "technological literacy" ( ITEA, 2000 ) and improve self-esteem and other social variables ( Wright, 1992 ).

How best to study these questions? There are several problems preventing the straightforward application of quantitative models in such studies. For example, there are no accepted quantitative tests of technological literacy, so the researcher will have to use a self-designed or adapted test which will be under-normed. Because there is no accepted definition for technological literacy, such a test will vary from researcher to researcher, making studies less generalizable and less comparable-and by extension making case-study analysis less objectionable.

A second problem in applying quantitative methods to a study of the effects of technology education is that, even if the outcomes (academic, technological, social, etc.) could be perfectly quantified, determining the proportion of the outcome attributable to technology education (e.g., via analysis of covariance) would require the replication of the experimental conditions in several classrooms, along with a number of "control" classrooms. While this would not be impossible, the cost and effort would be colossal, even when compared to a multi-observer longitudinal case study using ethnographic methods. 1

Zuga's other major recommendation for technology education research, "addressing issues of identifying and implementing integrated curriculum through technology education for all children taught in a constructivist manner" (p. 11), is perhaps an even better candidate for case-study research. Zuga herself has remarked in several reviews of research that qualitative methods may be the most appropriate for addressing the major gaps in technology education research. Petrina (1998) identified seven "central framing questions," which the technology education field needs to answer. Each is constituted by a unique combination of several of nine research areas. The seven questions are

  • How do we come to practice and understand technology?
  • Toward what ends and means is the subject practiced?
  • What should be the nature of technological knowledge?
  • How should the content of the subject be organized?
  • How is the subject today influenced by its history?
  • How is technology practiced across cultures?
  • Who participates in the subject and why or why not? (paraphrased in Lewis, 1999 , p. 42.)

While most of these may be best studied via nonquantitative means, several in particular are good candidates for case-study research. The first part of the final question, "who participates in [technology education]?" may be responded to using quantitative means; researchers could in theory collect rich enrollment and course participation data and break it down by socioeconomic status, gender, race/ethnicity, special-needs status, and the like. In fact such quantification would be needed to inform the second part of the question. But to respond to that second part- "why or why not?"-lends itself to case-study analysis, with the case unit viewed either as individual students or a school or system with sizeable and representative groups of those who do and do not participate in technology education.

Other of Petrina's questions, such as cultural comparisons of technological practices, might be ideal but impracticable as case studies. Yet a meta-analysis of existing case studies, each considering a different culture, might be useful to the field.

Lewis (1999) , making reference to Petrina, identified "areas of research potential" for technology education (p. 43), including to technological literacy; perceptions, conceptions, and misconceptions about technology; creativity; gender; curriculum; and teachers. Several of these topics lend themselves to case-study research. One possible research model for investigating misconceptions about technology would be to observe one or more classes of students as they learn technological concepts; analyze their written explanations of those concepts; use this analysis to identify those with high and low incidences of misconceptions; and select informants from these two student groups. With this three-pronged approach to data collection- observations, interviews, and document analysis, triangulatable data would be generated which could be used to begin to address questions of student misconceptions about technology.

Similar models could be constructed for many of the other research areas identified by Lewis. Consider, for example, "questions pertaining to technology and creativity" (p. 46) and "questions pertaining to gender" (p. 47). Taking a mixed-gender classroom, or other group of students, as a case and observing and interviewing them as they engage in potentially creative technology activities might be the start of an investigation of several of Lewis' "areas of research potential."


As suggested by the work done by Lewis , Petrina , Zuga , and Hoepfl (e.g., 1997, 2001) the range of research topics in technology education appropriate for case-study research is potentially limitless. Specifically, the following are three areas of needed research in elementary-school technology education(ESTE) (see Foster, 1997 ):

Inservicing in ESTE . Over the past ten years, thousands of elementary teachers have been in-serviced in the area of technology education at national and state technology education conferences. Have these in-service sessions had an impact? How do teachers approach technological content in the existing curriculum (e.g., social studies, science, etc.) before and after attending in-service sessions?

Assessment via ESTE . If elementary-school teachers implement technology education in their classrooms, how do they assess student performance? In some cases (e.g., Foster, 1997 ), teachers implementing ESTE reduced the number of traditional assignments they used in their classrooms. Could ESTE be a vehicle for assessing students' social skills, such as working with others?

Student and teacher roles . Does ESTE have potential in delivering on the challenge of having elementary teachers become facilitators of knowledge rather than dispensers of it? How do successful ESTE teachers prepare for activities for which the outcome is uncertain? Content aside, is there a difference between constructivism and using ESTE as a delivery method, as suggested by Todd and Hutchinson (1991) ?

Many of these questions could be addressed via quantitative research; for instance, teachers could be surveyed or interviewed to determine their perceptions of student and teacher roles, assessment, and the like. But to move beyond opinions, in-depth, on-site study is much more powerful.


Case-study analysis is only an appropriate educational research model for a limited range of research questions, specifically those in areas of education where foundational questions remain unanswered. It is clear from the literature that technology education is such a field. Several of the most respected technology-education researchers have identified large domains in which little or no quality research exists, and have pointed in general to the need for more qualitative research to fill these voids.

At the same time, technology educators have three important ingredients to beginning their own case-study research. There is now a small but growing literature base demonstrating the unique benefits of technology education, especially at the elementary level ( Hoepfl, 2001 ). Secondly, there is also a well-established methodological knowledge base explicating the methods of case-study analysis. Finally, the editors of major journals in the technology education field have demonstrated a willingness to publish qualitative and case-study research.

The challenge, then, is for interested technology education professionals and graduate students to view research in the field as wide open for exploration with the appropriate methods-such as, but in no way limited to, case-study analysis.


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The purpose of a paper in the social sciences designed around a case study is to thoroughly investigate a subject of analysis in order to reveal a new understanding about the research problem and, in so doing, contributing new knowledge to what is already known from previous studies. In general, the structure of a case study research paper is not all that different from a standard college-level research paper. However, there are subtle differences you should be aware of. Here are the key elements to organizing and writing a case study research paper.

I.  Introduction

As with any research paper, your introduction should serve as a roadmap for your readers to ascertain the scope and purpose of your study. The introduction to a case study research paper, however, should not only describe the research problem and its significance, but you should also succinctly describe why the case is being used and how it relates to addressing the problem. The two elements should be linked. With this in mind, a good introduction answers these four questions:

  1. What was I studying? Describe the research problem and describe the subject of analysis you have chosen to address the problem. Explain how they are linked and what elements of the case will help to expand knowledge and understanding about the problem.
  2. Why was this topic important to investigate? Describe the significance of the research problem and state why a case study design and the subject of analysis that the paper is designed around is appropriate in addressing the problem.
  3. What did we know about this topic before I did this study? Provide background that helps lead the reader into the more in-depth literature review to follow. If applicable, summarize prior case study research applied to the research problem and why it fails to adequately address the research problem. Describe why your case will be useful. If no prior case studies have been used to address the research problem, explain why you have selected this subject of analysis.
  4. How will this study advance new knowledge or new ways of understanding? Explain why your case study will be suitable in helping to expand knowledge and understanding about the research problem.

Each of these questions should be addressed in no more than a few paragraphs. Exceptions to this can be when you are addressing a complex research problem or subject of analysis that requires more in-depth background information.

II.  Literature Review

The literature review for a case study research paper is generally structured the same as it is for any college-level research paper. The difference, however, is that the literature review is focused on providing background information and enabling historical interpretation of the subject of analysis in relation to the research problem the case is intended to address. This includes synthesizing studies that help to:

  • Place relevant works in the context of their contribution to understanding the case study being investigated. This would include summarizing studies that have used a similar subject of analysis to investigate the research problem. If there is literature using the same or a very similar case to study, you need to explain why duplicating past research is important [e.g., conditions have changed; prior studies were conducted long ago, etc.].
  • Describe the relationship each work has to the others under consideration that informs the reader why this case is applicable. Your literature review should include a description of any works that support using the case to study the research problem and the underlying research questions.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research using the case study. If applicable, review any research that has examined the research problem using a different research design. Explain how your case study design may reveal new knowledge or a new perspective or that can redirect research in an important new direction.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies. This refers to synthesizing any literature that points to unresolved issues of concern about the research problem and describing how the subject of analysis that forms the case study can help resolve these existing contradictions.
  • Point the way in fulfilling a need for additional research. Your review should examine any literature that lays a foundation for understanding why your case study design and the subject of analysis around which you have designed your study may reveal a new way of approaching the research problem or offer a perspective that points to the need for additional research.
  • Expose any gaps that exist in the literature that the case study could help to fill. Summarize any literature that not only shows how your subject of analysis contributes to understanding the research problem, but how your case contributes to a new way of understanding the problem that prior research has failed to do.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing literature [very important!]. Collectively, your literature review should always place your case study within the larger domain of prior research about the problem. The overarching purpose of reviewing pertinent literature in a case study paper is to demonstrate that you have thoroughly identified and synthesized prior studies in the context of explaining the relevance of the case in addressing the research problem.

III.  Method

In this section, you explain why you selected a particular subject of analysis to study and the strategy you used to identify and ultimately decide that your case was appropriate in addressing the research problem. The way you describe the methods used varies depending on the type of subject of analysis that frames your case study.

If your subject of analysis is an incident or event. In the social and behavioral sciences, the event or incident that represents the case to be studied is usually bounded by time and place, with a clear beginning and end and with an identifiable location or position relative to its surroundings. The subject of analysis can be of a rare or critical event or focus on a typical or regular event. The purpose of studying a rare event is to illuminate new ways of thinking about the broader research problem or to test a hypothesis. Critical incident case studies must describe the method by which you identified the event and explain the process by which you determined the validity of this case to inform broader perspectives about the research problem or to reveal new findings. However, the event does not have to be a rare or uniquely significant to support new thinking about the research problem or to challenge an existing hypothesis. For example, Walo, Bull, and Breen conducted a case study to identify and evaluate the direct and indirect economic benefits and costs of a local sports event in the City of Lismore, New South Wales, Australia. The purpose of their study was to provide new insights from measuring the impact of a typical local sports event that prior studies could not measure well because they focused on large "mega-events." Whether the event is rare or not, the methods section should include an explanation of the following characteristics of the event: when did it take place; what were the underlying circumstances leading to the event; what were the consequences of the event

If your subject of analysis is a person. Explain why you selected this particular individual to be studied and describe what experience he or she has had that provides an opportunity to advance new understandings about the research problem. Mention any background about this person which might help the reader understand the significance of his/her experiences that make them worthy of study. This includes describing the relationships this person has had with other people, institutions, and/or events that support using him or her as the subject for a case study research paper. It is particularly important to differentiate the person as the subject of analysis from others and to succinctly explain how the person relates to examining the research problem.

If your subject of analysis is a place. In general, a case study that investigates a place suggests a subject of analysis that is unique or special in some way and that this uniqueness can be used to build new understanding or knowledge about the research problem. A case study of a place must not only describe its various attributes relevant to the research problem [e.g., physical, social, cultural, economic, political, etc.], but you must state the method by which you determined that this place will illuminate new understandings about the research problem. It is also important to articulate why a particular place as the case for study is being used if similar places also exist [i.e., if you are studying patterns of homeless encampments of veterans in open spaces, why study Echo Park in Los Angeles rather than Griffith Park?] and, if applicable, what type of human activity involving this place makes it a good choice to study [prior research reveals Echo Park has more homeless veterans].

If your subject of analysis is a phenomenon. A phenomenon refers to a fact, occurrence, or circumstance that can be studied or observed but with the cause or explanation to be in question. In this sense, a phenomenon that forms your subject of analysis can encompass anything that can be observed or presumed to exist but is not fully understood. In the social and behavioral sciences, the case usually focuses on human interaction within a complex physical, social, economic, cultural, or political system. For example, the phenomenon could be the observation that many vehicles used by ISIS fighters are small trucks with English language advertisements on them. The research problem could be that ISIS fighters are difficult to combat because they are highly mobile. The research questions could be how and by what means are these vehicles used by ISIS being supplied to the militants and how might supply lines to these vehicles be cut? How might knowing the suppliers of these trucks from overseas reveal larger networks of collaborators and financial support? A case study of a phenomenon most often encompasses an in-depth analysis of a cause and effect that is grounded in an interactive relationship between people and their environment in some way.

NOTE:  Evidence that supports the method by which you identified and chose your subject of analysis should be linked to the findings from the literature review. Be sure to cite any prior studies that helped you determine that the case you chose was appropriate for investigating the research problem.

IV.  Discussion

The main elements of your discussion section are generally the same as any research paper, but centered around interpreting and drawing conclusions about the key findings from your case study. Note that a general social sciences research paper may contain a separate section to report findings. However, in a paper designed around a case study, it is more common to combine a description of the findings with the discussion about their implications. The objectives of your discussion section should include the following:

Reiterate the Research Problem/State the Major Findings
Briefly reiterate the research problem you are investigating and explain why the subject of analysis around which you designed the case study were used. You should then describe the findings revealed from your study of the case using direct, declarative, and succinct proclamation of the study results. Highlight any findings that were unexpected or especially profound.

Explain the Meaning of the Findings and Why They are Important
Systematically explain the meaning of your case study findings and why you believe they are important. Begin this part of the section by repeating what you consider to be your most important or surprising finding first, then systematically review each finding. Be sure to thoroughly extrapolate what your analysis of the case can tell the reader about situations or conditions beyond the actual case that was studied while, at the same time, being careful not to misconstrue or conflate a finding that undermines the external validity of your conclusions.

Relate the Findings to Similar Studies
No study in the social sciences is so novel or possesses such a restricted focus that it has absolutely no relation to previously published research. The discussion section should relate your case study results to those found in other studies, particularly if questions raised from prior studies served as the motivation for choosing your subject of analysis. This is important because comparing and contrasting the findings of other studies helps to support the overall importance of your results and it highlights how and in what ways your case study design and the subject of analysis differs from prior research about the topic.

Consider Alternative Explanations of the Findings
It is important to remember that the purpose of social science research is to discover and not to prove. When writing the discussion section, you should carefully consider all possible explanations for the case study results, rather than just those that fit your hypothesis or prior assumptions and biases. Be alert to what the in-depth analysis of the case may reveal about the research problem, including offering a contrarian perspective to what scholars have stated in prior research.

Acknowledge the Study's Limitations
You can state the study's limitations in the conclusion section of your paper but describing the limitations of your subject of analysis in the discussion section provides an opportunity to identify the limitations and explain why they are not significant. This part of the discussion section should also note any unanswered questions or issues your case study could not address. More detailed information about how to document any limitations to your research can be found here.

Suggest Areas for Further Research
Although your case study may offer important insights about the research problem, there are likely additional questions related to the problem that remain unanswered or findings that unexpectedly revealed themselves as a result of your in-depth analysis of the case. Be sure that the recommendations for further research are linked to the research problem and that you explain why your recommendations are valid in other contexts and based on the original assumptions of your study.

V.  Conclusion

As with any research paper, you should summarize your conclusion in clear, simple language; emphasize how the findings from your case study differs from or supports prior research and why. Do not simply reiterate the discussion section. Provide a synthesis of key findings presented in the paper to show how these converge to address the research problem. If you haven't already done so in the discussion section, be sure to document the limitations of your case study and needs for further research.

The function of your paper's conclusion is to: 1)  restate the main argument supported by the findings from the analysis of your case; 2) clearly state the context, background, and necessity of pursuing the research problem using a case study design in relation to an issue, controversy, or a gap found from reviewing the literature; and, 3) provide a place for you to persuasively and succinctly restate the significance of your research problem, given that the reader has now been presented with in-depth information about the topic.

Consider the following points to help ensure your conclusion is appropriate:

  1. If the argument or purpose of your paper is complex, you may need to summarize these points for your reader.
  2. If prior to your conclusion, you have not yet explained the significance of your findings or if you are proceeding inductively, use the conclusion of your paper to describe your main points and explain their significance.
  3. Move from a detailed to a general level of consideration of the case study's findings that returns the topic to the context provided by the introduction or within a new context that emerges from your case study findings.

Note that, depending on the discipline you are writing in and your professor's preferences, the concluding paragraph may contain your final reflections on the evidence presented applied to practice or on the essay's central research problem. However, the nature of being introspective about the subject of analysis you have investigated will depend on whether you are explicitly asked to express your observations in this way.

Problems to Avoid

One of the goals of a case study is to lay a foundation for understanding broader trends and issues applied to similar circumstances. However, be careful when drawing conclusions from your case study. They must be evidence-based and grounded in the results of the study; otherwise, it is merely speculation. Looking at a prior example, it would be incorrect to state that a factor in improving girls access to education in Azerbaijan and the policy implications this may have for improving access in other Muslim nations is due to girls access to social media if there is no documentary evidence from your case study to indicate this. There may be anecdotal evidence that retention rates were better for girls who were on social media, but this observation would only point to the need for further research and would not be a definitive finding if this was not a part of your original research agenda.

Failure to Document Limitations
No case is going to reveal all that needs to be understood about a research problem. Therefore, just as you have to clearly state the limitations of a general research study, you must describe the specific limitations inherent in the subject of analysis. For example, the case of studying how women conceptualize the need for water conservation in a village in Uganda could have limited application in other cultural contexts or in areas where fresh water from rivers or lakes is plentiful and, therefore, conservation is understood differently than preserving access to a scarce resource.

Failure to Extrapolate All Possible Implications
Just as you don't want to over-generalize from your case study findings, you also have to be thorough in the consideration of all possible outcomes or recommendations derived from your findings. If you do not, your reader may question the validity of your entire analysis, particularly if you failed to document an obvious outcome from your case study research. For example, in the case of studying the accident at the railroad crossing to evaluate where and what types of warning signals should be located, you failed to take into consideration speed limit signage as well as warning signals. When designing your case study, be sure you have thoroughly addressed all aspects of the problem and do not leave gaps in your analysis.

Case Studies. Writing@CSU. Colorado State University; Gerring, John. Case Study Research: Principles and Practices. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007; Merriam, Sharan B. Qualitative Research and Case Study Applications in Education. Rev. ed. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 1998; Mills, Albert J., Gabrielle Durepos, and Eiden Wiebe, editors. Encyclopedia of Case Study Research. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010; Putney, LeAnn Grogan. "Case Study." In Encyclopedia of Research Design, Neil J. Salkind, editor. (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 2010), pp. 116-120; Simons, Helen. Case Study Research in Practice. London: SAGE Publications, 2009; Kratochwill, Thomas R. and Joel R. Levin, editors.Single-Case Research Design and Analysis: New Development for Psychology and Education. Hilldsale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1992; Swanborn, Peter G. Case Study Research: What, Why and How? London : SAGE, 2010; Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research: Design and Methods. 6th edition. Los Angeles, CA, SAGE Publications, 2014; Walo, Maree, Adrian Bull, and Helen Breen. “Achieving Economic Benefits at Local Events: A Case Study of a Local Sports Event.” Festival Management and Event Tourism 4 (1996): 95-106.

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