Society for the Teaching of Psychology: Division 2 of the American Psychological Association

Using Student-Generated Case Studies to Teach the Psychology of Disabilities

01 Feb 2018 9:27 AM | Anonymous

Jennifer A. Oliver (Rockhurst University)

The use of case studies is a common active learning strategy employed in psychology. Case learning is useful for developing critical-thinking skills (Krain, 2010), and for increasing students’ motivation and interest in course material (McManus, 1986a; McManus, 1986b). Researchers have described many positive outcomes of using case studies. These include helping abstract theoretical information become concrete, facilitating understanding; reinforcing course concepts as students analyze, infer, and examine relationships (Graham & Cline, 1980); and integrating students’ learning as they incorporate theory into practice and make practice integral to theory (McDade, 1995).

But most of the work examining the use of case studies uses pre-written cases. While I wanted to use cases in my Psychology of Disability course, the only cases that I could find were focused either on abnormal psychology or on special education, and neither area was a good fit for this course. So, I decided to have students write their own cases. Few studies have examined having students write their own cases. Successful application of student-generated case studies has been used at both the undergraduate level in business and science, as well as in medical training (Yurco, 2014). In fact, Yurco reported that when students created their own cases, they developed greater confidence, ownership of the learning process, a deeper understanding of the material, and improved critical thinking skills in an introductory neurobiology course. McManus (1986b) reported that having student groups compose a problem-focused case and generate potential solutions to the problem in the case assisted students in consolidating course concepts in an adolescent psychology course.

In this essay, I describe an applied project that I use in my undergraduate Psychology of Disabilities course, along with information on students’ performance and their views of the project. The Psychology of Disabilities is a 4000-level class (junior and senior level). All of our 4000-level courses require an assignment that involves an integrated literature review but I also wanted to incorporate some application into the course at a broader level than just using exam questions.

The Project

In the Psychology of Disabilities course, students chose a disability and wrote their own case study of an individual with that particular disability. The project included:

       An integrative literature review (minimum of 4 double-spaced pages) describing the disability, including psychological and behavioral characteristics, prevalence rate, developmental changes as an individual with the disability moves from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, (possible) causes of the disability, and at least three sociocultural factors chosen from: race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and differences among regions of the world. Students had to cite at least eight credible academic sources, with at least two of the sources being empirical journal articles. They were allowed to use one internet source that summarizes information on the disability; however that source had to be a credible source, written by individuals who are professionals and knowledgeable about the disability. I provided students with examples of sources that would both be acceptable and not acceptable. Students turned in rough drafts of this section at midterm for feedback before the final project was due at the end of the semester.

       A case study of a fictional individual with that disability at two contrasting ages (minimum of 1 full page, single-spaced per age). In keeping with the developmental focus of the class, students could use any ages between preschool and young adulthood (up through the early-20s). In their case study, students needed to apply the characteristics, described in the literature review, that an individual with that disability would exhibit at the chosen ages, and include either a behavioral interaction and/or a verbal interaction between the individual and at least one other person

       A complete description of two possible interventions/treatments that would be appropriate for their fictional individual, including the effectiveness of each intervention/treatment. In addition, students discussed which age from their case each intervention/treatment would be most appropriate for and why.

An example of a case study and two additional completed projects were available for the students to use as models.

Student Performance

In order to determine how well students performed on the assignment, I evaluated the grades on each section of the assignment from 56 students (28 each, in Spring 2014 and in Spring 2015). The percentages of grades for each area of the assignment were as follows:

Case Study

Literature Review














Below C




Overall, students performed well on all three areas of the assignment, with at least 78% earning an A or B on each portion. Over 90% of the students did quite well on the case study portion. Common areas where students missed points were not providing an example of behavioral and/or verbal interactions between the individual and another person, not including all of the characteristics described in the literature review in the case, or not meeting the length requirement. A higher percentage of students received a C or lower on the literature review portion than on the other two sections of the project, which was surprising since they received feedback on a previous draft of this section of the project. Common difficulties on the literature review included not fully describing the disability, choosing inappropriate sources (especially an over-reliance on internet sources), and lack of integration of information from multiple sources. In addition, students were asked to describe three sociocultural factors chosen from: race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and differences among regions of the world; students often ignored the actual sociocultural factor choices given in the assignment and came up with their own factors. This was the first psychology course that required a writing assignment this in-depth for some students, which may explain the lower scores on this section. A few students did not incorporate feedback that was provided on their draft. If students lost points on the treatment/intervention section, it was typically because they either did not fully describe the treatment/intervention or failed to discuss the effectiveness of the treatment/intervention. A few students did not discuss how the treatments/interventions related to the case study portion of the assignment.

I also wanted to assess students’ views of the project. After students had turned in their final project, they completed a 3-item anonymous rating of the project. Each question was rated on a 5-point Likert scale (1=strongly disagree, 5= strongly agree). Students’ average ratings were quite high:

       Completing the case study project increased my understanding of disabilities, M= 4.32 (sd=.69, range 3-5)

       The case study project was a useful way to help me learn the class material, M= 4.29 (s.=.73, range 3-5)

       I rate the project as interesting, M=4.38 (sd =.62, range 3-5)

Students’ anonymous ratings for the case study project were quite high, with the lowest rating for all three questions as neutral. Thus, this project may be one way to get students more actively engaged in learning about disabilities. In addition to the students’ high ratings of the project, there were numerous unsolicited comments on the course evaluations that they enjoyed the project and it helped them learn to apply course material.

I was also interested in whether completing a big application project was related to student performance on application-based material on the exams. There are three exams in the course. Each exam has nine application-based multiple-choice questions. I give Exam 1 before students have completed any of the project. I give Exam 2 after students have completed a draft of the literature review but before they have written the case study portion. Students take Exam 3 after they have completed the final project. I looked at these application-based multiple-choice questions on each exam to see if there was improvement after completing the case study.

Average % correct

Exam 1


Exam 2


Exam 3


Students, on average, performed better on the application-based multiple-choice questions after completing the case study. While there was no difference between scores on Exams 1 and 2, t(8) = -1.976, p=.084, there were significant differences between performance on Exam 1 and Exam 3, t(8) = -3.086, p=.015 and Exam 2 and Exam 3, t(8) = -3.117, p=.014.

Performance on the application-based multiple-choice questions on the exams improved after completion of the case study project. Students may be getting better at application-based multiple-questions with repeated practice on the exams but completing the case study project may have also helped in learning to apply information.

Suggestions for Using the Project in Other Psychology Courses

While I designed this project for a specific course, it could easily be adapted for use in other Psychology classes, either with or without a literature review, such as:

  • ·       Abnormal Psychology–students pick (or are assigned) a psychiatric disorder and create a fictional individual with that disorder, describing the symptoms specific to the characteristics (age, race/ethnicity, etc.) of the individual. Students could also discuss a specific theoretical orientation toward treatment.
  • ·       Community Psychology–have students create a case about an individual, demonstrating how that individual is connected to his/her environments and how specific problems within the individual’s community have an impact the individual.
  • ·       Developmental Psychology–have students develop a fictional individual and describe how that individual changes while passing through the different developmental time periods. For example, in a child psychology class, what that individual looks like at early childhood compared to middle childhood. Or students could use one developmental period (e.g., adolescence) and describe how physical, cognitive, and social-emotional developmental interacts at that age for that particular individual.
  • ·       Health Psychology–students could create a case study about an individual with a specific health issue, discussing how the individual adjusts and copes with the issue, what behaviors could protect the individual’s health, what behaviors harm the individual’s health, and how those behaviors could be changed.
  • Concluding Thoughts

I have found this project to be a fun, engaging way to help students learn about disabilities. It demonstrates that the majority of students can apply information and describe how characteristics of disabilities can change developmentally. In addition, students appear to enjoy the assignment and it actually is more fun to read and grade than traditional literature reviews.


Graham, P.T, & Cline, P.C. (1980). The case method: A basic teaching approach. Theory into Practice, 19(2), 112–116.

Krain, M. (2010). The effects of different types of case learning on student engagement. International Studies Perspectives, 11, 291-308.

McDade, S.A. (1995). Case study pedagogy to advance critical thinking. Teaching of Psychology, 22(1), 9-10.

McManus, J.L. (1986a). “Live” case study/journal record in adolescent psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 13(2), 70-74.

McManus, J.L. (1986b). Student composed case study in adolescent psychology. Teaching of Psychology, 13(2), 92-93.

Yurco, P. (2014). Student-generated cases: Giving students more ownership in the learning process. Journal of College Science Teaching, 43(3), 54-58

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