Using the Case Study Approach to Teach Human Geography

Case studies are useful not only in research, but also in classroom instruction in human geography. One of the many strengths of this type of teaching and learning is that it is one of the most effective ways to link research and teaching in geography classrooms at all levels of instruction. During the past decade, a spate of books and articles in geographic education journals have documented some of the many ways case studies can be useful in helping students understand and apply the geographic perspective. Using case studies as an instructional method encompasses many different types of interactive learning and thus encourages educators to move away from a teacher centered classroom to creation and nurturing of a student centered learning environment.

Scholars and educational practitioners have long argued for the benefits of interactive pedagogies that encourage students to become active contributors to the learning process. This approach moves geography faculty and classroom teachers away from traditional lecture approaches to instruction toward interactive and collaborative learning. Numerous prior studies have established that student knowledge and skills mastery are retained longer when they are encouraged to become active participants in the learning process. Long term assessments of learning outcomes have also ascertained that the majority of students improve their content knowledge, skills mastery, and affective and attitudinal learning in classrooms that are more student centered.

Use of the case study approach to teaching human geography requires students to actively engage with course content by reading, analyzing, comparing, and critiquing a set of cases that are issues based and often link local to global scales of learning. This way of teaching differs dramatically from the more traditional use of cases as supplementary reading assignments to illustrate key points in economic, cultural, or even physical geography lectures. The case studymethod instead refers to an approach that is grounded in an overarching educational practice with the primary objective of active, centered learning. In this approach, students are asked to become members of a collaborative group of learners whose task is to explore, analyze, synthesize, and potentially criticize specific case studies framed by real world issues. Case study materials useful in human geography instruction can come from book chapters, academic and popular articles, newspaper articles or other documents, and the teacher's own experiences.

Perhaps most importantly, this highly collaborative pedagogical approach provides faculty with the opportunity to embed their own research into classroom learning. The use of data gathered on site in the field doing case study research is only one way to integrate research into classroom instruction. Students can also be asked to conduct their own research projects modeled after the work of faculty or classroom teachers that includes development and refinement of research questions, discussion of appropriate research methods to be used for the study, practice in using various types of data compilation and data analysis, and writing up and then defending the final outcomes of the project in oral presentations. All of these methods are best conducted using local or regional case studies that can be scaled up to larger geographic questions under discussion in coursework in geography.

One of the new sites of case study teaching and learning now underway in US classrooms is occurring in advanced placement human geography courses all across the nation. With the support of ample supplies of published and online curricular materials developed especially for novice and experienced classroom teachers expanding exponentially as the number of students in these advanced secondary level classrooms expands each year, the use of case studies as a preferred approach continues to gain credibility. High school students (along with many of their teachers) often enter their first high level geography classroom unaware of even the most basic content, skills, and perspectives of human geography. Using case studies that illustrate issues, places, and spaces at a variety of scales helps deepen their understanding of core concepts and skills and also increases teacher and student confidence in applying the geographic perspective in geography classes and beyond.

The use of the case study approach in educational settings also provides a discussion forum for deconstructing and rethinking some of the ways the world is changing. The study of geography, as well as teaching and learning itself, are contested spaces of change where fluidity is the norm. However, despite this ongoing climate of rapid change, many of the now outdated concepts in our field are the norm in geography classrooms in many parts of the world. The use of case studies can help expand these now outdated approaches and content to enliven students' interest and engage them in their own learning.