Social Education 66(1), pp.68-69
©2002 National Council for the Social Studies

Making a Case
for the Case Study Method

Maureen McDonnell

What do law school students and students in a high school law class have in common? Both are asked to “think like lawyers,” to do the intellectual work of analyzing cases, constructing persuasive arguments, and applying legal principles to new facts. The instructional tool for teaching lawyer-like thinking? The case study. Although law-related education and legal education have different goals, they share a pedagogy that develops higher-order thinking skills.

The Case Study Method is the legacy of Professor Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School in the 1870s. He made this method the principal pedagogy of law school instruction. Langdel#146;s premise rested on teaching law as a science: Students could experiment with its properties and eventually draw conclusions about core concepts based on reasoned examination. Instead of memorizing legal principles through lectures and textbooks, understanding the law unfolds through the study of actual cases and professor-guided Socratic dialogue.

With secondary school students, the case method is effective because cases are stories, with real people, plots, twists, and turns. Introducing cases as stories can capture students’ attention, drawing them into the real-life concerns that unfold in a courtroom. Examining decisions in appellate cases enable students to analyze general principles of the law through primary sources. Analyzing a case fosters many skills required for citizenship. Recognizing and evaluating facts, formulating and understanding arguments, applying criteria, and making judgments are crucial competencies for engaged citizenship. In addition, using case studies invites students to examine the many perspectives surrounding policy, law, and democratic values in conflict. Throughout the process of case analysis, students construct meaning from their experiences and assess their own personal stake in understanding the law.

An appellate case is comprised of certain basic elements: facts, issues, arguments, and a decision. When teachers use the case study method in their classes, they focus on these elements. For example, when introducing students to case studies, most teachers use a strategy called “The Anatomy of a Case.” Teachers provide students with a one- or two-page summary of the case, and students identify each element (e.g., facts, issues). Once students have understood the basic elements, they are prepared to move on to more challenging variations on the case study theme. Using the strategy “Choosing Unmarked Opinions,” teachers give students the facts, issues, arguments, and then several decisions (usually summaries of the actual majority, concurring, and dissenting opinions). Teachers ask students to select the opinion that they think should be the majority decision and to give reasons for their selection.

In the “Student Law Firm” activity, teachers provide the students with the facts and issues, and students work cooperatively in groups to develop the legal and policy arguments for each side. Students who are given the facts, issues, and arguments can engage in a “Judicial Opinion Writing” activity. They exchange opinions in class the next day and write dissents to the opinions that have been circulated to them. Once students have mastery over a case, they can also prepare and present a simulation of an appellate argument (see the article by Kathy Bell on pp. 42-45).

Commercially prepared law-related education materials usually include case studies. Law students and lawyers can also work with teachers to create these materials fairly easily because of the availability of information on U.S. Supreme Court cases on the Internet (see the article by Charles Williams on pp. 51-52). In fact, some teachers create case study materials for cases argued but not yet decided by the Court. Students study the case and come to their own decisions while waiting for the Court to craft and release its decision.


Elements of a Case Study

Facts. Like lawyers in training, students are guided by the teacher to brief the case. First, they identify the facts: What happened in this case? Who are the parties? What caused the dispute to go to court? What facts are important or unimportant in a legal sense? Are any facts missing?

Laying out the facts of the case is like telling the story. Students learn to state clearly and concisely a complicated set of facts. Including procedural history can help students understand the legal system. How did the lower court(s) resolve this problem? What path did the case follow on its way to the Supreme Court? How the facts were established, how the appellate judge knew what happened, and what role the attorneys played in the process are aspects of the legal system that students often find mysterious. Examining the procedural history can help students define the issues and grapple with the processes by which legal decisions are made.1

Issues. Once the story has been told and the facts are recorded, students next identify and examine the issue(s) presented in the appeal. What is (are) the legal question(s) on which the outcome of the case turns? The issue is written in the form of a question that the appellate court must answer. Although lawyers must focus only on the legal questions, students can also examine public policy issues and legal principles, such as justice, fairness, and equality of opportunity. For example, students studying PGA Tour, Inc., v. Martin2 from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2000-2001 docket may argue the fairness of allowing disabled golfer Casey Martin to use a golf cart during the PGA Tour. Would the use of a cart provide him an unfair advantage? Is denying him this accommodation unfair? The question that the Court considered, however, was whether the PGA Tour is a “place of public accommodation,” and therefore subject to Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Such discussions help clarify the role of courts in general and the role of the Supreme Court specifically.

Arguments. Next, students identify the legal and policy arguments available to each side in the case. What are the primary arguments advanced by each side? Understanding the arguments of the parties is crucial to understanding the case. Students can pull arguments from the case materials or work in groups as student law firms to determine them. At this point, students could prepare a moot court, arguing their case before their peers. It is a good idea to ask students to rank arguments for persuasiveness before presenting them to their classmates. This exercise forces students to think critically, reevaluate the strength and weaknesses of their reasoning, and use criteria for making sound judgments. Teachers should also consider inviting attorneys and other members of the judicial system into the classroom to serve as resources.

Decisions. Finally, students are asked to identify the decision or to determine how the case either was or should be decided. It is essential that students provide reasons for their decision. Students should also consider whether they agree with the actual decision and tell why or why not. If a dissenting opinion is provided in the case materials, students should explain this decision as well. In one activity, teachers can give students several decisions from which to choose. Students analyze the legal reasoning underlying each decision, determine the merits put forth by each, and select the decision that the court should make.

As another activity, teachers can incorporate opinion writing with student law firms. Given facts, issue(s), and arguments for both sides, students write a judicial opinion, with reasons. Students can critique one another’s opinions, noting the strengths and weaknesses of various legal arguments. Students could then write dissenting opinions, with reasons, the next day. Throughout this activity, students should consider the following questions: What precedent is established by this case? Where will that precedent apply? Does this case raise important questions that have not yet been decided? Once students have mastered a case, they can apply the decision, or precedent, to resolve other circumstances raising similar legal and policy considerations.

Using the case study approach to teach Supreme Court cases offers educators a dynamic and practical strategy with many student-centered variations, in which skill development is tied to content that students find relevant and important.



1. Paul Bergman, Teaching Like a Lawyer: A Case Method Approach to Street Law Teaching, September 2001. Available at

2. PGA Tour, Inc. v. Martin, 532 U.S. 661, (2001).


Maureen McDonnell is the manager of training and educational design at the Close Up Foundation, a non-profit, non-partisan civic organization in Alexandria, Virginia.