Case Study Guidelines

  • by Dr. Janet Waters  (revised 2017)

    Research Design:

    In general, case studies are in-depth studies of one or a few individuals, & can be very valuable when investigating a phenomenon that is relatively rare, or when we want to do an in-depth history on a person. It is even possible to do a self study  as a class assignment, or a case study of a historical person, using archival data. Of course, any case study you would carry out for your class assignment can't be as extensive or in-depth as a formal research study. 

    Research Ethics for Case Studies: As with all research methods, make sure your research proposal has been approved by your instructor or supervisor before conducting your case study. Your research proposal must include how you plan to gather data on your participant (or yourself) & a copy of your consent form if you are interviewing a participant. Always go over the consent form with your participant before they sign, and ensure their anonymity and confidentiality is carefully protected in your research process (within the legal requirements).

    Data collection:

    Gather information about the subject of your case study from as many sources as are permitted and available. If you are the subject of your case study, you could use self-report, and interview your family & friends. If studying another person, you could interview your participant, and you might be able to interview his or her family or friends; you can also use your own observations; and the participant's self-report of their experience. You may even be able to include the results of psychological testing on the participant if available. For example, in a case study of someone who has ADHD, you could interview the participant &/or their family, & add your own observations, & the results of any cognitive testing that the participant knows about. There are also some online tests of psychological disorders & personality traits that might be of interest in your case study. Do note that many of these on-line mini-tests have dubious validity, however. Your instructor might be able to suggest where you could find more valid tests.

    Data Analysis:

    Summarize the results of your interviews & observations or archival research into a description of the participant. For the Results section of your research report, this would be about a 2-4 page summary. The focus of your summary depends on the topic question (eg in a case study of ADHD, you would focus on the effects of the attention deficit). You might include subsections presenting:

    1. Participant's History & family of origin. Begin with gender & current age, & include significant childhood experiences, especially regarding the topic of interest, & significant adult experiences & events.
    2. Current functioning: include occupation, education, marital & family status. 
    3. Relevant medical or psychological diagnosis (if applicable):  psychological, emotional, cognitive & behavioural symptoms or indicators regarding your topic of interest (eg. ADHD, or psychological disorder, & the person's Big 5 traits).
    4. Treatment: (if applicable). This would include medical & psychological treatment, & any other relevant therapies. Note whether these have been successful.

    Unless you are studying yourself or a historical figure, you must obtaining your participant's (or his/her guardian's) consent to do this case study, & make sure that you protect the participant's confidentiality in presenting the case. It is not enough to substitute their name with a pseudonym. Also avoid overly specific details & descriptors of occupation, etc. that might compromise your participant's anonymity. (For example, "J.W., a university instructor in Psychology who is a therapist & a writer..." is too revealing).

    Presentation of your results in a Research Report:

    The standard APA style lab report can be used to present your case study. In the Introduction, briefly review past research & theory in your topic question (e.g. summarize current research on ADHD). Use APA referencing style to cite your sources. In the Method section, under Participants, present a general description of the participant (age, diagnosis, etc.). In the Materials section, describe any materials you may have used (e.g. on-line personality test), & in the Procedure section, note that your general research strategy was a case study, & describe your methods of data collection (e.g. interview, etc.).

    In the Results section of the report, present your 2-4 page summary of the case study. Avoid excessive interpretation of the case in the Results section. Simply present the person, their symptoms, diagnosis & treatment (if applicable). No citations would occur here, since you are describing your results.

    Finally, in the Discussion section, connect your case study to the findings of current research &/or theory, including theory & research discussed in your Introduction, & other research or theory you may have found that would help you understand your case study. (For example, for a case study of ADHD, relate your participant's experience & symptoms to the research you presented in the Introduction. Are the symptoms typicalt?)

    Use APA referencing style to cite your sources. Do finish the Discussion section with a note on the limitations of your study in terms of generalizability. Because of the small sample used in a case study method, however illustrative it may be, you must be careful to avoid generalizing your results to other cases.

    © Janet Waters, 2017