Case studies as a learning tool

You may remember those word problems in arithmetic class in third grade.

“A, B and C were employed at 65 cents per hour to dig a trench. They were each provided a shovel and a pick, and each chose a section of the trench to dig. A worked twice as fast a B. C worked as fast as A for two hours until he drove the pick into his boot and had to be rushed to hospital. A and B finished the entire job in 6 hours. The finsihed trench was 2 feet deep and 2.5 feet wide. How long did it take until A finished his section? Would B have time to help A finish C’s section of the trench? ”

(Where DID Miss Baxter get these problems?)
Case studies are simpler than my extreme example. I am just learning to write them. Here’s one.

“When Robert McPhee died in 1887 the death registration said he was age 77. He was found in the same area in the 1850 census with his age given as 42. His marriage licence was discovered. He married Janet Cruickshank 1835 and claimed he was 27. No birth registration was found. No baptism record turned up. However his name was found on a list of those eligible for jury duty in 1833”
“Which record is most credible as a indirect evidence of Robert McPhee’s birth date? Discuss the credibility of each record mentioned.”

Case studies take some careful thinking in preparation to create the sort of context needed for reinforcing the point you’ve made. A case study like this one could generate 10 or 15 minutes of class discussion and in the end the learners would have a greater grasp of the credibility of the informants who helped create the records consulted. I have found case studies to be great learning tools.

What has been your experience?

Your comments are welcome as always.


5 responses to “Case studies as a learning tool

  1. I would say that the most credible record is the marriage record in 1835 that states he is age 27 (i.e, born in 1807/8). Nearly everyone knows when and where they were born, and who their parents are. He is of age, so has no need to lie. It is also the earliest record. This is supported by the 1833 document that implies he was at least 21; if this record had provided an exact age, then it might have been the most creible since it was probably under oath. In the 1850 census record that he was age 42 (born in 1807/8) – again indirect evidence but consistent with the other available evidence. Even the age on the death record is not far off, but is probably the least credible. I would have no problem listing his birth date as 1807/8 based on this information. Now “where” is another problem, eh?

    I agree completely with you that case studies are an excellent tool to help people learn the scientific method and to have examples to follow in their own research. I am fascinated by the articles in the NGS, NEHGS, TAG, etc journals that address difficult problems. I just wish there were web sites that could provide discussion on “brick wall” problems. I would eagerly submit my own, and participate in analysis of others’ problems.

  2. I couldn’t agree more regarding the value of case studies.

    The only “problem” can be the time that they take to prepare as they have to be 100% watertight as regards the data, otherwise you’re likely to experience a severe case of “egg on the face” as it can be virtually guaranteed that at least one student will spot any flaw in the data and your deductions !!

    The process of making the situation watertight can require extensive and time consuming background research.

    That’s why I most often use case studies on the basis of open questions to students, i.e. “What do you think is the solution?”, as opposed to “Here’s a problematic situation, – what’s the correct approach/solution/etc.?” as the former gives the possibility of accommodating a solution that you’ld never previously considered ! , whereas the latter doesn’t unless you are 100% certain that you have covered all the bases, to use a rather neat US expression !!


    David W Webster

  3. Randy, David
    Thanks for your comments. I look forward to seeing more people develop and use case studies in teaching genealogy.

  4. I have been toying with the idea of using case studies from NGSQ in my local society’s monthly research group. We started this group two years ago and it has been interesting and helpful to our members and the society. We only have 80 in our society, but we consistently get 8 to 12 attendees at the research group, and at the last meeting we had 17.

    In this group, we usually talk about research opportunities and tools, discuss research problems presented by a meeting attendee (and the group offers suggestions for further research), or tell of a genealogy trip or success. However, over two years we have pretty much run through the “brick walls” presented by our group of 8 to 12 stalwarts.

    My thoughts on using an NGSQ case study would be to set up the problem using a handout, ask the group for suggestions on how to solve the problem, and then describe the methods used to solve the problem.

    Your thoughts, Ken?

  5. Randy,
    Sounds like your group is an experienced bunch of genealogists. If you think they are ready to tackle the challenging case studies why not try something like William Litchman’s “seminar” approach. Look at my confession to Tom and use that process as a model. I have run a group discussion off and on in my home city, and taught others how to run them across western Canada. A few are catching on.

    Select a series of articles like I did. Contact the authors seeking permission to make sufficient copies for your group. A reading is assigned each month, and participants are challenged to read the article AT LEAST four times in the 10 days before the meeting. I find it useful to create a set of 12-15 study questions based on the article — open ended ones that focus the reader on the tricky bits of evidence interpretation. The group meets and a pre-determined moderator leads the discussion, encouraging people to bring up their questions, their arguments etc. Use open ended questions seeking opinions and interpretations. Lots of how and why questions help cover moments when the discussion drags. The moderator can prepare these in advance.
    I usually use post 1997 articles, but I always ask participants to comment on how well the case study and proof argument meets the genealogical proof standard.

    Some folks need help understanding sources, information and evidence. Its a good idea for the series to start with something that reviews this. Chapter 17 in Elizabeth Shown Mills book Professional Genealogy is called Evidence Analysis. Thats a good starting place.

    Try it out.

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