The case for single cases

The single case study is a well-established method with a precedent in the pedagogical literature and wide appeal across a range of disciplines. Its strength is to offer the intensive study of one individual. The richness of the data produced can be a valuable tool for the ‘bottom up’ generation of research questions and identifying previously unnoticed phenomena of potential importance, which can otherwise be lost within inter-individual variance – see figure.

 single case concept map

PDF version of:  single case concept map

Educational research could learn much from the clinical research literature. Despite the overwhelming dominance of the randomised control trial as the gold standard for clinical research, the value of single case studies is now being recognised. For example,  Franklin et al (1996: 3) comment that:

“in much clinical work the crucial question is ‘does the treatment work for this patient’, not ‘does the treatment work for the average patient?’. Only single-case designs allow rigorous objective assessment of treatment for the individual.”

Whilst Flyvbjerg  (2006: 219) goes on to comment that:

a scientific discipline without a large number of thoroughly executed case studies is a discipline without systematic production of exemplars, and a discipline without exemplars is an ineffective one.”

Recently, in his analysis of a single case study of peer observation of teaching, Tenenberg (2014: 5) has commented that:

I remembered the episode analysed here distinctly, and it nagged at the back of my mind as something that might have deeper insights buried within if I took the time to dig.”

Taking the time to dig seems to be an important issue here. It’s seems much easier to gain a superficial overview that might allow computer-aided analysis.  The narrative in Tenenberg’s paper is analyzed using interpretive phenomenological analysis (IPA) that is defended in the following manner:

Most IPA studies are of a small number of participants. However, it is possible to push the idiographic logic further and conduct an IPA analysis on a single case and I think such work is important in clearly marking a place for the significant contribution of the case in its own right” (Smith, 2004: 42).

Whilst much educational research has a quantitative focus, exploiting the application of computer power to analyse big data sets, Novak (1977: 116) has been critical of some of this research, observing that such an approach has “allowed certain educational research workers to display statistical sophistication that obscures the conceptual emptiness of their research questions“. This is something that has resonated with me in my role as a journal editor and reviewer, when I have observed tables of statistical analysis to that demonstrate the significance of a set of observations, only to dig deeper to realise that what was being asked was not sensible.

Taking the time to dig deep seems to be a thread here, and one that might be addressed by more case studies to inform the research literature.


Flyvbjerg, B. (2006) Five misunderstandings about case-study research. Qualitative Enquiry, 12(2): 219 – 245.

Franklin, R.D., Allison, D.B. and Gorman, B.S. (Eds.) (1996) Design and Analysis of Single-Case Research. New York, Psychology Press.

Novak, J.D. (1977) A theory of education. Cornell University Press.

Smith, J.A. (2004) Reflecting on the development of Interpretive Phenomenological Analysis and its contribution to qualitative research in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology, 1(1): 39 – 54.

Tenenberg, J. (2014) Learning through observing peers in practice, Studies in Higher Education, DOI: 10.1080/03075079.2014.950954


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