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Leading Case Discussions

Case studies can be an important tool in teaching ethics as they offer students a chance to develop their ability to solve problems using knowledge, concepts, and skills relevant to their future professional goals. They help demonstrate to students that problems they may encounter in their professional work can be solved by skills acquired through studying ethics. (1) Moreover, studies that look at how individuals develop their moral reasoning skills have shown that activities that emphasize peer-centered discussion of moral dilemmas, such as discussions about case studies, are an effective way of teaching professional ethics. (2) For more information about the importance of case studies in teaching ethics and how they can be used, please see the bibliography at the end of this page.

There is a wealth of case studies available; both in books available through the CSEP Library, and online. CSEP has developed a guide (link) to finding case studies on the web, as well as including a list of cases by topic in our collection of subject guides (link). You can also find real events that can easily be converted into case studies in newspapers, academic journals, and other publications.

What follows is a copy of a handout used in EAC workshops that lists some goals and brief tips for holding in-class case study discussions.

I. Ethics Case Study Discussion -- The Ideal

A. Identification of major issues;

B. Identification of major viewpoints with respect to major issues;

C. Identification, in broad outline, of central reasoning behind each major viewpoint;

D. Students themselves make all the above identifications in the context of class discussion;

E. All of the students in the class come away from the discussion with a clear understanding of the major points discussed;

F. Class discussion is genuinely conversational --student comments address and build off of comments of other students;

G. Full participation -- every student either speaks or is otherwise engaged, as expressed in clear indications of following the discussion closely and reflecting upon it as it proceeds;

H. Discussion is high quality -- thoughtful, authentic, novel -- students suggest new ways to think about the case, that go beyond the received major approaches;

I. Post discussion validation -- 2-3 years later students tell you that the discussion had a deep, enduring impact upon them -----


II. Ethics Case Study Discussion -- Reality

A. The ideal ethics case discussion is never realized and seldom even approached. This is not a problem, however. Ethics case study discussion can be immensely valuable even when conducted for a limited amount of time, by mere mortals, such as you and me, in diverse kinds of courses, even those that are primarily technical. Here are some key goals toward which even a limited ethics case study discussion can make a useful contribution:

1. Develop students' awareness of ethical issues;

2. Develop students' abilities of ethical analysis;

3. Deepen students' ethical understanding -- e.g. that topics in the course raise significant ethical issues, that there may be different viewpoints on these issues each of which has good reasons behind it, that the issues, although difficult to resolve, are discussable, and that, in all likelihood, reasonable, although not perfect, resolutions are achievable;

4. Deepen students' sense of ethical commitment -- raising issues in class is an important way to model such commitment.

III. Guidelines and Suggestions for how to conduct an Ethics Case Study Discussion

A. If possible, call on every single student who indicates she or he wants to speak.

B. Acknowledge every student remark by underscoring it, commenting upon it, etc.

C. Ask brief follow-up questions for purposes of clarification and elucidation;

1. Follow-up questions can help to keep discussion on track-- e.g. if student comment seems off the point, ask him (gently) what the point was;

2. Follow-up questions can help to bring out interesting and novel ideas of students.

D. In conducting an ethics case study discussion in class:

1. Don't lecture (and above all don't preach);

2. Don't argue with the student;

Don't be strongly directive -- if it appears to you that the discussion isn't going to cover all major aspects of the issue then just accept it.


(1) Oljar, Elizabeth A. “The Value of Case Law in Teaching Philosophical Ethics.” Teaching Ethics 3.1 (Fall 2002) 2.

(2) Rest, J.R. and Thoma, S.J. Educational programs and interventions. In J.R. Rest (Ed.), Moral development: Advances in research and theory, (pp. 59-88). Boston: Prager Publishers.

Further Reading:

For more information about how to facilitate a case study discussion, these following resources have proved helpful to ethics instructors in the past. If you have problems finding any of these articles, please contact the CSEP Library for assistance.

Bebeau, Muriel, Kenneth Pimple et al. "Moral Reasoning in Scientific Research: Cases for Teaching and Assessment". Materials developed for "Teaching Research Ethics: A Workshop at Indiana University" (TRE). December 1995. Download full PDF document here.

This guide, put together in 1995 by Indiana University’s Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions consists of an extremely useful background in the benefits of using case studies to teach professional ethics, a guide for facilitating discussion, and six cases dealing with science research ethics accompanied by guidelines for discussion and criteria for evaluating participants’ competence in ethical reasoning. Even individuals not teaching scientific research ethics will find the introduction of this packet extremely useful.

Card, Robert F. “Using Case Studies to Develop Critical Thinking Skills in Ethics Courses.” Teaching Ethics: The Journal of the Society for Ethics Across the Curriculum.3(1) (Fall, 2002) 19-27.

Davis, Michael "Case Method" Ethics and the University New York, Routledge,1999. pp. 143-174.

In this chapter, Michael Davis offers some practical advice about using cases to teach professional ethics. He first gives a brief history of the case method of teaching, the differences that exist between ethics cases and other cases, the use of cases in ethics courses. He then demonstrates the useful variety of cases that exist, and gives some criteria for selecting cases that will fit best into a professional course.

Davis, Michael, "Developing and Using Cases to Teach Practical Ethics." Teaching Philosophy 20:4, December 1997, pp. 353-385.

Fisher, Ellen R. and Nancy E. Levinger. “A Directed Framework for Integrating Ethics into Chemistry Curricula and Programs Using Real and Fictional Case Studies. Journal of Chemical Education, 85:6 (June 2008) pp. 796-801.

EAC Workshop 2003. Copyright Robert Ladenson