Case Study Research Method in Psychology

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Editor-in-Chief for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, PhD., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years of experience in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

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Case studies are in-depth investigations of a person, group, event, or community. Typically, data is gathered from various sources using several methods (e.g., observations & interviews).

The case study research method originated in clinical medicine (the case history, i.e., the patient’s personal history). In psychology, case studies are often confined to the study of a particular individual.

The information is mainly biographical and relates to events in the individual’s past (i.e., retrospective), as well as to significant events that are currently occurring in his or her everyday life.

The case study is not a research method, but researchers select methods of data collection and analysis that will generate material suitable for case studies.

Freud (1909a, 1909b) conducted very detailed investigations into the private lives of his patients in an attempt to both understand and help them overcome their illnesses.

This makes it clear that the case study is a method that should only be used by a psychologist, therapist, or psychiatrist, i.e., someone with a professional qualification.

There is an ethical issue of competence. Only someone qualified to diagnose and treat a person can conduct a formal case study relating to atypical (i.e., abnormal) behavior or atypical development.

case study

 Famous Case Studies

  • Anna O – One of the most famous case studies, documenting psychoanalyst Josef Breuer’s treatment of “Anna O” (real name Bertha Pappenheim) for hysteria in the late 1800s using early psychoanalytic theory.
  • Little Hans – A child psychoanalysis case study published by Sigmund Freud in 1909 analyzing his five-year-old patient Herbert Graf’s house phobia as related to the Oedipus complex.
  • Bruce/Brenda – Gender identity case of the boy (Bruce) whose botched circumcision led psychologist John Money to advise gender reassignment and raise him as a girl (Brenda) in the 1960s.
  • Genie Wiley – Linguistics/psychological development case of the victim of extreme isolation abuse who was studied in 1970s California for effects of early language deprivation on acquiring speech later in life.
  • Phineas Gage – One of the most famous neuropsychology case studies analyzes personality changes in railroad worker Phineas Gage after an 1848 brain injury involving a tamping iron piercing his skull.

Clinical Case Studies

  • Studying the effectiveness of psychotherapy approaches with an individual patient
  • Assessing and treating mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD
  • Neuropsychological cases investigating brain injuries or disorders

Child Psychology Case Studies

  • Studying psychological development from birth through adolescence
  • Cases of learning disabilities, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD
  • Effects of trauma, abuse, deprivation on development

Types of Case Studies

  • Explanatory case studies : Used to explore causation in order to find underlying principles. Helpful for doing qualitative analysis to explain presumed causal links.
  • Exploratory case studies : Used to explore situations where an intervention being evaluated has no clear set of outcomes. It helps define questions and hypotheses for future research.
  • Descriptive case studies : Describe an intervention or phenomenon and the real-life context in which it occurred. It is helpful for illustrating certain topics within an evaluation.
  • Multiple-case studies : Used to explore differences between cases and replicate findings across cases. Helpful for comparing and contrasting specific cases.
  • Intrinsic : Used to gain a better understanding of a particular case. Helpful for capturing the complexity of a single case.
  • Collective : Used to explore a general phenomenon using multiple case studies. Helpful for jointly studying a group of cases in order to inquire into the phenomenon.

Where Do You Find Data for a Case Study?

There are several places to find data for a case study. The key is to gather data from multiple sources to get a complete picture of the case and corroborate facts or findings through triangulation of evidence. Most of this information is likely qualitative (i.e., verbal description rather than measurement), but the psychologist might also collect numerical data.

1. Primary sources

  • Interviews – Interviewing key people related to the case to get their perspectives and insights. The interview is an extremely effective procedure for obtaining information about an individual, and it may be used to collect comments from the person’s friends, parents, employer, workmates, and others who have a good knowledge of the person, as well as to obtain facts from the person him or herself.
  • Observations – Observing behaviors, interactions, processes, etc., related to the case as they unfold in real-time.
  • Documents & Records – Reviewing private documents, diaries, public records, correspondence, meeting minutes, etc., relevant to the case.

2. Secondary sources

  • News/Media – News coverage of events related to the case study.
  • Academic articles – Journal articles, dissertations etc. that discuss the case.
  • Government reports – Official data and records related to the case context.
  • Books/films – Books, documentaries or films discussing the case.

3. Archival records

Searching historical archives, museum collections and databases to find relevant documents, visual/audio records related to the case history and context.

Public archives like newspapers, organizational records, photographic collections could all include potentially relevant pieces of information to shed light on attitudes, cultural perspectives, common practices and historical contexts related to psychology.

4. Organizational records

Organizational records offer the advantage of often having large datasets collected over time that can reveal or confirm psychological insights.

Of course, privacy and ethical concerns regarding confidential data must be navigated carefully.

However, with proper protocols, organizational records can provide invaluable context and empirical depth to qualitative case studies exploring the intersection of psychology and organizations.

  • Organizational/industrial psychology research : Organizational records like employee surveys, turnover/retention data, policies, incident reports etc. may provide insight into topics like job satisfaction, workplace culture and dynamics, leadership issues, employee behaviors etc.
  • Clinical psychology : Therapists/hospitals may grant access to anonymized medical records to study aspects like assessments, diagnoses, treatment plans etc. This could shed light on clinical practices.
  • School psychology : Studies could utilize anonymized student records like test scores, grades, disciplinary issues, and counseling referrals to study child development, learning barriers, effectiveness of support programs, and more.

How do I Write a Case Study in Psychology?

Follow specified case study guidelines provided by a journal or your psychology tutor. General components of clinical case studies include: background, symptoms, assessments, diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes. Interpreting the information means the researcher decides what to include or leave out. A good case study should always clarify which information is the factual description and which is an inference or the researcher’s opinion.

1. Introduction

  • Provide background on the case context and why it is of interest, presenting background information like demographics, relevant history, and presenting problem.
  • Compare briefly to similar published cases if applicable. Clearly state the focus/importance of the case.

2. Case Presentation

  • Describe the presenting problem in detail, including symptoms, duration,and impact on daily life.
  • Include client demographics like age and gender, information about social relationships, and mental health history.
  • Describe all physical, emotional, and/or sensory symptoms reported by the client.
  • Use patient quotes to describe the initial complaint verbatim. Follow with full-sentence summaries of relevant history details gathered, including key components that led to a working diagnosis.
  • Summarize clinical exam results, namely orthopedic/neurological tests, imaging, lab tests, etc. Note actual results rather than subjective conclusions. Provide images if clearly reproducible/anonymized.
  • Clearly state the working diagnosis or clinical impression before transitioning to management.

3. Management and Outcome

  • Indicate the total duration of care and number of treatments given over what timeframe. Use specific names/descriptions for any therapies/interventions applied.
  • Present the results of the intervention,including any quantitative or qualitative data collected.
  • For outcomes, utilize visual analog scales for pain, medication usage logs, etc., if possible. Include patient self-reports of improvement/worsening of symptoms. Note the reason for discharge/end of care.

4. Discussion

  • Analyze the case, exploring contributing factors, limitations of the study, and connections to existing research.
  • Analyze the effectiveness of the intervention,considering factors like participant adherence, limitations of the study, and potential alternative explanations for the results.
  • Identify any questions raised in the case analysis and relate insights to established theories and current research if applicable. Avoid definitive claims about physiological explanations.
  • Offer clinical implications, and suggest future research directions.

5. Additional Items

  • Thank specific assistants for writing support only. No patient acknowledgments.
  • References should directly support any key claims or quotes included.
  • Use tables/figures/images only if substantially informative. Include permissions and legends/explanatory notes.
  • Provides detailed (rich qualitative) information.
  • Provides insight for further research.
  • Permitting investigation of otherwise impractical (or unethical) situations.

Case studies allow a researcher to investigate a topic in far more detail than might be possible if they were trying to deal with a large number of research participants (nomothetic approach) with the aim of ‘averaging’.

Because of their in-depth, multi-sided approach, case studies often shed light on aspects of human thinking and behavior that would be unethical or impractical to study in other ways.

Research that only looks into the measurable aspects of human behavior is not likely to give us insights into the subjective dimension of experience, which is important to psychoanalytic and humanistic psychologists.

Case studies are often used in exploratory research. They can help us generate new ideas (that might be tested by other methods). They are an important way of illustrating theories and can help show how different aspects of a person’s life are related to each other.

The method is, therefore, important for psychologists who adopt a holistic point of view (i.e., humanistic psychologists ).


  • Lacking scientific rigor and providing little basis for generalization of results to the wider population.
  • Researchers’ own subjective feelings may influence the case study (researcher bias).
  • Difficult to replicate.
  • Time-consuming and expensive.
  • The volume of data, together with the time restrictions in place, impacted the depth of analysis that was possible within the available resources.

Because a case study deals with only one person/event/group, we can never be sure if the case study investigated is representative of the wider body of “similar” instances. This means the conclusions drawn from a particular case may not be transferable to other settings.

Because case studies are based on the analysis of qualitative (i.e., descriptive) data , a lot depends on the psychologist’s interpretation of the information she has acquired.

This means that there is a lot of scope for Anna O , and it could be that the subjective opinions of the psychologist intrude in the assessment of what the data means.

For example, Freud has been criticized for producing case studies in which the information was sometimes distorted to fit particular behavioral theories (e.g., Little Hans ).

This is also true of Money’s interpretation of the Bruce/Brenda case study (Diamond, 1997) when he ignored evidence that went against his theory.

Breuer, J., & Freud, S. (1895).  Studies on hysteria . Standard Edition 2: London.

Curtiss, S. (1981). Genie: The case of a modern wild child .

Diamond, M., & Sigmundson, K. (1997). Sex Reassignment at Birth: Long-term Review and Clinical Implications. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine , 151(3), 298-304

Freud, S. (1909a). Analysis of a phobia of a five year old boy. In The Pelican Freud Library (1977), Vol 8, Case Histories 1, pages 169-306

Freud, S. (1909b). Bemerkungen über einen Fall von Zwangsneurose (Der “Rattenmann”). Jb. psychoanal. psychopathol. Forsch ., I, p. 357-421; GW, VII, p. 379-463; Notes upon a case of obsessional neurosis, SE , 10: 151-318.

Harlow J. M. (1848). Passage of an iron rod through the head.  Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, 39 , 389–393.

Harlow, J. M. (1868).  Recovery from the Passage of an Iron Bar through the Head .  Publications of the Massachusetts Medical Society. 2  (3), 327-347.

Money, J., & Ehrhardt, A. A. (1972).  Man & Woman, Boy & Girl : The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Money, J., & Tucker, P. (1975). Sexual signatures: On being a man or a woman.

Further Information

  • Case Study Approach
  • Case Study Method
  • Enhancing the Quality of Case Studies in Health Services Research
  • “We do things together” A case study of “couplehood” in dementia
  • Using mixed methods for evaluating an integrative approach to cancer care: a case study

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10 Case Study Advantages and Disadvantages

case study advantages and disadvantages, explained below

A case study in academic research is a detailed and in-depth examination of a specific instance or event, generally conducted through a qualitative approach to data.

The most common case study definition that I come across is is Robert K. Yin’s (2003, p. 13) quote provided below:

“An empirical inquiry that investigates a contemporary phenomenon within its real-life context, especially when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident.”

Researchers conduct case studies for a number of reasons, such as to explore complex phenomena within their real-life context, to look at a particularly interesting instance of a situation, or to dig deeper into something of interest identified in a wider-scale project.

While case studies render extremely interesting data, they have many limitations and are not suitable for all studies. One key limitation is that a case study’s findings are not usually generalizable to broader populations because one instance cannot be used to infer trends across populations.

Case Study Advantages and Disadvantages

1. in-depth analysis of complex phenomena.

Case study design allows researchers to delve deeply into intricate issues and situations.

By focusing on a specific instance or event, researchers can uncover nuanced details and layers of understanding that might be missed with other research methods, especially large-scale survey studies.

As Lee and Saunders (2017) argue,

“It allows that particular event to be studies in detail so that its unique qualities may be identified.”

This depth of analysis can provide rich insights into the underlying factors and dynamics of the studied phenomenon.

2. Holistic Understanding

Building on the above point, case studies can help us to understand a topic holistically and from multiple angles.

This means the researcher isn’t restricted to just examining a topic by using a pre-determined set of questions, as with questionnaires. Instead, researchers can use qualitative methods to delve into the many different angles, perspectives, and contextual factors related to the case study.

We can turn to Lee and Saunders (2017) again, who notes that case study researchers “develop a deep, holistic understanding of a particular phenomenon” with the intent of deeply understanding the phenomenon.

3. Examination of rare and Unusual Phenomena

We need to use case study methods when we stumble upon “rare and unusual” (Lee & Saunders, 2017) phenomena that would tend to be seen as mere outliers in population studies.

Take, for example, a child genius. A population study of all children of that child’s age would merely see this child as an outlier in the dataset, and this child may even be removed in order to predict overall trends.

So, to truly come to an understanding of this child and get insights into the environmental conditions that led to this child’s remarkable cognitive development, we need to do an in-depth study of this child specifically – so, we’d use a case study.

4. Helps Reveal the Experiences of Marginalzied Groups

Just as rare and unsual cases can be overlooked in population studies, so too can the experiences, beliefs, and perspectives of marginalized groups.

As Lee and Saunders (2017) argue, “case studies are also extremely useful in helping the expression of the voices of people whose interests are often ignored.”

Take, for example, the experiences of minority populations as they navigate healthcare systems. This was for many years a “hidden” phenomenon, not examined by researchers. It took case study designs to truly reveal this phenomenon, which helped to raise practitioners’ awareness of the importance of cultural sensitivity in medicine.

5. Ideal in Situations where Researchers cannot Control the Variables

Experimental designs – where a study takes place in a lab or controlled environment – are excellent for determining cause and effect . But not all studies can take place in controlled environments (Tetnowski, 2015).

When we’re out in the field doing observational studies or similar fieldwork, we don’t have the freedom to isolate dependent and independent variables. We need to use alternate methods.

Case studies are ideal in such situations.

A case study design will allow researchers to deeply immerse themselves in a setting (potentially combining it with methods such as ethnography or researcher observation) in order to see how phenomena take place in real-life settings.

6. Supports the generation of new theories or hypotheses

While large-scale quantitative studies such as cross-sectional designs and population surveys are excellent at testing theories and hypotheses on a large scale, they need a hypothesis to start off with!

This is where case studies – in the form of grounded research – come in. Often, a case study doesn’t start with a hypothesis. Instead, it ends with a hypothesis based upon the findings within a singular setting.

The deep analysis allows for hypotheses to emerge, which can then be taken to larger-scale studies in order to conduct further, more generalizable, testing of the hypothesis or theory.

7. Reveals the Unexpected

When a largescale quantitative research project has a clear hypothesis that it will test, it often becomes very rigid and has tunnel-vision on just exploring the hypothesis.

Of course, a structured scientific examination of the effects of specific interventions targeted at specific variables is extermely valuable.

But narrowly-focused studies often fail to shine a spotlight on unexpected and emergent data. Here, case studies come in very useful. Oftentimes, researchers set their eyes on a phenomenon and, when examining it closely with case studies, identify data and come to conclusions that are unprecedented, unforeseen, and outright surprising.

As Lars Meier (2009, p. 975) marvels, “where else can we become a part of foreign social worlds and have the chance to become aware of the unexpected?”


1. not usually generalizable.

Case studies are not generalizable because they tend not to look at a broad enough corpus of data to be able to infer that there is a trend across a population.

As Yang (2022) argues, “by definition, case studies can make no claims to be typical.”

Case studies focus on one specific instance of a phenomenon. They explore the context, nuances, and situational factors that have come to bear on the case study. This is really useful for bringing to light important, new, and surprising information, as I’ve already covered.

But , it’s not often useful for generating data that has validity beyond the specific case study being examined.

2. Subjectivity in interpretation

Case studies usually (but not always) use qualitative data which helps to get deep into a topic and explain it in human terms, finding insights unattainable by quantitative data.

But qualitative data in case studies relies heavily on researcher interpretation. While researchers can be trained and work hard to focus on minimizing subjectivity (through methods like triangulation), it often emerges – some might argue it’s innevitable in qualitative studies.

So, a criticism of case studies could be that they’re more prone to subjectivity – and researchers need to take strides to address this in their studies.

3. Difficulty in replicating results

Case study research is often non-replicable because the study takes place in complex real-world settings where variables are not controlled.

So, when returning to a setting to re-do or attempt to replicate a study, we often find that the variables have changed to such an extent that replication is difficult. Furthermore, new researchers (with new subjective eyes) may catch things that the other readers overlooked.

Replication is even harder when researchers attempt to replicate a case study design in a new setting or with different participants.

Comprehension Quiz for Students

Question 1: What benefit do case studies offer when exploring the experiences of marginalized groups?

a) They provide generalizable data. b) They help express the voices of often-ignored individuals. c) They control all variables for the study. d) They always start with a clear hypothesis.

Question 2: Why might case studies be considered ideal for situations where researchers cannot control all variables?

a) They provide a structured scientific examination. b) They allow for generalizability across populations. c) They focus on one specific instance of a phenomenon. d) They allow for deep immersion in real-life settings.

Question 3: What is a primary disadvantage of case studies in terms of data applicability?

a) They always focus on the unexpected. b) They are not usually generalizable. c) They support the generation of new theories. d) They provide a holistic understanding.

Question 4: Why might case studies be considered more prone to subjectivity?

a) They always use quantitative data. b) They heavily rely on researcher interpretation, especially with qualitative data. c) They are always replicable. d) They look at a broad corpus of data.

Question 5: In what situations are experimental designs, such as those conducted in labs, most valuable?

a) When there’s a need to study rare and unusual phenomena. b) When a holistic understanding is required. c) When determining cause-and-effect relationships. d) When the study focuses on marginalized groups.

Question 6: Why is replication challenging in case study research?

a) Because they always use qualitative data. b) Because they tend to focus on a broad corpus of data. c) Due to the changing variables in complex real-world settings. d) Because they always start with a hypothesis.

Lee, B., & Saunders, M. N. K. (2017). Conducting Case Study Research for Business and Management Students. SAGE Publications.

Meir, L. (2009). Feasting on the Benefits of Case Study Research. In Mills, A. J., Wiebe, E., & Durepos, G. (Eds.). Encyclopedia of Case Study Research (Vol. 2). London: SAGE Publications.

Tetnowski, J. (2015). Qualitative case study research design.  Perspectives on fluency and fluency disorders ,  25 (1), 39-45. ( Source )

Yang, S. L. (2022). The War on Corruption in China: Local Reform and Innovation . Taylor & Francis.

Yin, R. (2003). Case Study research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.


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Psychology Zone

Understanding Case Study Method in Research: A Comprehensive Guide

disadvantages of a case study in psychology

Table of Contents

Have you ever wondered how researchers uncover the nuanced layers of individual experiences or the intricate workings of a particular event? One of the keys to unlocking these mysteries lies in the qualitative research focusing on a single subject in its real-life context.">case study method , a research strategy that might seem straightforward at first glance but is rich with complexity and insightful potential. Let’s dive into the world of case studies and discover why they are such a valuable tool in the arsenal of research methods.

What is a Case Study Method?

At its core, the case study method is a form of qualitative research that involves an in-depth, detailed examination of a single subject, such as an individual, group, organization, event, or phenomenon. It’s a method favored when the boundaries between phenomenon and context are not clearly evident, and where multiple sources of data are used to illuminate the case from various perspectives. This method’s strength lies in its ability to provide a comprehensive understanding of the case in its real-life context.

Historical Context and Evolution of Case Studies

Case studies have been around for centuries, with their roots in medical and psychological research. Over time, their application has spread to disciplines like sociology, anthropology, business, and education. The evolution of this method has been marked by a growing appreciation for qualitative data and the rich, contextual insights it can provide, which quantitative methods may overlook.

Characteristics of Case Study Research

What sets the case study method apart are its distinct characteristics:

  • Intensive Examination: It provides a deep understanding of the case in question, considering the complexity and uniqueness of each case.
  • Contextual Analysis: The researcher studies the case within its real-life context, recognizing that the context can significantly influence the phenomenon.
  • Multiple Data Sources: Case studies often utilize various data sources like interviews, observations, documents, and reports, which provide multiple perspectives on the subject.
  • Participant’s Perspective: This method often focuses on the perspectives of the participants within the case, giving voice to those directly involved.

Types of Case Studies

There are different types of case studies, each suited for specific research objectives:

  • Exploratory: These are conducted before large-scale research projects to help identify questions, select measurement constructs, and develop hypotheses.
  • Descriptive: These involve a detailed, in-depth description of the case, without attempting to determine cause and effect.
  • Explanatory: These are used to investigate cause-and-effect relationships and understand underlying principles of certain phenomena.
  • Intrinsic: This type is focused on the case itself because the case presents an unusual or unique issue.
  • Instrumental: Here, the case is secondary to understanding a broader issue or phenomenon.
  • Collective: These involve studying a group of cases collectively or comparably to understand a phenomenon, population, or general condition.

The Process of Conducting a Case Study

Conducting a case study involves several well-defined steps:

  • Defining Your Case: What or who will you study? Define the case and ensure it aligns with your research objectives.
  • Selecting Participants: If studying people, careful selection is crucial to ensure they fit the case criteria and can provide the necessary insights.
  • Data Collection: Gather information through various methods like interviews, observations, and reviewing documents.
  • Data Analysis: Analyze the collected data to identify patterns, themes, and insights related to your research question.
  • Reporting Findings: Present your findings in a way that communicates the complexity and richness of the case study, often through narrative.

Case Studies in Practice: Real-world Examples

Case studies are not just academic exercises; they have practical applications in every field. For instance, in business, they can explore consumer behavior or organizational strategies. In psychology, they can provide detailed insight into individual behaviors or conditions. Education often uses case studies to explore teaching methods or learning difficulties.

Advantages of Case Study Research

While the case study method has its critics, it offers several undeniable advantages:

  • Rich, Detailed Data: It captures data too complex for quantitative methods.
  • Contextual Insights: It provides a better understanding of the phenomena in its natural setting.
  • Contribution to Theory: It can generate and refine theory, offering a foundation for further research.

Limitations and Criticism

However, it’s important to acknowledge the limitations and criticisms:

  • Generalizability : Findings from case studies may not be widely generalizable due to the focus on a single case.
  • Subjectivity: The researcher’s perspective may influence the study, which requires careful reflection and transparency.
  • Time-Consuming: They require a significant amount of time to conduct and analyze properly.

Concluding Thoughts on the Case Study Method

The case study method is a powerful tool that allows researchers to delve into the intricacies of a subject in its real-world environment. While not without its challenges, when executed correctly, the insights garnered can be incredibly valuable, offering depth and context that other methods may miss. Robert K\. Yin ’s advocacy for this method underscores its potential to illuminate and explain contemporary phenomena, making it an indispensable part of the researcher’s toolkit.

Reflecting on the case study method, how do you think its application could change with the advancements in technology and data analytics? Could such a traditional method be enhanced or even replaced in the future?

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Research Methods in Psychology

1 Introduction to Psychological Research – Objectives and Goals, Problems, Hypothesis and Variables

  • Nature of Psychological Research
  • The Context of Discovery
  • Context of Justification
  • Characteristics of Psychological Research
  • Goals and Objectives of Psychological Research

2 Introduction to Psychological Experiments and Tests

  • Independent and Dependent Variables
  • Extraneous Variables
  • Experimental and Control Groups
  • Introduction of Test
  • Types of Psychological Test
  • Uses of Psychological Tests

3 Steps in Research

  • Research Process
  • Identification of the Problem
  • Review of Literature
  • Formulating a Hypothesis
  • Identifying Manipulating and Controlling Variables
  • Formulating a Research Design
  • Constructing Devices for Observation and Measurement
  • Sample Selection and Data Collection
  • Data Analysis and Interpretation
  • Hypothesis Testing
  • Drawing Conclusion

4 Types of Research and Methods of Research

  • Historical Research
  • Descriptive Research
  • Correlational Research
  • Qualitative Research
  • Ex-Post Facto Research
  • True Experimental Research
  • Quasi-Experimental Research

5 Definition and Description Research Design, Quality of Research Design

  • Research Design
  • Purpose of Research Design
  • Design Selection
  • Criteria of Research Design
  • Qualities of Research Design

6 Experimental Design (Control Group Design and Two Factor Design)

  • Experimental Design
  • Control Group Design
  • Two Factor Design

7 Survey Design

  • Survey Research Designs
  • Steps in Survey Design
  • Structuring and Designing the Questionnaire
  • Interviewing Methodology
  • Data Analysis
  • Final Report

8 Single Subject Design

  • Single Subject Design: Definition and Meaning
  • Phases Within Single Subject Design
  • Requirements of Single Subject Design
  • Characteristics of Single Subject Design
  • Types of Single Subject Design
  • Advantages of Single Subject Design
  • Disadvantages of Single Subject Design

9 Observation Method

  • Definition and Meaning of Observation
  • Characteristics of Observation
  • Types of Observation
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of Observation
  • Guides for Observation Method

10 Interview and Interviewing

  • Definition of Interview
  • Types of Interview
  • Aspects of Qualitative Research Interviews
  • Interview Questions
  • Convergent Interviewing as Action Research
  • Research Team

11 Questionnaire Method

  • Definition and Description of Questionnaires
  • Types of Questionnaires
  • Purpose of Questionnaire Studies
  • Designing Research Questionnaires
  • The Methods to Make a Questionnaire Efficient
  • The Types of Questionnaire to be Included in the Questionnaire
  • Advantages and Disadvantages of Questionnaire
  • When to Use a Questionnaire?

12 Case Study

  • Definition and Description of Case Study Method
  • Historical Account of Case Study Method
  • Designing Case Study
  • Requirements for Case Studies
  • Guideline to Follow in Case Study Method
  • Other Important Measures in Case Study Method
  • Case Reports

13 Report Writing

  • Purpose of a Report
  • Writing Style of the Report
  • Report Writing – the Do’s and the Don’ts
  • Format for Report in Psychology Area
  • Major Sections in a Report

14 Review of Literature

  • Purposes of Review of Literature
  • Sources of Review of Literature
  • Types of Literature
  • Writing Process of the Review of Literature
  • Preparation of Index Card for Reviewing and Abstracting

15 Methodology

  • Definition and Purpose of Methodology
  • Participants (Sample)
  • Apparatus and Materials

16 Result, Analysis and Discussion of the Data

  • Definition and Description of Results
  • Statistical Presentation
  • Tables and Figures

17 Summary and Conclusion

  • Summary Definition and Description
  • Guidelines for Writing a Summary
  • Writing the Summary and Choosing Words
  • A Process for Paraphrasing and Summarising
  • Summary of a Report
  • Writing Conclusions

18 References in Research Report

  • Reference List (the Format)
  • References (Process of Writing)
  • Reference List and Print Sources
  • Electronic Sources
  • Book on CD Tape and Movie
  • Reference Specifications
  • General Guidelines to Write References

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Cite this chapter

disadvantages of a case study in psychology

  • R. M. Channaveer 4 &
  • Rajendra Baikady 5  

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This chapter reviews the strengths and limitations of case study as a research method in social sciences. It provides an account of an evidence base to justify why a case study is best suitable for some research questions and why not for some other research questions. Case study designing around the research context, defining the structure and modality, conducting the study, collecting the data through triangulation mode, analysing the data, and interpreting the data and theory building at the end give a holistic view of it. In addition, the chapter also focuses on the types of case study and when and where to use case study as a research method in social science research.

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Channaveer, R.M., Baikady, R. (2022). Case Study. In: Islam, M.R., Khan, N.A., Baikady, R. (eds) Principles of Social Research Methodology. Springer, Singapore.

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Explore Psychology

What Is a Case Study in Psychology?

Categories Research Methods

A case study is a research method used in psychology to investigate a particular individual, group, or situation in depth . It involves a detailed analysis of the subject, gathering information from various sources such as interviews, observations, and documents.

In a case study, researchers aim to understand the complexities and nuances of the subject under investigation. They explore the individual’s thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and experiences to gain insights into specific psychological phenomena. 

This type of research can provide great detail regarding a particular case, allowing researchers to examine rare or unique situations that may not be easily replicated in a laboratory setting. They offer a holistic view of the subject, considering various factors influencing their behavior or mental processes. 

By examining individual cases, researchers can generate hypotheses, develop theories, and contribute to the existing body of knowledge in psychology. Case studies are often utilized in clinical psychology, where they can provide valuable insights into the diagnosis, treatment, and outcomes of specific psychological disorders. 

Case studies offer a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of complex psychological phenomena, providing researchers with valuable information to inform theory, practice, and future research.

Table of Contents

Examples of Case Studies in Psychology

Case studies in psychology provide real-life examples that illustrate psychological concepts and theories. They offer a detailed analysis of specific individuals, groups, or situations, allowing researchers to understand psychological phenomena better. Here are a few examples of case studies in psychology: 

Phineas Gage

This famous case study explores the effects of a traumatic brain injury on personality and behavior. A railroad construction worker, Phineas Gage survived a severe brain injury that dramatically changed his personality.

This case study helped researchers understand the role of the frontal lobe in personality and social behavior. 

Little Albert

Conducted by behaviorist John B. Watson, the Little Albert case study aimed to demonstrate classical conditioning. In this study, a young boy named Albert was conditioned to fear a white rat by pairing it with a loud noise.

This case study provided insights into the process of fear conditioning and the impact of early experiences on behavior. 

Genie’s case study focused on a girl who experienced extreme social isolation and deprivation during her childhood. This study shed light on the critical period for language development and the effects of severe neglect on cognitive and social functioning. 

These case studies highlight the value of in-depth analysis and provide researchers with valuable insights into various psychological phenomena. By examining specific cases, psychologists can uncover unique aspects of human behavior and contribute to the field’s knowledge and understanding.

Types of Case Studies in Psychology

Psychology case studies come in various forms, each serving a specific purpose in research and analysis. Understanding the different types of case studies can help researchers choose the most appropriate approach. 

Descriptive Case Studies

These studies aim to describe a particular individual, group, or situation. Researchers use descriptive case studies to explore and document specific characteristics, behaviors, or experiences.

For example, a descriptive case study may examine the life and experiences of a person with a rare psychological disorder. 

Exploratory Case Studies

Exploratory case studies are conducted when there is limited existing knowledge or understanding of a particular phenomenon. Researchers use these studies to gather preliminary information and generate hypotheses for further investigation.

Exploratory case studies often involve in-depth interviews, observations, and analysis of existing data. 

Explanatory Case Studies

These studies aim to explain the causal relationship between variables or events. Researchers use these studies to understand why certain outcomes occur and to identify the underlying mechanisms or processes.

Explanatory case studies often involve comparing multiple cases to identify common patterns or factors. 

Instrumental Case Studies

Instrumental case studies focus on using a particular case to gain insights into a broader issue or theory. Researchers select cases that are representative or critical in understanding the phenomenon of interest.

Instrumental case studies help researchers develop or refine theories and contribute to the general knowledge in the field. 

By utilizing different types of case studies, psychologists can explore various aspects of human behavior and gain a deeper understanding of psychological phenomena. Each type of case study offers unique advantages and contributes to the overall body of knowledge in psychology.

How to Collect Data for a Case Study

There are a variety of ways that researchers gather the data they need for a case study. Some sources include:

  • Directly observing the subject
  • Collecting information from archival records
  • Conducting interviews
  • Examining artifacts related to the subject
  • Examining documents that provide information about the subject

The way that this information is collected depends on the nature of the study itself

Prospective Research

In a prospective study, researchers observe the individual or group in question. These observations typically occur over a period of time and may be used to track the progress or progression of a phenomenon or treatment.

Retrospective Research

A retrospective case study involves looking back on a phenomenon. Researchers typically look at the outcome and then gather data to help them understand how the individual or group reached that point.

Benefits of a Case Study

Case studies offer several benefits in the field of psychology. They provide researchers with a unique opportunity to delve deep into specific individuals, groups, or situations, allowing for a comprehensive understanding of complex phenomena.

Case studies offer valuable insights that can inform theory development and practical applications by examining real-life examples. 

Complex Data

One of the key benefits of case studies is their ability to provide complex and detailed data. Researchers can gather in-depth information through various methods such as interviews, observations, and analysis of existing records.

This depth of data allows for a thorough exploration of the factors influencing behavior and the underlying mechanisms at play. 

Unique Data

Additionally, case studies allow researchers to study rare or unique cases that may not be easily replicated in experimental settings. This enables the examination of phenomena that are difficult to study through other psychology research methods . 

By focusing on specific cases, researchers can uncover patterns, identify causal relationships, and generate hypotheses for further investigation.

General Knowledge

Case studies can also contribute to the general knowledge of psychology by providing real-world examples that can be used to support or challenge existing theories. They offer a bridge between theory and practice, allowing researchers to apply theoretical concepts to real-life situations and vice versa. 

Case studies offer a range of benefits in psychology, including providing rich and detailed data, studying unique cases, and contributing to theory development. These benefits make case studies valuable in understanding human behavior and psychological phenomena.

Limitations of a Case Study

While case studies offer numerous benefits in the field of psychology, they also have certain limitations that researchers need to consider. Understanding these limitations is crucial for interpreting the findings and generalizing the results. 

Lack of Generalizability

One limitation of case studies is the issue of generalizability. Since case studies focus on specific individuals, groups, and situations, applying the findings to a larger population can be challenging. The unique characteristics and circumstances of the case may not be representative of the broader population, making it difficult to draw universal conclusions. 

Researcher bias is another possible limitation. The researcher’s subjective interpretation and personal beliefs can influence the data collection, analysis, and interpretation process. This bias can affect the objectivity and reliability of the findings, raising questions about the study’s validity. 

Case studies are often time-consuming and resource-intensive. They require extensive data collection, analysis, and interpretation, which can be lengthy. This can limit the number of cases that can be studied and may result in a smaller sample size, reducing the study’s statistical power. 

Case studies are retrospective in nature, relying on past events and experiences. This reliance on memory and self-reporting can introduce recall bias and inaccuracies in the data. Participants may forget or misinterpret certain details, leading to incomplete or unreliable information.

Despite these limitations, case studies remain a valuable research tool in psychology. By acknowledging and addressing these limitations, researchers can enhance the validity and reliability of their findings, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of human behavior and psychological phenomena. 

While case studies have limitations, they remain valuable when researchers acknowledge and address these concerns, leading to more reliable and valid findings in psychology.

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Paparini, S., Green, J., Papoutsi, C., Murdoch, J., Petticrew, M., Greenhalgh, T., Hanckel, B., & Shaw, S. (2020). Case study research for better evaluations of complex interventions: Rationale and challenges. BMC Medicine , 18(1), 301.

Willemsen, J. (2023). What is preventing psychotherapy case studies from having a greater impact on evidence-based practice, and how to address the challenges? Frontiers in Psychiatry , 13, 1101090.

Yin, Robert K. Case Study Research and Applications: Design and Methods . United States, SAGE Publications, 2017.

Introduction to Psychology/Case Studies

Case study in psychology refers to the use of a descriptive research approach to obtain an in-depth analysis of a person, group, or phenomenon. A variety of techniques may be employed including personal interviews, direct-observation , psychometric tests , and archival records. The psychology case studies are mostly used in clinical research to describe rare events and conditions, which contradict well established principles in the field of psychology . [1] Case studies are generally a single-case design, but can also be a multiple-case design, where replication instead of sampling is the criterion for inclusion. [2] Like other research methodologies within psychology, the case study must produce valid and reliable results in order to be useful for the development of future research. Distinct advantages and disadvantages are associated with the case study in psychology.

  • 1 Advantages
  • 2 Disadvantages
  • 3 Famous case studies in psychology
  • 4 References

Advantages [ edit | edit source ]

One major advantage of the case study in psychology is the potential for the development of novel hypotheses for later testing. Second, the case study can provide detailed descriptions of specific and rare cases.

Disadvantages [ edit | edit source ]

The major disadvantages of the case study in psychology is the inability to draw cause and effect relationships or test hypotheses. Further, with the case study it is impossible to generalize the findings to a wider population. [1]

Famous case studies in psychology [ edit | edit source ]

  • Phineas Gage
  • Freud and Little Hans
  • John Money and the John/Joan case
  • Genie (feral child)
  • Piaget's studies
  • Washoe (sign language)

References [ edit | edit source ]

  • ↑ a b Christensen, L. B. (1994).“Experimental methodology"( 6th ed).,Simon & Schuster:Needham Heights, MA. ISBN 978-0-205-15506-4 .
  • ↑ Yin, R.(1994). “Case study research: Design and methods” (2nd ed.).Sage Publishing:Beverly Hills, CA. ISBN 978-0-7619-2553-8 .

disadvantages of a case study in psychology

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Descriptive Research in Psychology

Sometimes you need to dig deeper than the pure statistics

John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.

disadvantages of a case study in psychology

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Types of Descriptive Research and the Methods Used

  • Advantages & Limitations of Descriptive Research

Best Practices for Conducting Descriptive Research

Descriptive research is one of the key tools needed in any psychology researcher’s toolbox in order to create and lead a project that is both equitable and effective. Because psychology, as a field, loves definitions, let’s start with one. The University of Minnesota’s Introduction to Psychology defines this type of research as one that is “...designed to provide a snapshot of the current state of affairs.” That's pretty broad, so what does that mean in practice? Dr. Heather Derry-Vick (PhD) , an assistant professor in psychiatry at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine, helps us put it into perspective. "Descriptive research really focuses on defining, understanding, and measuring a phenomenon or an experience," she says. "Not trying to change a person's experience or outcome, or even really looking at the mechanisms for why that might be happening, but more so describing an experience or a process as it unfolds naturally.”

Within the descriptive research methodology there are multiple types, including the following.

Descriptive Survey Research

This involves going beyond a typical tool like a LIkert Scale —where you typically place your response to a prompt on a one to five scale. We already know that scales like this can be ineffective, particularly when studying pain, for example.

When that's the case, using a descriptive methodology can help dig deeper into how a person is thinking, feeling, and acting rather than simply quantifying it in a way that might be unclear or confusing.

Descriptive Observational Research

Think of observational research like an ethically-focused version of people-watching. One example would be watching the patterns of children on a playground—perhaps when looking at a concept like risky play or seeking to observe social behaviors between children of different ages.

Descriptive Case Study Research

A descriptive approach to a case study is akin to a biography of a person, honing in on the experiences of a small group to extrapolate to larger themes. We most commonly see descriptive case studies when those in the psychology field are using past clients as an example to illustrate a point.

Correlational Descriptive Research

While descriptive research is often about the here and now, this form of the methodology allows researchers to make connections between groups of people. As an example from her research, Derry-Vick says she uses this method to identify how gender might play a role in cancer scan anxiety, aka scanxiety.

Dr. Derry-Vick's research uses surveys and interviews to get a sense of how cancer patients are feeling and what they are experiencing both in the course of their treatment and in the lead-up to their next scan, which can be a significant source of stress.

David Marlon, PsyD, MBA , who works as a clinician and as CEO at Vegas Stronger, and whose research focused on leadership styles at community-based clinics, says that using descriptive research allowed him to get beyond the numbers.

In his case, that includes data points like how many unhoused people found stable housing over a certain period or how many people became drug-free—and identify the reasons for those changes.

Those [data points] are some practical, quantitative tools that are helpful. But when I question them on how safe they feel, when I question them on the depth of the bond or the therapeutic alliance, when I talk to them about their processing of traumas,  wellbeing...these are things that don't really fall on to a yes, no, or even on a Likert scale.

For the portion of his thesis that was focused on descriptive research, Marlon used semi-structured interviews to look at the how and the why of transformational leadership and its impact on clinics’ clients and staff.

Advantages & Limitations of Descriptive Research

So, if the advantages of using descriptive research include that it centers the research participants, gives us a clear picture of what is happening to a person in a particular moment,  and gives us very nuanced insights into how a particular situation is being perceived by the very person affected, are there drawbacks? Yes, there are. Dr. Derry-Vick says that it’s important to keep in mind that just because descriptive research tells us something is happening doesn’t mean it necessarily leads us to the resolution of a given problem.

I think that, by design, the descriptive research might not tell you why a phenomenon is happening. So it might tell you, very well, how often it's happening, or what the levels are, or help you understand it in depth. But that may or may not always tell you information about the causes or mechanisms for why something is happening.

Another limitation she identifies is that it also can’t tell you, on its own, whether a particular treatment pathway is having the desired effect.

“Descriptive research in and of itself can't really tell you whether a specific approach is going to be helpful until you take in a different approach to actually test it.”

Marlon, who believes in a multi-disciplinary approach, says that his subfield—addictions—is one where descriptive research had its limits, but helps readers go beyond preconceived notions of what addictions treatment looks and feels like when it is effective. “If we talked to and interviewed and got descriptive information from the clinicians and the clients, a much more precise picture would be painted, showing the need for a client's specific multidisciplinary approach augmented with a variety of modalities," he says. "If you tried to look at my discipline in a pure quantitative approach , it wouldn't begin to tell the real story.”

Because you’re controlling far fewer variables than other forms of research, it’s important to identify whether those you are describing, your study participants, should be informed that they are part of a study.

For example, if you’re observing and describing who is buying what in a grocery store to identify patterns, then you might not need to identify yourself.

However, if you’re asking people about their fear of certain treatment, or how their marginalized identities impact their mental health in a particular way, there is far more of a pressure to think deeply about how you, as the researcher, are connected to the people you are researching.

Many descriptive research projects use interviews as a form of research gathering and, as a result, descriptive research that is focused on this type of data gathering also has ethical and practical concerns attached. Thankfully, there are plenty of guides from established researchers about how to best conduct these interviews and/or formulate surveys .

While descriptive research has its limits, it is commonly used by researchers to get a clear vantage point on what is happening in a given situation.

Tools like surveys, interviews, and observation are often employed to dive deeper into a given issue and really highlight the human element in psychological research. At its core, descriptive research is rooted in a collaborative style that allows deeper insights when used effectively.

University of Minnesota. Introduction to Psychology .

By John Loeppky John Loeppky is a freelance journalist based in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, who has written about disability and health for outlets of all kinds.

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2.2 Psychologists Use Descriptive, Correlational, and Experimental Research Designs to Understand Behavior

Learning objectives.

  • Differentiate the goals of descriptive, correlational, and experimental research designs and explain the advantages and disadvantages of each.
  • Explain the goals of descriptive research and the statistical techniques used to interpret it.
  • Summarize the uses of correlational research and describe why correlational research cannot be used to infer causality.
  • Review the procedures of experimental research and explain how it can be used to draw causal inferences.

Psychologists agree that if their ideas and theories about human behavior are to be taken seriously, they must be backed up by data. However, the research of different psychologists is designed with different goals in mind, and the different goals require different approaches. These varying approaches, summarized in Table 2.2 “Characteristics of the Three Research Designs” , are known as research designs . A research design is the specific method a researcher uses to collect, analyze, and interpret data . Psychologists use three major types of research designs in their research, and each provides an essential avenue for scientific investigation. Descriptive research is research designed to provide a snapshot of the current state of affairs . Correlational research is research designed to discover relationships among variables and to allow the prediction of future events from present knowledge . Experimental research is research in which initial equivalence among research participants in more than one group is created, followed by a manipulation of a given experience for these groups and a measurement of the influence of the manipulation . Each of the three research designs varies according to its strengths and limitations, and it is important to understand how each differs.

Table 2.2 Characteristics of the Three Research Designs

Stangor, C. (2011). Research methods for the behavioral sciences (4th ed.). Mountain View, CA: Cengage.

Descriptive Research: Assessing the Current State of Affairs

Descriptive research is designed to create a snapshot of the current thoughts, feelings, or behavior of individuals. This section reviews three types of descriptive research: case studies , surveys , and naturalistic observation .

Sometimes the data in a descriptive research project are based on only a small set of individuals, often only one person or a single small group. These research designs are known as case studies — descriptive records of one or more individual’s experiences and behavior . Sometimes case studies involve ordinary individuals, as when developmental psychologist Jean Piaget used his observation of his own children to develop his stage theory of cognitive development. More frequently, case studies are conducted on individuals who have unusual or abnormal experiences or characteristics or who find themselves in particularly difficult or stressful situations. The assumption is that by carefully studying individuals who are socially marginal, who are experiencing unusual situations, or who are going through a difficult phase in their lives, we can learn something about human nature.

Sigmund Freud was a master of using the psychological difficulties of individuals to draw conclusions about basic psychological processes. Freud wrote case studies of some of his most interesting patients and used these careful examinations to develop his important theories of personality. One classic example is Freud’s description of “Little Hans,” a child whose fear of horses the psychoanalyst interpreted in terms of repressed sexual impulses and the Oedipus complex (Freud (1909/1964).

Three news papers on a table (The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, and The Times), all predicting Obama has the edge in the early polls.

Political polls reported in newspapers and on the Internet are descriptive research designs that provide snapshots of the likely voting behavior of a population.

Another well-known case study is Phineas Gage, a man whose thoughts and emotions were extensively studied by cognitive psychologists after a railroad spike was blasted through his skull in an accident. Although there is question about the interpretation of this case study (Kotowicz, 2007), it did provide early evidence that the brain’s frontal lobe is involved in emotion and morality (Damasio et al., 2005). An interesting example of a case study in clinical psychology is described by Rokeach (1964), who investigated in detail the beliefs and interactions among three patients with schizophrenia, all of whom were convinced they were Jesus Christ.

In other cases the data from descriptive research projects come in the form of a survey — a measure administered through either an interview or a written questionnaire to get a picture of the beliefs or behaviors of a sample of people of interest . The people chosen to participate in the research (known as the sample ) are selected to be representative of all the people that the researcher wishes to know about (the population ). In election polls, for instance, a sample is taken from the population of all “likely voters” in the upcoming elections.

The results of surveys may sometimes be rather mundane, such as “Nine out of ten doctors prefer Tymenocin,” or “The median income in Montgomery County is $36,712.” Yet other times (particularly in discussions of social behavior), the results can be shocking: “More than 40,000 people are killed by gunfire in the United States every year,” or “More than 60% of women between the ages of 50 and 60 suffer from depression.” Descriptive research is frequently used by psychologists to get an estimate of the prevalence (or incidence ) of psychological disorders.

A final type of descriptive research—known as naturalistic observation —is research based on the observation of everyday events . For instance, a developmental psychologist who watches children on a playground and describes what they say to each other while they play is conducting descriptive research, as is a biopsychologist who observes animals in their natural habitats. One example of observational research involves a systematic procedure known as the strange situation , used to get a picture of how adults and young children interact. The data that are collected in the strange situation are systematically coded in a coding sheet such as that shown in Table 2.3 “Sample Coding Form Used to Assess Child’s and Mother’s Behavior in the Strange Situation” .

Table 2.3 Sample Coding Form Used to Assess Child’s and Mother’s Behavior in the Strange Situation

The results of descriptive research projects are analyzed using descriptive statistics — numbers that summarize the distribution of scores on a measured variable . Most variables have distributions similar to that shown in Figure 2.5 “Height Distribution” , where most of the scores are located near the center of the distribution, and the distribution is symmetrical and bell-shaped. A data distribution that is shaped like a bell is known as a normal distribution .

Table 2.4 Height and Family Income for 25 Students

Figure 2.5 Height Distribution

The distribution of the heights of the students in a class will form a normal distribution. In this sample the mean (M) = 67.12 and the standard deviation (s) = 2.74.

The distribution of the heights of the students in a class will form a normal distribution. In this sample the mean ( M ) = 67.12 and the standard deviation ( s ) = 2.74.

A distribution can be described in terms of its central tendency —that is, the point in the distribution around which the data are centered—and its dispersion , or spread. The arithmetic average, or arithmetic mean , is the most commonly used measure of central tendency . It is computed by calculating the sum of all the scores of the variable and dividing this sum by the number of participants in the distribution (denoted by the letter N ). In the data presented in Figure 2.5 “Height Distribution” , the mean height of the students is 67.12 inches. The sample mean is usually indicated by the letter M .

In some cases, however, the data distribution is not symmetrical. This occurs when there are one or more extreme scores (known as outliers ) at one end of the distribution. Consider, for instance, the variable of family income (see Figure 2.6 “Family Income Distribution” ), which includes an outlier (a value of $3,800,000). In this case the mean is not a good measure of central tendency. Although it appears from Figure 2.6 “Family Income Distribution” that the central tendency of the family income variable should be around $70,000, the mean family income is actually $223,960. The single very extreme income has a disproportionate impact on the mean, resulting in a value that does not well represent the central tendency.

The median is used as an alternative measure of central tendency when distributions are not symmetrical. The median is the score in the center of the distribution, meaning that 50% of the scores are greater than the median and 50% of the scores are less than the median . In our case, the median household income ($73,000) is a much better indication of central tendency than is the mean household income ($223,960).

Figure 2.6 Family Income Distribution

The distribution of family incomes is likely to be nonsymmetrical because some incomes can be very large in comparison to most incomes. In this case the median or the mode is a better indicator of central tendency than is the mean.

The distribution of family incomes is likely to be nonsymmetrical because some incomes can be very large in comparison to most incomes. In this case the median or the mode is a better indicator of central tendency than is the mean.

A final measure of central tendency, known as the mode , represents the value that occurs most frequently in the distribution . You can see from Figure 2.6 “Family Income Distribution” that the mode for the family income variable is $93,000 (it occurs four times).

In addition to summarizing the central tendency of a distribution, descriptive statistics convey information about how the scores of the variable are spread around the central tendency. Dispersion refers to the extent to which the scores are all tightly clustered around the central tendency, like this:

Graph of a tightly clustered central tendency.

Or they may be more spread out away from it, like this:

Graph of a more spread out central tendency.

One simple measure of dispersion is to find the largest (the maximum ) and the smallest (the minimum ) observed values of the variable and to compute the range of the variable as the maximum observed score minus the minimum observed score. You can check that the range of the height variable in Figure 2.5 “Height Distribution” is 72 – 62 = 10. The standard deviation , symbolized as s , is the most commonly used measure of dispersion . Distributions with a larger standard deviation have more spread. The standard deviation of the height variable is s = 2.74, and the standard deviation of the family income variable is s = $745,337.

An advantage of descriptive research is that it attempts to capture the complexity of everyday behavior. Case studies provide detailed information about a single person or a small group of people, surveys capture the thoughts or reported behaviors of a large population of people, and naturalistic observation objectively records the behavior of people or animals as it occurs naturally. Thus descriptive research is used to provide a relatively complete understanding of what is currently happening.

Despite these advantages, descriptive research has a distinct disadvantage in that, although it allows us to get an idea of what is currently happening, it is usually limited to static pictures. Although descriptions of particular experiences may be interesting, they are not always transferable to other individuals in other situations, nor do they tell us exactly why specific behaviors or events occurred. For instance, descriptions of individuals who have suffered a stressful event, such as a war or an earthquake, can be used to understand the individuals’ reactions to the event but cannot tell us anything about the long-term effects of the stress. And because there is no comparison group that did not experience the stressful situation, we cannot know what these individuals would be like if they hadn’t had the stressful experience.

Correlational Research: Seeking Relationships Among Variables

In contrast to descriptive research, which is designed primarily to provide static pictures, correlational research involves the measurement of two or more relevant variables and an assessment of the relationship between or among those variables. For instance, the variables of height and weight are systematically related (correlated) because taller people generally weigh more than shorter people. In the same way, study time and memory errors are also related, because the more time a person is given to study a list of words, the fewer errors he or she will make. When there are two variables in the research design, one of them is called the predictor variable and the other the outcome variable . The research design can be visualized like this, where the curved arrow represents the expected correlation between the two variables:

Figure 2.2.2

Left: Predictor variable, Right: Outcome variable.

One way of organizing the data from a correlational study with two variables is to graph the values of each of the measured variables using a scatter plot . As you can see in Figure 2.10 “Examples of Scatter Plots” , a scatter plot is a visual image of the relationship between two variables . A point is plotted for each individual at the intersection of his or her scores for the two variables. When the association between the variables on the scatter plot can be easily approximated with a straight line, as in parts (a) and (b) of Figure 2.10 “Examples of Scatter Plots” , the variables are said to have a linear relationship .

When the straight line indicates that individuals who have above-average values for one variable also tend to have above-average values for the other variable, as in part (a), the relationship is said to be positive linear . Examples of positive linear relationships include those between height and weight, between education and income, and between age and mathematical abilities in children. In each case people who score higher on one of the variables also tend to score higher on the other variable. Negative linear relationships , in contrast, as shown in part (b), occur when above-average values for one variable tend to be associated with below-average values for the other variable. Examples of negative linear relationships include those between the age of a child and the number of diapers the child uses, and between practice on and errors made on a learning task. In these cases people who score higher on one of the variables tend to score lower on the other variable.

Relationships between variables that cannot be described with a straight line are known as nonlinear relationships . Part (c) of Figure 2.10 “Examples of Scatter Plots” shows a common pattern in which the distribution of the points is essentially random. In this case there is no relationship at all between the two variables, and they are said to be independent . Parts (d) and (e) of Figure 2.10 “Examples of Scatter Plots” show patterns of association in which, although there is an association, the points are not well described by a single straight line. For instance, part (d) shows the type of relationship that frequently occurs between anxiety and performance. Increases in anxiety from low to moderate levels are associated with performance increases, whereas increases in anxiety from moderate to high levels are associated with decreases in performance. Relationships that change in direction and thus are not described by a single straight line are called curvilinear relationships .

Figure 2.10 Examples of Scatter Plots

Some examples of relationships between two variables as shown in scatter plots. Note that the Pearson correlation coefficient (r) between variables that have curvilinear relationships will likely be close to zero.

Some examples of relationships between two variables as shown in scatter plots. Note that the Pearson correlation coefficient ( r ) between variables that have curvilinear relationships will likely be close to zero.

Adapted from Stangor, C. (2011). Research methods for the behavioral sciences (4th ed.). Mountain View, CA: Cengage.

The most common statistical measure of the strength of linear relationships among variables is the Pearson correlation coefficient , which is symbolized by the letter r . The value of the correlation coefficient ranges from r = –1.00 to r = +1.00. The direction of the linear relationship is indicated by the sign of the correlation coefficient. Positive values of r (such as r = .54 or r = .67) indicate that the relationship is positive linear (i.e., the pattern of the dots on the scatter plot runs from the lower left to the upper right), whereas negative values of r (such as r = –.30 or r = –.72) indicate negative linear relationships (i.e., the dots run from the upper left to the lower right). The strength of the linear relationship is indexed by the distance of the correlation coefficient from zero (its absolute value). For instance, r = –.54 is a stronger relationship than r = .30, and r = .72 is a stronger relationship than r = –.57. Because the Pearson correlation coefficient only measures linear relationships, variables that have curvilinear relationships are not well described by r , and the observed correlation will be close to zero.

It is also possible to study relationships among more than two measures at the same time. A research design in which more than one predictor variable is used to predict a single outcome variable is analyzed through multiple regression (Aiken & West, 1991). Multiple regression is a statistical technique, based on correlation coefficients among variables, that allows predicting a single outcome variable from more than one predictor variable . For instance, Figure 2.11 “Prediction of Job Performance From Three Predictor Variables” shows a multiple regression analysis in which three predictor variables are used to predict a single outcome. The use of multiple regression analysis shows an important advantage of correlational research designs—they can be used to make predictions about a person’s likely score on an outcome variable (e.g., job performance) based on knowledge of other variables.

Figure 2.11 Prediction of Job Performance From Three Predictor Variables

Multiple regression allows scientists to predict the scores on a single outcome variable using more than one predictor variable.

Multiple regression allows scientists to predict the scores on a single outcome variable using more than one predictor variable.

An important limitation of correlational research designs is that they cannot be used to draw conclusions about the causal relationships among the measured variables. Consider, for instance, a researcher who has hypothesized that viewing violent behavior will cause increased aggressive play in children. He has collected, from a sample of fourth-grade children, a measure of how many violent television shows each child views during the week, as well as a measure of how aggressively each child plays on the school playground. From his collected data, the researcher discovers a positive correlation between the two measured variables.

Although this positive correlation appears to support the researcher’s hypothesis, it cannot be taken to indicate that viewing violent television causes aggressive behavior. Although the researcher is tempted to assume that viewing violent television causes aggressive play,

Viewing violent TV may lead to aggressive play.

there are other possibilities. One alternate possibility is that the causal direction is exactly opposite from what has been hypothesized. Perhaps children who have behaved aggressively at school develop residual excitement that leads them to want to watch violent television shows at home:

Or perhaps aggressive play leads to viewing violent TV.

Although this possibility may seem less likely, there is no way to rule out the possibility of such reverse causation on the basis of this observed correlation. It is also possible that both causal directions are operating and that the two variables cause each other:

One may cause the other, but there could be a common-causal variable.

Still another possible explanation for the observed correlation is that it has been produced by the presence of a common-causal variable (also known as a third variable ). A common-causal variable is a variable that is not part of the research hypothesis but that causes both the predictor and the outcome variable and thus produces the observed correlation between them . In our example a potential common-causal variable is the discipline style of the children’s parents. Parents who use a harsh and punitive discipline style may produce children who both like to watch violent television and who behave aggressively in comparison to children whose parents use less harsh discipline:

An example: Parents' discipline style may cause viewing violent TV, and it may also cause aggressive play.

In this case, television viewing and aggressive play would be positively correlated (as indicated by the curved arrow between them), even though neither one caused the other but they were both caused by the discipline style of the parents (the straight arrows). When the predictor and outcome variables are both caused by a common-causal variable, the observed relationship between them is said to be spurious . A spurious relationship is a relationship between two variables in which a common-causal variable produces and “explains away” the relationship . If effects of the common-causal variable were taken away, or controlled for, the relationship between the predictor and outcome variables would disappear. In the example the relationship between aggression and television viewing might be spurious because by controlling for the effect of the parents’ disciplining style, the relationship between television viewing and aggressive behavior might go away.

Common-causal variables in correlational research designs can be thought of as “mystery” variables because, as they have not been measured, their presence and identity are usually unknown to the researcher. Since it is not possible to measure every variable that could cause both the predictor and outcome variables, the existence of an unknown common-causal variable is always a possibility. For this reason, we are left with the basic limitation of correlational research: Correlation does not demonstrate causation. It is important that when you read about correlational research projects, you keep in mind the possibility of spurious relationships, and be sure to interpret the findings appropriately. Although correlational research is sometimes reported as demonstrating causality without any mention being made of the possibility of reverse causation or common-causal variables, informed consumers of research, like you, are aware of these interpretational problems.

In sum, correlational research designs have both strengths and limitations. One strength is that they can be used when experimental research is not possible because the predictor variables cannot be manipulated. Correlational designs also have the advantage of allowing the researcher to study behavior as it occurs in everyday life. And we can also use correlational designs to make predictions—for instance, to predict from the scores on their battery of tests the success of job trainees during a training session. But we cannot use such correlational information to determine whether the training caused better job performance. For that, researchers rely on experiments.

Experimental Research: Understanding the Causes of Behavior

The goal of experimental research design is to provide more definitive conclusions about the causal relationships among the variables in the research hypothesis than is available from correlational designs. In an experimental research design, the variables of interest are called the independent variable (or variables ) and the dependent variable . The independent variable in an experiment is the causing variable that is created (manipulated) by the experimenter . The dependent variable in an experiment is a measured variable that is expected to be influenced by the experimental manipulation . The research hypothesis suggests that the manipulated independent variable or variables will cause changes in the measured dependent variables. We can diagram the research hypothesis by using an arrow that points in one direction. This demonstrates the expected direction of causality:

Figure 2.2.3

Viewing violence (independent variable) and aggressive behavior (dependent variable).

Research Focus: Video Games and Aggression

Consider an experiment conducted by Anderson and Dill (2000). The study was designed to test the hypothesis that viewing violent video games would increase aggressive behavior. In this research, male and female undergraduates from Iowa State University were given a chance to play with either a violent video game (Wolfenstein 3D) or a nonviolent video game (Myst). During the experimental session, the participants played their assigned video games for 15 minutes. Then, after the play, each participant played a competitive game with an opponent in which the participant could deliver blasts of white noise through the earphones of the opponent. The operational definition of the dependent variable (aggressive behavior) was the level and duration of noise delivered to the opponent. The design of the experiment is shown in Figure 2.17 “An Experimental Research Design” .

Figure 2.17 An Experimental Research Design

Two advantages of the experimental research design are (1) the assurance that the independent variable (also known as the experimental manipulation) occurs prior to the measured dependent variable, and (2) the creation of initial equivalence between the conditions of the experiment (in this case by using random assignment to conditions).

Two advantages of the experimental research design are (1) the assurance that the independent variable (also known as the experimental manipulation) occurs prior to the measured dependent variable, and (2) the creation of initial equivalence between the conditions of the experiment (in this case by using random assignment to conditions).

Experimental designs have two very nice features. For one, they guarantee that the independent variable occurs prior to the measurement of the dependent variable. This eliminates the possibility of reverse causation. Second, the influence of common-causal variables is controlled, and thus eliminated, by creating initial equivalence among the participants in each of the experimental conditions before the manipulation occurs.

The most common method of creating equivalence among the experimental conditions is through random assignment to conditions , a procedure in which the condition that each participant is assigned to is determined through a random process, such as drawing numbers out of an envelope or using a random number table . Anderson and Dill first randomly assigned about 100 participants to each of their two groups (Group A and Group B). Because they used random assignment to conditions, they could be confident that, before the experimental manipulation occurred, the students in Group A were, on average, equivalent to the students in Group B on every possible variable, including variables that are likely to be related to aggression, such as parental discipline style, peer relationships, hormone levels, diet—and in fact everything else.

Then, after they had created initial equivalence, Anderson and Dill created the experimental manipulation—they had the participants in Group A play the violent game and the participants in Group B play the nonviolent game. Then they compared the dependent variable (the white noise blasts) between the two groups, finding that the students who had viewed the violent video game gave significantly longer noise blasts than did the students who had played the nonviolent game.

Anderson and Dill had from the outset created initial equivalence between the groups. This initial equivalence allowed them to observe differences in the white noise levels between the two groups after the experimental manipulation, leading to the conclusion that it was the independent variable (and not some other variable) that caused these differences. The idea is that the only thing that was different between the students in the two groups was the video game they had played.

Despite the advantage of determining causation, experiments do have limitations. One is that they are often conducted in laboratory situations rather than in the everyday lives of people. Therefore, we do not know whether results that we find in a laboratory setting will necessarily hold up in everyday life. Second, and more important, is that some of the most interesting and key social variables cannot be experimentally manipulated. If we want to study the influence of the size of a mob on the destructiveness of its behavior, or to compare the personality characteristics of people who join suicide cults with those of people who do not join such cults, these relationships must be assessed using correlational designs, because it is simply not possible to experimentally manipulate these variables.

Key Takeaways

  • Descriptive, correlational, and experimental research designs are used to collect and analyze data.
  • Descriptive designs include case studies, surveys, and naturalistic observation. The goal of these designs is to get a picture of the current thoughts, feelings, or behaviors in a given group of people. Descriptive research is summarized using descriptive statistics.
  • Correlational research designs measure two or more relevant variables and assess a relationship between or among them. The variables may be presented on a scatter plot to visually show the relationships. The Pearson Correlation Coefficient ( r ) is a measure of the strength of linear relationship between two variables.
  • Common-causal variables may cause both the predictor and outcome variable in a correlational design, producing a spurious relationship. The possibility of common-causal variables makes it impossible to draw causal conclusions from correlational research designs.
  • Experimental research involves the manipulation of an independent variable and the measurement of a dependent variable. Random assignment to conditions is normally used to create initial equivalence between the groups, allowing researchers to draw causal conclusions.

Exercises and Critical Thinking

  • There is a negative correlation between the row that a student sits in in a large class (when the rows are numbered from front to back) and his or her final grade in the class. Do you think this represents a causal relationship or a spurious relationship, and why?
  • Think of two variables (other than those mentioned in this book) that are likely to be correlated, but in which the correlation is probably spurious. What is the likely common-causal variable that is producing the relationship?
  • Imagine a researcher wants to test the hypothesis that participating in psychotherapy will cause a decrease in reported anxiety. Describe the type of research design the investigator might use to draw this conclusion. What would be the independent and dependent variables in the research?

Aiken, L., & West, S. (1991). Multiple regression: Testing and interpreting interactions . Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Ainsworth, M. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation . Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Anderson, C. A., & Dill, K. E. (2000). Video games and aggressive thoughts, feelings, and behavior in the laboratory and in life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78 (4), 772–790.

Damasio, H., Grabowski, T., Frank, R., Galaburda, A. M., Damasio, A. R., Cacioppo, J. T., & Berntson, G. G. (2005). The return of Phineas Gage: Clues about the brain from the skull of a famous patient. In Social neuroscience: Key readings. (pp. 21–28). New York, NY: Psychology Press.

Freud, S. (1964). Analysis of phobia in a five-year-old boy. In E. A. Southwell & M. Merbaum (Eds.), Personality: Readings in theory and research (pp. 3–32). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. (Original work published 1909)

Kotowicz, Z. (2007). The strange case of Phineas Gage. History of the Human Sciences, 20 (1), 115–131.

Rokeach, M. (1964). The three Christs of Ypsilanti: A psychological study . New York, NY: Knopf.

Introduction to Psychology Copyright © 2015 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Case Study Method – 18 Advantages and Disadvantages

The case study method uses investigatory research as a way to collect data about specific demographics. This approach can apply to individuals, businesses, groups, or events. Each participant receives an equal amount of participation, offering information for collection that can then find new insights into specific trends, ideas, of hypotheses.

Interviews and research observation are the two standard methods of data collection used when following the case study method.

Researchers initially developed the case study method to develop and support hypotheses in clinical medicine. The benefits found in these efforts led the approach to transition to other industries, allowing for the examination of results through proposed decisions, processes, or outcomes. Its unique approach to information makes it possible for others to glean specific points of wisdom that encourage growth.

Several case study method advantages and disadvantages can appear when researchers take this approach.

List of the Advantages of the Case Study Method

1. It requires an intensive study of a specific unit. Researchers must document verifiable data from direct observations when using the case study method. This work offers information about the input processes that go into the hypothesis under consideration. A casual approach to data-gathering work is not effective if a definitive outcome is desired. Each behavior, choice, or comment is a critical component that can verify or dispute the ideas being considered.

Intensive programs can require a significant amount of work for researchers, but it can also promote an improvement in the data collected. That means a hypothesis can receive immediate verification in some situations.

2. No sampling is required when following the case study method. This research method studies social units in their entire perspective instead of pulling individual data points out to analyze them. That means there is no sampling work required when using the case study method. The hypothesis under consideration receives support because it works to turn opinions into facts, verifying or denying the proposals that outside observers can use in the future.

Although researchers might pay attention to specific incidents or outcomes based on generalized behaviors or ideas, the study itself won’t sample those situations. It takes a look at the “bigger vision” instead.

3. This method offers a continuous analysis of the facts. The case study method will look at the facts continuously for the social group being studied by researchers. That means there aren’t interruptions in the process that could limit the validity of the data being collected through this work. This advantage reduces the need to use assumptions when drawing conclusions from the information, adding validity to the outcome of the study over time. That means the outcome becomes relevant to both sides of the equation as it can prove specific suppositions or invalidate a hypothesis under consideration.

This advantage can lead to inefficiencies because of the amount of data being studied by researchers. It is up to the individuals involved in the process to sort out what is useful and meaningful and what is not.

4. It is a useful approach to take when formulating a hypothesis. Researchers will use the case study method advantages to verify a hypothesis under consideration. It is not unusual for the collected data to lead people toward the formulation of new ideas after completing this work. This process encourages further study because it allows concepts to evolve as people do in social or physical environments. That means a complete data set can be gathered based on the skills of the researcher and the honesty of the individuals involved in the study itself.

Although this approach won’t develop a societal-level evaluation of a hypothesis, it can look at how specific groups will react in various circumstances. That information can lead to a better decision-making process in the future for everyone involved.

5. It provides an increase in knowledge. The case study method provides everyone with analytical power to increase knowledge. This advantage is possible because it uses a variety of methodologies to collect information while evaluating a hypothesis. Researchers prefer to use direct observation and interviews to complete their work, but it can also advantage through the use of questionnaires. Participants might need to fill out a journal or diary about their experiences that can be used to study behaviors or choices.

Some researchers incorporate memory tests and experimental tasks to determine how social groups will interact or respond in specific situations. All of this data then works to verify the possibilities that a hypothesis proposes.

6. The case study method allows for comparisons. The human experience is one that is built on individual observations from group situations. Specific demographics might think, act, or respond in particular ways to stimuli, but each person in that group will also contribute a small part to the whole. You could say that people are sponges that collect data from one another every day to create individual outcomes.

The case study method allows researchers to take the information from each demographic for comparison purposes. This information can then lead to proposals that support a hypothesis or lead to its disruption.

7. Data generalization is possible using the case study method. The case study method provides a foundation for data generalization, allowing researches to illustrate their statistical findings in meaningful ways. It puts the information into a usable format that almost anyone can use if they have the need to evaluate the hypothesis under consideration. This process makes it easier to discover unusual features, unique outcomes, or find conclusions that wouldn’t be available without this method. It does an excellent job of identifying specific concepts that relate to the proposed ideas that researchers were verifying through their work.

Generalization does not apply to a larger population group with the case study method. What researchers can do with this information is to suggest a predictable outcome when similar groups are placed in an equal situation.

8. It offers a comprehensive approach to research. Nothing gets ignored when using the case study method to collect information. Every person, place, or thing involved in the research receives the complete attention of those seeking data. The interactions are equal, which means the data is comprehensive and directly reflective of the group being observed.

This advantage means that there are fewer outliers to worry about when researching an idea, leading to a higher level of accuracy in the conclusions drawn by the researchers.

9. The identification of deviant cases is possible with this method. The case study method of research makes it easier to identify deviant cases that occur in each social group. These incidents are units (people) that behave in ways that go against the hypothesis under consideration. Instead of ignoring them like other options do when collecting data, this approach incorporates the “rogue” behavior to understand why it exists in the first place.

This advantage makes the eventual data and conclusions gathered more reliable because it incorporates the “alternative opinion” that exists. One might say that the case study method places as much emphasis on the yin as it does the yang so that the whole picture becomes available to the outside observer.

10. Questionnaire development is possible with the case study method. Interviews and direct observation are the preferred methods of implementing the case study method because it is cheap and done remotely. The information gathered by researchers can also lead to farming questionnaires that can farm additional data from those being studied. When all of the data resources come together, it is easier to formulate a conclusion that accurately reflects the demographics.

Some people in the case study method may try to manipulate the results for personal reasons, but this advantage makes it possible to identify this information readily. Then researchers can look into the thinking that goes into the dishonest behaviors observed.

List of the Disadvantages of the Case Study Method

1. The case study method offers limited representation. The usefulness of the case study method is limited to a specific group of representatives. Researchers are looking at a specific demographic when using this option. That means it is impossible to create any generalization that applies to the rest of society, an organization, or a larger community with this work. The findings can only apply to other groups caught in similar circumstances with the same experiences.

It is useful to use the case study method when attempting to discover the specific reasons why some people behave in a specific way. If researchers need something more generalized, then a different method must be used.

2. No classification is possible with the case study method. This disadvantage is also due to the sample size in the case study method. No classification is possible because researchers are studying such a small unit, group, or demographic. It can be an inefficient process since the skills of the researcher help to determine the quality of the data being collected to verify the validity of a hypothesis. Some participants may be unwilling to answer or participate, while others might try to guess at the outcome to support it.

Researchers can get trapped in a place where they explore more tangents than the actual hypothesis with this option. Classification can occur within the units being studied, but this data cannot extrapolate to other demographics.

3. The case study method still offers the possibility of errors. Each person has an unconscious bias that influences their behaviors and choices. The case study method can find outliers that oppose a hypothesis fairly easily thanks to its emphasis on finding facts, but it is up to the researchers to determine what information qualifies for this designation. If the results from the case study method are surprising or go against the opinion of participating individuals, then there is still the possibility that the information will not be 100% accurate.

Researchers must have controls in place that dictate how data gathering work occurs. Without this limitation in place, the results of the study cannot be guaranteed because of the presence of bias.

4. It is a subjective method to use for research. Although the purpose of the case study method of research is to gather facts, the foundation of what gets gathered is still based on opinion. It uses the subjective method instead of the objective one when evaluating data, which means there can be another layer of errors in the information to consider.

Imagine that a researcher interprets someone’s response as “angry” when performing direct observation, but the individual was feeling “shame” because of a decision they made. The difference between those two emotions is profound, and it could lead to information disruptions that could be problematic to the eventual work of hypothesis verification.

5. The processes required by the case study method are not useful for everyone. The case study method uses a person’s memories, explanations, and records from photographs and diaries to identify interactions on influences on psychological processes. People are given the chance to describe what happens in the world around them as a way for researchers to gather data. This process can be an advantage in some industries, but it can also be a worthless approach to some groups.

If the social group under study doesn’t have the information, knowledge, or wisdom to provide meaningful data, then the processes are no longer useful. Researchers must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the case study method before starting their work to determine if the possibility of value exists. If it does not, then a different method may be necessary.

6. It is possible for bias to form in the data. It’s not just an unconscious bias that can form in the data when using the case study method. The narrow study approach can lead to outright discrimination in the data. Researchers can decide to ignore outliers or any other information that doesn’t support their hypothesis when using this method. The subjective nature of this approach makes it difficult to challenge the conclusions that get drawn from this work, and the limited pool of units (people) means that duplication is almost impossible.

That means unethical people can manipulate the results gathered by the case study method to their own advantage without much accountability in the process.

7. This method has no fixed limits to it. This method of research is highly dependent on situational circumstances rather than overarching societal or corporate truths. That means the researcher has no fixed limits of investigation. Even when controls are in place to limit bias or recommend specific activities, the case study method has enough flexibility built into its structures to allow for additional exploration. That means it is possible for this work to continue indefinitely, gathering data that never becomes useful.

Scientists began to track the health of 268 sophomores at Harvard in 1938. The Great Depression was in its final years at that point, so the study hoped to reveal clues that lead to happy and healthy lives. It continues still today, now incorporating the children of the original participants, providing over 80 years of information to sort through for conclusions.

8. The case study method is time-consuming and expensive. The case study method can be affordable in some situations, but the lack of fixed limits and the ability to pursue tangents can make it a costly process in most situations. It takes time to gather the data in the first place, and then researchers must interpret the information received so that they can use it for hypothesis evaluation. There are other methods of data collection that can be less expensive and provide results faster.

That doesn’t mean the case study method is useless. The individualization of results can help the decision-making process advance in a variety of industries successfully. It just takes more time to reach the appropriate conclusion, and that might be a resource that isn’t available.

The advantages and disadvantages of the case study method suggest that the helpfulness of this research option depends on the specific hypothesis under consideration. When researchers have the correct skills and mindset to gather data accurately, then it can lead to supportive data that can verify ideas with tremendous accuracy.

This research method can also be used unethically to produce specific results that can be difficult to challenge.

When bias enters into the structure of the case study method, the processes become inefficient, inaccurate, and harmful to the hypothesis. That’s why great care must be taken when designing a study with this approach. It might be a labor-intensive way to develop conclusions, but the outcomes are often worth the investments needed.

Home » Pros and Cons » 12 Case Study Method Advantages and Disadvantages

12 Case Study Method Advantages and Disadvantages

A case study is an investigation into an individual circumstance. The investigation may be of a single person, business, event, or group. The investigation involves collecting in-depth data about the individual entity through the use of several collection methods. Interviews and observation are two of the most common forms of data collection used.

The case study method was originally developed in the field of clinical medicine. It has expanded since to other industries to examine key results, either positive or negative, that were received through a specific set of decisions. This allows for the topic to be researched with great detail, allowing others to glean knowledge from the information presented.

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of using the case study method.

List of the Advantages of the Case Study Method

1. it turns client observations into useable data..

Case studies offer verifiable data from direct observations of the individual entity involved. These observations provide information about input processes. It can show the path taken which led to specific results being generated. Those observations make it possible for others, in similar circumstances, to potentially replicate the results discovered by the case study method.

2. It turns opinion into fact.

Case studies provide facts to study because you’re looking at data which was generated in real-time. It is a way for researchers to turn their opinions into information that can be verified as fact because there is a proven path of positive or negative development. Singling out a specific incident also provides in-depth details about the path of development, which gives it extra credibility to the outside observer.

3. It is relevant to all parties involved.

Case studies that are chosen well will be relevant to everyone who is participating in the process. Because there is such a high level of relevance involved, researchers are able to stay actively engaged in the data collection process. Participants are able to further their knowledge growth because there is interest in the outcome of the case study. Most importantly, the case study method essentially forces people to make a decision about the question being studied, then defend their position through the use of facts.

4. It uses a number of different research methodologies.

The case study method involves more than just interviews and direct observation. Case histories from a records database can be used with this method. Questionnaires can be distributed to participants in the entity being studies. Individuals who have kept diaries and journals about the entity being studied can be included. Even certain experimental tasks, such as a memory test, can be part of this research process.

5. It can be done remotely.

Researchers do not need to be present at a specific location or facility to utilize the case study method. Research can be obtained over the phone, through email, and other forms of remote communication. Even interviews can be conducted over the phone. That means this method is good for formative research that is exploratory in nature, even if it must be completed from a remote location.

6. It is inexpensive.

Compared to other methods of research, the case study method is rather inexpensive. The costs associated with this method involve accessing data, which can often be done for free. Even when there are in-person interviews or other on-site duties involved, the costs of reviewing the data are minimal.

7. It is very accessible to readers.

The case study method puts data into a usable format for those who read the data and note its outcome. Although there may be perspectives of the researcher included in the outcome, the goal of this method is to help the reader be able to identify specific concepts to which they also relate. That allows them to discover unusual features within the data, examine outliers that may be present, or draw conclusions from their own experiences.

List of the Disadvantages of the Case Study Method

1. it can have influence factors within the data..

Every person has their own unconscious bias. Although the case study method is designed to limit the influence of this bias by collecting fact-based data, it is the collector of the data who gets to define what is a “fact” and what is not. That means the real-time data being collected may be based on the results the researcher wants to see from the entity instead. By controlling how facts are collected, a research can control the results this method generates.

2. It takes longer to analyze the data.

The information collection process through the case study method takes much longer to collect than other research options. That is because there is an enormous amount of data which must be sifted through. It’s not just the researchers who can influence the outcome in this type of research method. Participants can also influence outcomes by given inaccurate or incomplete answers to questions they are asked. Researchers must verify the information presented to ensure its accuracy, and that takes time to complete.

3. It can be an inefficient process.

Case study methods require the participation of the individuals or entities involved for it to be a successful process. That means the skills of the researcher will help to determine the quality of information that is being received. Some participants may be quiet, unwilling to answer even basic questions about what is being studied. Others may be overly talkative, exploring tangents which have nothing to do with the case study at all. If researchers are unsure of how to manage this process, then incomplete data is often collected.

4. It requires a small sample size to be effective.

The case study method requires a small sample size for it to yield an effective amount of data to be analyzed. If there are different demographics involved with the entity, or there are different needs which must be examined, then the case study method becomes very inefficient.

5. It is a labor-intensive method of data collection.

The case study method requires researchers to have a high level of language skills to be successful with data collection. Researchers must be personally involved in every aspect of collecting the data as well. From reviewing files or entries personally to conducting personal interviews, the concepts and themes of this process are heavily reliant on the amount of work each researcher is willing to put into things.

These case study method advantages and disadvantages offer a look at the effectiveness of this research option. With the right skill set, it can be used as an effective tool to gather rich, detailed information about specific entities. Without the right skill set, the case study method becomes inefficient and inaccurate.

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Improved motor skills in autistic children after three weeks of neurologic music therapy via telehealth: a pilot study.

Nicole Richard Williams,

  • 1 Music and Health Science Research Collaboratory, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 2 College of Music and Performing Arts, Belmont University, Nashville, TN, United States
  • 3 Bloorview Research Institute, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 4 Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 5 KITE Research Institute, University Health Network, Toronto, ON, Canada
  • 6 Faculty of Medicine, Institute of Medical Science, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada

Background: Many autistic children experience motor skill deficits which can impact other areas of functioning, and research on therapeutic interventions for motor skills in autism is in a preliminary stage. Music-based therapies have been used extensively to address motor skills in non-autistic populations. Though a handful of studies exist on the effects of music-based therapies for movement in autistic children, none have investigated the possibility of administering sessions via telehealth. This mixed-methods pilot study investigated whether nine Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) ® sessions via telehealth would improve motor and attention skills in autistic children.

Methods: Five autistic children between five and 10 years of age participated in the study, with support from their caregivers. Motor skills were assessed using the Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency second edition, short form (BOT-2 SF), and a selective attention and sustained attention task were taken from the Test of Everyday Attention for Children, Second Edition (TEA-Ch2). Caregivers and the two neurologic music therapists involved in the study provided qualitative input about the perceived effectiveness of telehealth NMT for the children involved. Their responses were analyzed using qualitative content analysis. Caregivers also filled out a Sensory Profile 2 assessment prior to the onset of sessions so that each child’s sensory profile could be compared to their motor and attention results.

Results: Statistically significant improvements in motor skills were observed between pre-test assessment and a two-week follow-up assessment. Results from attention test scores were not significant. Caregivers and neurologic music therapists generally perceived sessions positively and noted the importance of having caregivers actively involved. When compared with individual progress on the BOT-2 SF assessment, sensory profile results revealed that children with fewer sensory sensitivities tended to improve the most on motor skills. The improvements in motor skills and positive caregiver and therapist views of telehealth indicate that NMT motor interventions administered via telehealth are a promising avenue of therapeutic support for movement skill development in autistic children.

1 Introduction

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD, or autism) comprise a range of conditions involving difficulties with social communication and interaction as well as restricted or repetitive patterns of behaviors and interest ( American Psychiatric Association, 2013 ). The prevalence of autism diagnoses has been increasing globally. The United States (U.S.) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that in the year 2000, around 1 in 150 children in the U.S. were diagnosed with the condition while with the most recent data from 2020, 1 in 36 eight-year-old children in the U.S. were diagnosed with autism ( Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023 ). In addition to the main diagnostic markers, autistic individuals often experience sensory hypo- and hyper-sensitivities, struggles with attention, and difficulties with motor skills ( Fournier et al., 2010 ; Liu, 2013 ; LaGasse et al., 2019 ). Music-based interventions have increasingly been used to support neurodevelopmental skills in autistic individuals, including movement skills ( Braun Janzen and Thaut, 2018 ). In recent years, clinicians and researchers have been exploring how to implement therapeutic interventions for autistic individuals via online video platforms as well as in-person ( Solomon and Soares, 2020 ).

Though movement difficulties are not an official part of the primary autism diagnostic criteria, researchers have increasingly recognized what Kanner and Lesser (1958) observed, that autistic persons also display difficulties with motor functioning ( Fournier et al., 2010 ; Bhat et al., 2011 ; Colombo-Dougovito and Block, 2019 ). In fact, technology that measures movement on a precise level can detect an autism diagnosis with extremely high reliability using movement differences alone ( Torres et al., 2013 ; Milano et al., 2023 ). It is estimated that up to 90% of autistic children may experience motor difficulties such that they can receive a co-occurring diagnosis of developmental coordination disorder ( Miller et al., 2021 ). Difficulties can be observed in gait and balance, arm motor functions such as reaching and grasping, speech motor functions, movement planning, and coordination ( Fournier et al., 2010 ). Many of these motor difficulties in autism involve fundamental movement skills that are essential to child development and socialization: balance, locomotion, and object manipulation ( Gandotra et al., 2020 ). Indeed, motor functioning is not just important to address for its own sake; poor motor skills are also associated with decreased outcomes in social, language, and cognitive areas like attention, memory, and executive functioning ( Wilson et al., 2018 ; Zampella et al., 2021 ). High-quality intervention studies involving motor outcomes for autistic individuals are few though increasing [for reviews, see Colombo-Dougovito and Block (2019) , Gandotra et al. (2020) , Ruggeri et al. (2020) , Frazão et al. (2023) , and Ji et al. (2023) ]. There is ample room for expansion of this research topic, particularly toward identifying replicable and generalizable interventions addressing motor skills for individuals on the spectrum.

The potential for music to be used as a motor intervention for autistic individuals is high ( Hardy and LaGasse, 2013 ). There is substantial evidence for positive effects of standardized music-based interventions on motor impairments in conditions other than autism including cerebral vascular accident (stroke), Parkinson’s disease, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, and more [reviewed in Braun Janzen et al. (2022) ]. Music-based interventions are often successful in treating motor aspects of neurological conditions because the auditory system has extensive connections with motor areas in the brain such as premotor areas, basal ganglia, and the cerebellum ( Grahn and Brett, 2007 ; Chen et al., 2008 ). Isochronous (and thus predictable) auditory cues entrain neurons of the auditory cortex, and prime motor areas to become ready to move [discussed in Braun Janzen et al. (2022) ]. Engaging in active therapeutic music making has also been associated with improvements in neural connectivity and associated functional motor recovery across clinical populations ( Sharda et al., 2018 ; Braun Janzen et al., 2022 ). Music-based therapies have been used to address many issues in autism such as social skill challenges, language and communication issues, and emotional/coping skills [see Braun Janzen and Thaut (2018) , for a review]. This may be because autistic individuals often respond well to music, potentially due to increased sensitivity to musical parameters like pitch and a greater response in the inferior frontal gyrus (speech area) to sung versus spoken language ( Kuhl et al., 2005 ; Lepistö et al., 2005 ; Sharda et al., 2015 ). Recent studies indicate that auditory-motor pathways appear to be functioning typically in individuals on the autism spectrum even though they often struggle with movement and sensorimotor integration ( Tryfon et al., 2017 ; Edey et al., 2019 ; Jamey et al., 2019 ). Because autism is a highly heterogeneous condition, not every autistic person may respond well to musical stimuli ( Ferrari and Harris, 1981 ; Ingersoll et al., 2003 ).

The research on music interventions used specifically for movement in autistic individuals is increasing. Srinivasan and Bhat (2013) reviewed a handful of studies investigating the effects of music-based interventions for motor difficulties in autistic persons, with many reports of positive results. More recently, Sharda et al. (2018) found that an 8–12-week music therapy intervention improved auditory motor connectivity in autistic children ages 6–12 years old. Srinivasan et al. (2015) found that autistic children engaged in a rhythmic-movement-imitation intervention (along with those in a robotics-movement group) improved on the body coordination composite of a motor assessment compared to a control group. Shemy and El-Sayed (2018) found significant improvements in bilateral coordination, balance, running speed and agility, and strength in 8–10-year-old children on the autism spectrum who received a three-month, three times-per-week Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation (RAS ® ) intervention compared to a control group who received physiotherapy. Imankhah et al. (2018) found that autistic boys who received 15 twice-weekly sessions involving music- and rhythm-based play and movement activities improved significantly more on motor coordination than those who did not receive treatment. Finally, a study by Shukla et al. (2022) sought to use traditional Indian Tabla drumming to promote upper-extremity motor skills needed for tooth-brushing. They reported basing their protocol on the recommendations of Thaut (1984) who promoted the use of carefully structured clinical music improvisation to address clinical goals with autistic children. Significant improvements were found in motor and social skills after the intervention in Shukla et al. (2022) study. These studies have promising results regarding the effects of music on movement in autistic individuals.

In addition to motor challenges, individuals on the autism spectrum are known to experience hypo- and hyper-sensitivities to sensory stimuli ( American Psychiatric Association, 2013 ). Sensation (particularly in the visual and proprioceptive realms) is critical for motor functioning, and thus difficulties in sensory processing such as poor sensory integration or sensory sensitivities can influence motor difficulties in autistic individuals ( Baranek, 2002 , Liu, 2013 ; Muthusamy et al., 2021 ; Purpura Cerroni et al., 2022 ). Sensory sensitivities can thus affect autistic persons’ ability to engage in therapeutic or other activities. Thus, when developing interventions to address motor skills in autistic individuals, sensory sensitivities must be considered. Related to sensory issues is attention. Autistic individuals sometimes experience difficulty utilizing selective attention to focus on one aspect of incoming sensory information and inhibit others ( LaGasse et al., 2019 ).

Research on interventions for sensory difficulties in autism is increasing [for reviews, see Case-Smith et al. (2015) and Weitlauf et al. (2017) ]. Berger (2002) wrote a book on music therapy for sensory integration in autistic children, which provides a helpful conceptual overview on the topic based on her experience as a clinician along with anecdotal evidence. The book claimed that music engagement helps to anchor and organize autistic children’ sensory systems so that they can engage intentionally in their environments. Mertel (2014) outlined a protocol in which the NMT technique Auditory Perception Training (APT) ® can be used to facilitate sensory integration for populations including autistic individuals. In APT, individuals engage in interventions structured by an isochronous auditory beat along with multiple sensory inputs. By engaging in such interventions, sensory integration occurs, creating positive downstream effects on other areas of functioning such as cognition, executive functions, and execution of more complex movement skills. High-quality evidence for benefits of music-based interventions to address sensory difficulties in autism remains scarce. In their feasibility study, Lagasse et al. (2019) found that a music therapy attention intervention seemed to improve sensory gating in autistic children, though results were not statistically significant. The current study did not directly target sensory functioning aside from sensory-focused warm-ups at the beginning of sessions, as needed. The sensory profile of each child was considered when implementing motor interventions and interpreting results.

Online health services or telehealth was utilized in therapy with autistic persons prior to the 2019 Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) pandemic, but its use increased dramatically since the pandemic began ( Ellison et al., 2021 ). Telehealth has been used extensively with autistic individuals especially since the pandemic for diagnosis and therapeutic interventions [for reviews, see Stavropoulos et al. (2022) and Kane and DeBar (2023) ]. Benefits of telehealth included: lower costs due to decreased travel time for therapists/clients ( Lindgren et al., 2016 ; Kalvin et al., 2021 ; Su et al., 2021 ), increased parental engagement in therapy resulting in more transfer of skills to everyday life ( Su et al., 2021 ), access for rural or remote clients ( Ameis et al., 2020 ; Solomon and Soares, 2020 ; Simacek et al., 2021 ), and better engagement with the therapist online due to lower anxiety being in the comfort of their own homes ( Kalvin et al., 2021 ). Disadvantages of telehealth therapy with autistic clients included: increased distractedness on computers or in the home environment ( Kalvin et al., 2021 ), frustrations due to technical difficulties ( Solomon and Soares, 2020 ; Su et al., 2021 ), and greater difficulty providing resources to parents ( Solomon and Soares, 2020 ; Kalvin et al., 2021 ).

Prior to the pandemic, studies concerning the efficacy of online music therapy for autistic clients were limited to a single case study about an autistic teen by Baker and Krout (2009) . The teen had previously engaged in in-person music therapy, later switching to music therapy via telehealth. Baker and Krout (2009) reported that telehealth music therapy was more effective in promoting self-expression and emotional engagement in therapy than in-person therapy. Williams et al. (2024) reported that a music intervention for language goals implemented via telehealth yielded higher engagement in autistic children than a non-music telehealth intervention for language goals. Liu et al. (2023) reported that parents perceived their autistic children broadly improved in social and play skills after a 10 weeks of hour-long Music Enhanced Reciprocal Imitation Training sessions. In previous work by Richard Williams et al. (2022) , qualitative survey data from music therapists working with autistic children over telehealth indicated that telehealth music therapy was possible and music therapists continued to address clinical goal areas for autistic clients, given sufficient technological resources and caregiver support. Attention skills were reported as another important mediating factor associated with the ability to engage in telehealth ( Richard Williams et al., 2022 ). Given the importance of attention for sensory regulation and engagement in telehealth, it was important to assess attention skills as part of the current study.

Research on motor interventions implemented over telehealth for autistic people is limited to one study with preliminary results by Cleffi et al. (2022) . In their report, Cleffi et al. (2022) described an ongoing randomized control trial that they translated from in-person to telehealth. They worked with autistic children and their caregivers over Zoom ( Zoom Video Communications Inc., 2016 ), providing deliveries of materials to each family, and guiding them through various games and play-based interventions that addressed motor skills. Cleffi et al. (2022) described that movement interventions implemented with family assistance appeared successful over telehealth, and pre- and post-testing using the Bruininks-Oseretsky Test of Motor Proficiency, 2nd Edition (BOT-2) ( Bruininks and Bruininks, 2005 ) and Test of Gross Motor Development (TGMD) will reveal whether there is a difference in results between telehealth motor groups and a parallel in-person motor intervention group. There are currently no published studies examining the effects of music-based interventions on movement in autistic children over telehealth.

The current study piloted the implementation of Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) ® interventions (rhythmic auditory stimulation [RAS ® ], patterned sensory enhancement [PSE ® ], and therapeutic instrumental music performance [TIMP ® ]) via telehealth in collaboration with caregivers to address motor functioning in autistic children. NMT is an evidence-based set of music-based interventions grounded in research of music perception and cognition ( Thaut and Hoemberg, 2014 ). The three techniques used in the current study, RAS, PSE, and TIMP are motor techniques that have been researched extensively in other clinical populations ( Braun Janzen et al., 2022 ), but very little with autistic persons ( Shemy and El-Sayed, 2018 ), and never directly researched in an intervention study over telehealth ( Cole et al., 2021 ). Music-based therapists practicing NMT lost significantly fewer clinical hours than music-based therapists practicing other models of music therapy, indicating that NMT interventions may be particularly transferable to telehealth ( Richard Williams et al., 2024 ).

The current pilot study was designed to investigate: (1) Do NMT motor techniques (RAS, TIMP, PSE) applied via telehealth improve (a) motor skills and (b) attention in autistic children? (2) What did caregivers and parents perceive as the positive and challenging aspects of the sessions? (3) Did the degree of sensory challenges affect children’s ability to participate in and benefit from telehealth NMT?

2 Materials and methods

2.1 participants.

Five autistic children aged five to 10 years old (four male, one female) and their caregivers were recruited from a large organization serving a diverse population in the Greater Toronto Area. All parents signed a consent form on behalf of their children prior to participating in the study, and each child also signed an assent form which explained the study in a simplified manner. See Table 1 for demographic information. The study also involved four neurologic music therapists: one as the assessor, two who ran sessions (from hereon “therapists”), and one other who helped with qualitative content analysis and acted as a second assessor for one participant to assess inter-assessor reliability. Neurologic music therapists are certified music therapists who have taken additional training in NMT theory and techniques from the Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy ® . The therapists who carried out the assessment sessions and intervention sessions had experience working with autistic clients.

Table 1 . Participant demographics.

2.2 Methodology

This pilot study employed a mixed-methods approach. Mixed-methods research is employed when neither qualitative nor quantitative data alone are sufficient to adequately address a problem, and when more insight can be gained from a combination of both qualitative and quantitative approaches ( Creswell, 2015 ). Telehealth music therapy is a fairly new approach, so gathering qualitative in addition to quantitative data in the current study helped to provide rich information about whether telehealth music therapy was an effective and feasible method for addressing motor skills in autistic children with the support of their caregivers. Quantitative data (including descriptive data) helped to provide a more objective measure of whether telehealth music therapy was effective in addressing specific goal areas.

The current study’s design utilized a version of an explanatory sequence method within an intervention mixed methods design ( Creswell, 2015 ). In an explanatory sequence model, quantitative data are collected and analyzed before and after a clinical intervention is applied, and qualitative data are collected and analyzed at the end of the study to help explain or interpret the quantitative data. Because all interview forms and assessment instruments had to be submitted during the research ethics approval phase, qualitative interview forms were created at the outset of the study, and quantitative and qualitative data were integrated during the final, interpretive stage of data analysis. This study received ethics approval from the University of Toronto Research Ethics Board.

2.2.1 Philosophical approach

The first author’s philosophical approach for the current study is pragmatic. A pragmatic study identifies a specific, practical problem, and often uses mixed methods to better understand and address the problem from multiple viewpoints ( Creswell and Poth, 2018 ). The current study identified the problem as: Can NMT motor interventions be implemented effectively online with autistic children who are supported during sessions by their caregivers?

2.3 Intervention sessions and materials

2.3.1 materials and overall structure.

Each family was loaned a bin of instruments and assessment materials for the duration of the training and assessment period. Sessions included one pre-intervention assessment, nine 45-min music therapy sessions spread over three weeks (three sessions per week), a post-assessment, and a follow-up assessment session that took place two weeks after the post-assessment session (12 sessions in total, including assessment and intervention sessions). The instrument/assessment kit was picked up after the final assessment, sanitized, and then used for subsequent participants. All intervention and assessment sessions were led by therapists over Zoom ( Zoom Video Communications Inc., 2016 ). Caregivers participated in all sessions with their child and helped to facilitate some aspects of interventions led by the therapist.

2.3.2 The intervention

Intervention sessions were largely comprised of NMT interventions tailored to address motor skills assessed on the BOT-2 SF such as fine motor precision and integration, manual dexterity, bilateral coordination, balance, ambulation, upper-limb coordination, and strength. Three NMT motor interventions were used: TIMP, which involves engaging the participant in playing musical instruments to practice certain movements, for example tapping a castanet to practice finger dexterity; PSE, which involves a therapist providing accompaniment that supports and drives movement, for example using rhythmic music with an ascending and descending melody to support pressing arms up and controlling a downward motion during push-ups; and RAS, which is the use of a metronome to assist with repetitive rhythmic movements such as gait. Participants who presented with signs of sensory-seeking behaviors that made it difficult for them to engage in the motor interventions right away received a brief sensory input intervention. The therapist would direct the participant’s caregiver to deliver squeezes or pats to the child’s body (feet, calves, quads, hips, head, back/chest, shoulders, arms, and hands/fingers), spending 1–2 min for each body part. A rhythmic song with directive lyrics and metronome helped to guide the sensory exercise. All intervention sessions were video-recorded with written permission of participants. See Supplementary Table S1 for the description of intervention protocols.

2.4 Assessment

2.4.1 timeline of assessments.

Prior to the motor and attention assessments, caregivers filled out an intake form collecting demographic data and information on musical preferences. Assessment tools included in the pre-test, post-test, and two-week follow-up included the short form of the BOT-2 (BOT-2 SF), and a selective attention and sustained attention task taken from the Test of Everyday Attention for Children, Second Edition (TEA-Ch2) ( Bruininks and Bruininks, 2005 ; Manly et al., 2016 ). Assessment tools included in pre-test only were the SP2 ( Dunn, 2014 ) and an intake form collecting demographic data and information on musical preferences. A qualitative questionnaire regarding the caregiver experience, and a qualitative questionnaire regarding neurologic music therapist experience were administered after the final assessment session (two-week follow-up). Finally, after each session, therapists would fill out a checklist to report on the amount of time the child spent fully engaged during each session and report any parent questions or any deviations from protocol. A copy of this checklist can be found in Supplementary Material S2 . Informal conversations between the researcher, assessor, and therapists regarding the feasibility of aspects of the study were recorded and comprise additional qualitative data.

2.4.2 Implementation of assessments

BOT-2 SF and TEA-Ch2 assessments were implemented on video by a trained assessor over according to directions from the publisher Pearson on virtual assessment implementation. Testing objects were loaned to families along with the instrument kit, and caregivers helped to set up materials for assessments according to directions from assessors. Assessment elements that could be scored live utilized live scoring by the assessor, and other portions involving paper were scored once the box of musical instruments and assessment resources were returned after the study was complete. Assessment sessions were not recorded except for P5’s assessment sessions, which were additionally scored by a second assessor to evaluate consistency of assessment.

2.4.3 Instruments

The BOT-2 ( Bruininks and Bruininks, 2005 ) it is one of the most reliable assessments used to assess progress in motor skills in motor-intervention studies for autistic children ( Dietz et al., 2007 ; Wilson et al., 2018 ; Downs et al., 2020 ; Ruggeri et al., 2020 ). It has been used to measure motor outcomes for autistic children via telehealth ( Cleffi et al., 2022 ). The longer BOT-2 assesses motor functioning in four sub-areas: fine motor control, manual coordination, body coordination (balance, posture), and strength/agility. The short form provides a measure of general motor functioning amalgamated across the four sub-areas from the larger form. Sample tasks on the short form include tracing different shapes, sorting pennies, bouncing a ball between two hands, standing balance exercises, and sit-ups. Each task is scored, and total points calculated as a single number, which is then scaled according to the child’s age and sex. Though the BOT-2 SF test is reported to have a high degree of reliability ( Downs et al., 2020 ), we had a second assessor independently score assessment videos recorded for one of the participants to double-check the reliability of the primary assessor’s work. The two assessments for the participant were within one scaled point of one another and had identical slopes between the three time-points.

The TEA-Ch2 ( Manly et al., 2016 ) is a collection of tasks designed to assess different types of attention: selective, sustained, divided, and alternating. Other NMT intervention studies have used the TEA-Ch2 to assess progress in attention in autistic children as a result of NMT attention interventions ( LaGasse et al., 2019 ; Sa, 2020 ). The current study was not implementing attention interventions, but because engaging in the motor interventions required attention, and participants were required to sustain their attention during each 45-min session (although most took breaks), we wanted to measure if there were secondary effects on selective and sustained attention. Thus, subtests from the TEA-Ch2 measuring selective and sustained attention were included in the study: the Hector Line Cancelation Test (selective attention, paper test involving crossing off specific lines) and Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART, computer test). The selective attention (line crossing) task was included in paper booklets given to families in the instrument kit dropped off at their homes. The SART task involved watching a series of shapes appear on a computer screen and tapping a key in response to each shape except one specific shape.

The Sensory Profile 2 (SP2) is questionnaire given to parents regarding their child’s level of sensory responsiveness ( Dunn, 2014 ) and is one of the most tools for assessing and discussing sensory sensitivity for autistic individuals ( He et al., 2023 ). The SP2 includes various booklets for appropriate for various age categories, and is grounded in neuroscientific understanding of how children respond to sensory stimuli in their environment ( Dunn, 2014 ). The SP2 aims to identify the child’s neurological sensory threshold and pattern of behavioral self-regulation in seven areas of sensory processing: general, auditory, visual, somatosensory (touch), vestibular (movement/balance), proprioceptive (body position), oral sensory, and overall sensory processing. Thus, the questionnaire helps to place the child in one of the four quadrants of the Dunn (2014) SP2 diagram for each sensory area. The SP2 questionnaire booklet appropriate for each participant’s age was included in the box of instruments. Parents were instructed to fill it out before intervention sessions began and kept it in the box of instruments to be returned and scored by the lead researcher once sessions were complete.

Questionnaires were given to the therapists and each participant’s caregiver after the final (follow-up) assessment session. For each participant with whom they worked, therapists were asked: (1) What was the most positive aspect of facilitating sessions/assessments? (2) What was the most challenging aspect of facilitating sessions/assessments? (3) Is there anything that could be helpful for other neurologic music therapists facilitating sessions/assessments via Zoom? (4) Is there anything else you would like to say about your experience as therapists in this study?

Each caregiver was asked: (1) What was the most beneficial aspect of the study for your child and for you? (2) What was the most challenging aspect of this study for you and your child? How would you rate your experience of online Zoom sessions, from a scale of 0 (not beneficial) to 10 (extremely beneficial). (3) Is there anything else you would like to say about your experience with the study? (4) If it was possible, would you be interested in registering your child for online or in-person NMT sessions?

2.5 Data analysis

2.5.1 motor and attention outcomes.

Due to difficulties the clients had performing the sustained attention assessment, attention data collected from the SART was determined not meaningful and was not analyzed. The assessor reported that the SART was extremely difficult to administer over telehealth.

Aggregate data from the BOT-2 test and selective attention (line-crossing) tasks were analyzed using one-way repeated-measures ANOVAs in the data analysis software R ( R Core Team, 2022 ). Tests of normality and homogeneity of variance were performed on the motor and selective attention data sets. Mauchly’s test of Sphericity was calculated as part of the analysis, and if needed, Greenhouse-Geisser corrections were automatically applied to any factors violating this assumption.

In the motor data, there were no extreme outliers, and the Shapiro–Wilk test indicated that the data was normally distributed (all p- values were > 0.05). In the selective attention data, there was one extreme outlier in the first time point, and the data in the first time-point violated the Shapiro–Wilk test of normality ( p  = 0.04).

2.5.2 Qualitative analysis

A qualitative content analysis (QCA) was performed on the answers to questions in the assessments to search for and identify common themes. QCA assesses data in domains that are not yet well-understood, particularly in healthcare ( Hsieh and Shannon, 2005 ; Elo and Kyngäs, 2008 ). Two individuals performed the QCA: the first author and another PhD candidate who was not one of the therapists or main assessors. Both individuals read the responses to questions, and independently identified and categorized responses according to common themes in an electronic codebook. Software was not used in the qualitative analysis. When interpreting and categorizing participants’ contributions, both individuals strived to maintain awareness of biases and opinions which could influence this process by writing down thoughts in the margins of the codebook as they pertained to the emerging themes ( Creswell, 2015 ). After independently coding responses, the first author compared both codebooks and compiled themes into a single document. The two individuals discussed the themes and finalized which categories seemed to be the most salient. The two therapists whose data were assessed are colleagues of the two individuals assessing the data. No relationships between either of the individuals performing the QCA and the caregivers existed beyond contact made by the author and the caregivers during the recruiting process. Member checking was employed with therapists, but not participants’ caregivers.

2.5.3 Sensory profile comparison

Motor results, qualitative responses, and data from the SP2 ( Dunn, 2014 ) were compared alongside one another to illuminate possible trends or connections between sensory sensitivities on the SP2 and ability to engage in the telehealth intervention sessions.

3.1 Motor outcomes

A one-way repeated-measures ANOVA was conducted on the scaled scores of the BOT-2 SF assessment results to ascertain the effects of the intervention on participants’ motor performance over time (pre, post, and two-week follow-up). The ANOVA was performed using R ( R Core Team, 2022 ). There was a statistically significant difference between average scores for at least two time points p  = 0.03. A Tukey Post Hoc test could not identify at α = 0.05 significance level the exact location the difference, which trended to be between the pre-test and two-week follow-up test ( p  = 0.23). Visual inspection of a graph of the BOT-2 SF scaled scores corroborate that the scores increased between the pre- and follow-up test. See Table 2 and Figure 1 .

Table 2 . Means, standard deviations, and one-way analyses of variance in BOT-2 SF and selective attention (line crossing) scores.

Figure 1 . Individual scaled BOT-2 scores across the three assessment time-points.

3.2 Attention outcomes

The TEA-Ch2 Line Crossing Task was completed by most participants independently. Two participants struggled with the task on certain trials, and caregivers either helped them or simply allowed them to perform the task incorrectly (e.g., connecting lines rather than crossing them out). The one-way repeated measures ANOVA was not statistically significant ( p  = 0.92). See Table 2 .

3.3 Qualitative outcomes

The QCA found three major themes across both the caregiver and therapist responses: (1) Caregiver involvement was necessary and beneficial, (2) clients benefited from sessions, and (3) engagement was sometimes limited due to distractions. The three major themes along with constituent categories are represented in Supplementary Table S3 . Quotes from caregivers are marked with a “C” while quotes from the therapists are marked with a “T.” In general, caregivers as well as therapists held a positive view of the music therapy sessions. Caregivers often remarked that their child engaged well over Zoom for music therapy in a way that they did not for other (non-music-based) therapies. Therapists also perceived participant skill improvements during music therapy sessions. The limits of virtual sessions were acknowledged, since distractions and sensory needs made it difficult for participants to engage at times. Caregivers articulated benefits of being involved in sessions themselves, and therapists similarly articulated that sessions would not be possible without caregiver support and involvement. Please refer to Supplementary Table S3 for a delineation of therapist and caregiver responses.

3.4 Sensory outcomes and comparison

Results from each client’s SP2 ( Dunn, 2014 ) assessment given prior to the intervention period was compared alongside individual quantitative results. See Table 3 . Patterns emerged, although with the small sample generalization is not possible. Those with the three highest percent-change in motor scores also had each four or fewer areas of sensory sensitivity and were reported to have consistent engagement. The two children with the most sensory sensitivities showed the lowest percent-change improvements in their BOT-2 scores.

Table 3 . Comparison of participant sensory factors, age, and engagement.

Participants with greater sensory struggles, particularly if they were younger, perhaps would have benefited from more direct intervention to address sensory issues alone prior to engaging in intensive sessions addressing motor skills.

4 Discussion

4.1 motor improvements.

The participants showed statistically significant increases in motor skill performance measured by the BOT-2 SF test. Visual inspection of data revealed that motor assessment scores on the final (follow-up) assessment were higher than those on the initial test. This result implies that motor skills continued to improve in the two weeks after the final intervention. One possible explanation for this pattern of results is that that offline gains may have occurred between the assessment that occurred soon after the last session and the two-week follow up, allowing for motor skills to solidify and be observed on the final follow-up assessment. The term “offline gains” refers to improvements in motor skill that happen following an interval of time in which motor skills previously practiced are consolidated, but not actively practiced ( Lugassy et al., 2018 ). Motor consolidation occurs when sleep and rest occur after intentional motor practice, as first observed by Brashers-Krug et al. (1996) . The present study intentionally spaced sessions at least 48 hours apart to allow for motor consolidation between training sessions. Future studies could explore the effects of music-motor interventions on functional connectivity in autistic individuals, along with behavioral motor assessment measures. Previous studies have set a promising precedent for such research: Sharda et al. (2018) found that engaging in 8–12 sessions of music therapy targeting social interaction increased functional connectivity between auditory and motor areas in autistic children, relative to those in a control group. Their study also saw a decrease in over-connectivity between auditory and visual-association areas. There is theoretical support for improvement based on music-based interventions targeting motor skills also. D’Mello and Stoodley (2015) reported that autistic individuals show overconnectivity between the cerebellum and motor cortices, which is associated with underconnectivity in cerebro-cerebellar pathways for language and social interaction. Braun Janzen and Thaut (2018) further theorized that music-based motor engagement could help to improve cerebro-cerebellar connectivity, given that music and rhythm activates the cerebellum along with motor areas. Future research can investigate the relationship between scores on a motor assessment and neural correlates such as functional connectivity between cerebellar and cortical brain regions.

Another possible explanation for the increased scores after the two-week follow-up period is that parents may have begun to practice motor skills with their children even after the therapy period was complete. Though no parents directly shared that they were practicing the motor skills after sessions were complete, some parents did report gaining new skills to support their child, so this possibility cannot be ruled out.

Although the current study contains many of the limiting factors described in Srinivasan and Bhat (2013) such as a small sample size and no control group which limit generalizability, the NMT interventions used in this study (TIMP, PSE, and RAS) are specific and replicable. Results indicate that follow-up research can be conducted using these consistent NMT intervention protocols to investigate replications of the current outcomes.

The promising motor results echo those of Srinivasan et al. (2015) , Imankhah et al.’s (2018) , Shemy and El-Sayed (2018) , and Shukla et al. (2022) , who all found that music-based interventions improved movement skills in autistic participants. In particular, Imankhah et al. (2018) used exercises which resemble the techniques used in the current study such as TIMP and RAS. The current study adds to previous data by providing evidence that it may be possible to address motor skills in autistic children via telehealth, and supports the development of larger studies to investigate the benefits of NMT motor interventions for children on the autism spectrum.

4.2 Inconclusive attention data

Due to many participants being unable to complete the SART assessment independently, attention outcomes for the sustained attention were inconclusive. Analyses for the selective attention assessment were not statistically significant. These results imply that, first, the SART attention task was either too advanced for the children taking the tests, too difficult to administer via telehealth, or both. Second, the lack of even a trend toward improvement in the selective attention task indicates that selective attention did not improve over the course of the study, which perhaps should not be surprising given that the interventions in the study were not targeting attention skills. Though studies by Pasiali et al. (2014) , Lagasse et al. (2019) , and Sa (2020) found that NMT improved attention skills (measured by the TEA-Ch2) in autistic adolescents, the subjects in that study received attention-specific interventions and were older, so better able to carry out the assessments. It is not possible to make any firm conclusions related to attention in the current study.

4.3 Positive qualitative responses

Caregivers and therapists expressed an overall positive view of the telehealth sessions, despite the presence of occasional challenges. This result is in keeping with prior research indicating that the opportunity to access services online is seen positively ( Cole et al., 2021 ; White et al., 2021 ). None of the families in the study had previously accessed music therapy, and several of the families found sessions beneficial enough that they requested information about how to find NMT services for their child after the study was complete. None of the caregivers specifically mentioned (nor were they directly asked) whether the number of sessions (nine, over 3 weeks) felt feasible for them, but noteably each of the five participants and their caregivers attended each one of their assessment and training sessions, with only one participant ending a session early one time. This 100% study participation rate indicates that implementing NMT motor interventions over telehealth is not only likely effective for motor development, but feasible for families. Anecdotal comments from some parents (outside the qualitative questionnaires) indicated that they perceived their children to be benefitting tremendously from the sessions and were learning new ways to support their children because of the sessions.

4.4 Sensory implications

Like results found in White et al. (2021) and Richard Williams et al. (2022) , participants with fewer sensory sensitivities tended to engage more consistently over telehealth and made more progress in motor skills than their peers with greater sensory sensitivities. This result resonates with recent research that found autistic children with sensory sensitivities tend to struggle with attention ( Dellapiazza et al., 2018 ), and that challenging behaviors in autistic children (including inattention) can be explained to a high degree by the presence of sensory sensitivities ( Dellapiazza et al., 2020 ). Thus, participants with more sensory issues may have struggled to maintain attention and behave in ways conducive to engagement over telehealth during sessions more than others who had fewer sensory difficulties.

Therapists indicated on the fidelity checklists ( Supplementary Material S2 ) that all participants spent the goal minimum of 75% of session time doing NMT motor interventions. Therapists sometimes provided a proprioceptive-input intervention at the beginning of sessions, but this intervention may not have been sufficient in terms of length and the fact that only one sensory area (proprioception) was addressed. It is possible that children with higher sensory needs could benefit from full sessions directly addressing these sensory needs as a prerequisite to working on movement skills directly. Future studies should investigate the impact of degree and type of sensory sensitivities and age on ability to engage in telehealth music therapy. Research should also investigate the efficacy and feasibility for NMT interventions for sensory needs in autistic children.

4.5 Limitations

The small sample and lack of control group limit the generalizability of these outcomes but the study results provide a promising and replicable context for future investigations. In terms of the motor assessment results, the pattern of improvement from pre-test to follow-up test only occurred clearly for two participants, whereas the others there was more of a plateau after the post-test. Along these lines, it is possible that one participant (participant two) may have been driving the change. Replicating this study with a much larger sample would help to identify if these results are meaningful and generalizable. The impact of sensory challenges on motor skills must be interpreted with caution as it was underpowered for formal analysis. In addition, because the presence of other autism symptoms was not directly measured, it is possible that participants with greater sensory challenges also had more intense autism symptoms in general which impacted their ability to benefit from the intervention. There are several other limitations that should be considered to improve upon this pilot study in the future. The fact that therapists sometimes began sessions with a brief sensory intervention may have introduced a confound, as it is not possible to know if gains in the sessions could be due to the motor interventions or also in part to the sensory interventions. In terms of assessment, because the same assessor was present at all three time points, it is possible that assessor bias was introduced that influenced the interpretation of motor scores as improving over time. The addition of a second assessor for one of the participants, who was blinded to the time of assessment and found a similar pattern of results, helps to mitigate the possibility of bias only partially. Finally, the attention tasks were largely too difficult for children to do, and difficult to implement via Zoom.

5 Conclusion

This small pilot study found improvements in motor skills in autistic children following nine sessions of motor-based interventions delivered by neurologic music therapists. Caregivers and therapists felt that the children improved during NMT sessions, and caregivers felt that they learned new strategies for helping their children during sessions. Observations of sensory sensitivities combined with individual session progress indicated that participants with fewer sensory sensitivities, or who were older, tended to engage the most consistently over telehealth and improve the most in motor skills. The results from this pilot study support the initiation of future research with larger samples and a control group in ascertaining how NMT motor interventions can benefit autistic children both in-person and via telehealth.

Data availability statement

The datasets presented in this article are not readily available because of the small sample. Requests to access the datasets should be directed to [email protected] .

Ethics statement

The studies involving humans were approved by University of Toronto Research Ethics Board. The studies were conducted in accordance with the local legislation and institutional requirements. Written informed consent for participation in this study was provided by the participants’ legal guardians/next of kin.

Author contributions

NR: Conceptualization, Formal analysis, Investigation, Methodology, Project administration, Resources, Visualization, Writing – original draft, Writing – review & editing. CH-T: Supervision, Writing – review & editing. JB: Supervision, Writing – review & editing. LT: Supervision, Writing – review & editing. MP: Data curation, Writing – review & editing. JT: Data curation, Project administration, Writing – review & editing. MTa: Data curation, Writing – review & editing. JK: Formal analysis, Writing – review & editing. MTh: Supervision, Writing – review & editing.

The author(s) declare that financial support was received for the publication of this article. Belmont University funded the open access fee for publication of this article.


NR wishes to thank each of the participants and their caregivers for engaging in the study, and N. B. Williams for all-around support and proof-reading.

Conflict of interest

NR has occasionally aided with educational endeavors and received small honoraria from The Academy of Neurologic Music Therapy.

The remaining authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.

The author(s) declared that they were an editorial board member of Frontiers, at the time of submission. This had no impact on the peer review process and the final decision.

Publisher’s note

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Supplementary material

The Supplementary material for this article can be found online at:

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Keywords: autism, neurologic music therapy, motor, telehealth, sensory, BOT-2

Citation: Richard Williams N, Hurt-Thaut C, Brian J, Tremblay L, Pranjić M, Teich J, Tan M, Kowaleski J and Thaut M (2024) Improved motor skills in autistic children after three weeks of neurologic music therapy via telehealth: a pilot study. Front. Psychol . 15:1355942. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2024.1355942

Received: 14 December 2023; Accepted: 22 April 2024; Published: 08 May 2024.

Reviewed by:

Copyright © 2024 Richard Williams, Hurt-Thaut, Brian, Tremblay, Pranjić, Teich, Tan, Kowaleski and Thaut. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY) . The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

*Correspondence: Nicole Richard Williams, [email protected]

Disclaimer: All claims expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of their affiliated organizations, or those of the publisher, the editors and the reviewers. Any product that may be evaluated in this article or claim that may be made by its manufacturer is not guaranteed or endorsed by the publisher.


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