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Using Case Studies

Educators are always searching for innovative ways to enhance students' learning of course material and to increase student interest in course content. Traditional methods of recitation and rote memory are useful for teaching some basic concepts but educators have found them inadequate for teaching students to think critically about course material. Some students can recite multiplication tables or statistical formulas but can't discuss how and why they are used. While it is crucial that students know basic facts, best learned by memorization, it is equally important that they understand the applications of these facts.

Educational research shows that students learn better when they can relate to the material being taught and when the material has some relevance to their lives. Thus, the quest for ways to enhance critical thinking abilities and to increase student interest in material (also related to retention) continues.

One method of teaching, which has traditionally been used in medical and law schools, is the case study method. A variation of this method is Problem-Based Learning (PBL). A case study is basically a story that educates. Most of us have loved stories since the days of Snow White and The Three Bears. Thus the use of case studies gives the teacher an advantage in terms of capturing attention. (Cognitive psychology discusses the importance of attention in the memory process).

In medical schools, cases are stories based on real patients. Students must figure out what the problem is and then determine the best course of treatment. The stories illustrate both good practice and general principles of medical practice. Solving the problem (i.e. figuring out what is wrong and how to treat the patient) requires the basic knowledge learned in the first two years of medical school. Thus the use of cases requires a foundation of basic knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge to ill-defined situations. (Herreid, 1997).

In law schools (think The Paper Chase with John Houseman), the professor leads students through cases to predetermined correct answers. Since much of law school consists of learning about old cases (stories) the case method relies upon students' learning about the legal principles in old cases as a basis for solving new cases.

Business schools have also begun to incorporate the case study method as an educational tool for teaching students to apply what they have learned in basic courses. The case study method makes sense as the "real-world" seldom asks students to merely list facts. Rather, it expects them to take these facts and apply them to changing conditions and situations.

Case studies require participation by and engagement of the students. It is active learning and can be a means to engage students who are otherwise "turned-off" by facts and figures.

There is no one way in which to use case studies in the classroom. How they are used depends on the subject matter and on the goals of the instructor. Some case studies utilize the Socratic method of questioning in which the teacher is more directly involved. Others use discussions or cooperative groups. In some cases, there is only one correct answer.  In other cases, there may be more than one correct answer.  The case study method is adaptable and allows the teacher to adapt it to the needs of the subject matter and the abilities of the students. It becomes one more tool in the teacher's toolbox.

This project will present two types of cases. The first is based on a true incident and can be used in many classes including social psychology (nonverbal communication, self-presentation), abnormal psychology (abuse, psychosis), developmental psychology (effects of childhood and family) and forensic psychology. It is a longer case and would require more class time for processing. Ti could also be given as a take-home assignment with a longer paper required.

The second type of case presented is what I call a “snapshot” case. It is a short case, presenting an isolated, less complex issue, and is appropriate for either shorter group work or as an exam essay question.

A Case for Use in Teaching Psychology

It is October 25, 1994, late at night, in a small southern town. The town is typical of many in South Carolina. Life is hard. The average family income is about $25,000. There are four shopping centers and a branch of the state university. Employment is provided by the various stores and by industries in surrounding towns. Life revolves around the numerous churches. Most people have lived in the town for their entire lives and most have generations of relatives nearby. Employment can be found but most of it offers little excitement or opportunity for advancement. Most young people have two options: 1) stay in town, marry a high school classmate, have children, work at a local business or 2) move away for college and a better job.

The day began as many other days in Union. Susan Smith, a 23 year old, arose and fed and dressed her two young children. She took them to daycare and then went to work at Conso Products, the largest employer in the town. Susan was an administrative assistant at Conso for the owner of the company, J. Carey Findlay. It was an exciting job for Susan who had previously worked at the local grocery store. She handled travel arrangements for Findlay and for international clients. The job gave Susan a new group of friends and she began dating Tom Findlay, the son of the owner who had moved to Union after he graduated from Auburn University. He was young, rich and available and Susan quickly became interested in him.

Susan joined some co-workers for lunch. Among the group was Tom Findlay. At around 1:30 p.m., Susan asked her supervisor for permission to leave early. She told her supervisor that she was upset because she was in love with someone who did not love her back. She named that someone as Tom Findlay. Susan stayed at work. In mid-afternoon she called Tom and asked him to meet her outside. There she told him that her husband was threatening to reveal some embarrassing information about her, including an affair with Tom’s father. Tom told Susan that their intimate relationship was over.

Later that afternoon, Susan attempted to return an Auburn University sweatshirt to Tom who told her to keep it. Susan left work around 4:45 p.m. and collected her sons from daycare. While driving home, she saw the car of a co-worker in the parking lot of the local bar. She stopped and asked the woman to accompany her back to Conso so that she could talk to Tom. Susan planned to tell him that she had been lying about the affair with his father, that it was a ploy to gauge how he reacted to such news. The two women drove back to Conso. Susan asked the woman to watch her children while she went in to talk with Tom. He was not happy to see Susan and quickly led her out of the office. Susan returned to her car and talked about “ending it all”. Susan dropped her co-worker back at the bar and continued on home. It was about 6:00 p.m.

Around 8:00 p.m. Susan tried to contact Tom by phone but he refused to take the call.  Susan then dressed her sons, placed them in their car seats and began to drive around the town. She later said that she “had never felt so lonely and sad in my entire life.”  

She drove out Highway 49 toward John D. Long Lake. She parked on the middle of the boat ramp. She shifted the car into neutral and the car began to roll slowly toward the lake. A few yards down the ramp, Susan pulled the hand brake, stopping the car.  She opened her door and stepped out. She then released the brake and closed the driver’s door. The children were asleep in the backseat. The headlights remained on as the car drifted toward the lake. The car entered the water and bobbed on the surface, slowly filling with water.

Around 9:00 p.m., Shirley McCloud heard a cry from her front porch. The McClouds live about one quarter mile from the Lake. Shirley turned on the porch light and saw a young woman who was crying. She yelled for help, saying that “He’s got my kids and he’s got my car. A black man has got my kids and my car.” The McClouds called 911. At 9:12 p.m., the Union County Sheriff’s office responded.

Susan Smith told the following story:

“I was stopped at the red light at Monarch Mills and a black man jumped in and told me to drive. I asked him why was he doing this and he said shut up and drive or I’ll kill you. I drove for about four miles until he made me stop right past the sign (for John D. Long Lake, a sign about 100 yards from the McClouds’ door). He told me to get out. He made me stop in the middle of the road. Nobody was coming, not a single car. I asked him  ‘why can’t I take my kids?’ but he said ‘I don’t have time.’ He pushed me out of the car and he had a gun pointed at my side. He told me ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt your kids.’”

Susan described lying on the ground after he drove away. She said she doesn’t know how long she lay there before getting up and running for the McCloud house. Susan tried to call her mother, unsuccessfully, and then called her stepfather and then her husband, David, who was at work at the Winn-Dixie.

By the time Susan called David, Sheriff Howard Wells was at the McCloud home and was directing the search for her children. Sheriff Wells was friends with Susan’s brother. He asked her to repeat her story. He noticed that she was wearing a grey sweatshirt with orange lettering that spelled Auburn University. Sheriff Wells called the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) for assistance.

Susan, David and their families gathered at the McCloud home as the search for the children began. Around midnight, the Sheriff suggested finding another gathering place. Susan offered her mother’s home. Susan rode with David to the Russell house. In the car she told him that Tom Findlay might come and see her and she didn’t want David to be angry when he came.

A sketch artist met with Susan and composed a sketch of a black man, around forty years of age, wearing a dark, knit cap, a dark shirt, jeans and a plain jacket. The investigators interviewed the McClouds. Several organizations, including the Adam Walsh Center for Missing Children, became involved. Family of both Susan and David flew in from around the country. Friends flooded into the home of Susan’s mother and stepfather. She was never alone, finally garnering the attention she so desired.

Tom Findlay called to express his sympathies. Susan shifted the conversation to their relationship. Tom told Susan to concentrate on getting her children back. That was the only call Tom made to Susan although co-workers came to visit. At the visit from her co-workers, Susan seemed preoccupied with when Tom would be coming to see her.

Two days later, Susan and David both submitted to polygraphs, given by the FBI. They each signed a Miranda form in which they acknowledged that they understood their legal rights. David’s test showed clearly that he knew nothing about the disappearance of his sons. Susan’s test was inconclusive. When asked if she knew where her children were, the test showed a high level of deception. Susan told others she thought she might have failed the polygraph. It would be the first of many that she was given.

Investigators began to focus on Susan early on as they noticed numerous inconsistencies in her story. Once, when being asked about her relationship with Tom Findlay and his feelings about her sons, she spoke of the boys in the past tense. One agent noticed that when she sobbed, she made “fake sounds with no tears in her eyes.”

In the meantime, the media descended on Union. The story quickly became a national one. Six days after the disappearance, a report came from Seattle that a child who matched the description of Alex, the fourteen month old had been spotted.  A few hours later, policed confirmed that it was not Alex. Susan and David met with the media to plead for the return of their children. Susan again would make crying noises but shed no tears.

For nine days, Susan and her husband continued to plead with the carjacker to return the children. There was a nationwide hunt for the maroon car and for the boys. Susan and her husband made numerous television and radio appearances over the nine days tearfully pleading for the return of their children.

Investigators continued to focus on Susan as their main suspect.  They choreographed their interrogations so that they could break her defenses. As the days passed, the agents came to believe that the boys would not be found alive, yet they did not let her know that they did not believe her carjacker story. Each day Susan was given a polygraph and asked the same question: “Do you know where your children are?” She would always fail the question.

Finally, on Thursday, November 3, 1995, the ninth day after the alleged carjacking, Susan and David appeared on the three morning television programs. Susan stated that she “did not have anything to do with the abduction of my children” and that the perpetrator was a “sick and emotionally unstable person.” David stated that he absolutely, “believe his wife totally.”

Later that day, Susan was interrogated again. Sheriff Wells had mentioned inconsistencies in her story in his latest interviews and the media had relentlessly questioned Susan about those inconsistencies. The whole situation was beginning to wear on Susan. At this latest interrogation, Wells confronted Susan with her story. He told her that her story was a lie and that he had had undercover drugs agents at that particular intersection on the night of October 25. Her story was causing great tension between the black and white communities in Union. After Wells told Susan this, she asked him to pray with her. He then told her that it was time to tell the truth. Susan dropped her head and said, “I am so ashamed, my children are not all right.”

She told Wells that she had felt so isolated that she couldn’t even take the boys to her mother’s house. She felt that there was no escape for her. She talked about her troubled marriage and her affair with Tom. She then began to sob. She filled two pages with her written confession in which she talked about her plan to end the life of all three of them.

Susan’s confession can be found at

Susan was arrested and taken to the local jail. SLED and local law enforcement went to the Lake and divers located the car where the children were still in their car seats.

Background of the story

Susan Smith was born in Union in 1971. Her mother, Linda, was a homemaker and her father, Harry, was a firefighter. Harry later worked in one of the local mills. Linda and Harry had married when Linda was 17 and Harry was 19. Linda was pregnant by another man at the time of the marriage. Linda and Harry subsequently had two children of their own: Scott and Susan. The marriage was turbulent and Harry often became violent. At times he threatened to kill Linda and then himself. Harry was an alcoholic and was obsessed with the idea that Linda was unfaithful. When Susan was still in preschool, her half-brother attempted suicide and was treated at a series of residential centers. Susan’s early childhood was very unhappy and she was a lonely child.

In spite of the turmoil, Susan was very close to her father and would light up whenever he was around. In 1977, Linda and Harry divorced. Harry was devastated and began to drink more heavily.

Two weeks after the divorce was final, Linda married Bev Russell, a wealthy businessman who was divorced with several daughters. He was prominent in Union and served on both the statewide executive committee for the Republican Party and on the advisory board of the Christian Coalition. After the marriage, the family moved into Bev’s home in an exclusive section of Union.

In 1978, five weeks after the divorce was finalized, Harry committed suicide. The suicide followed an argument in which Harry hit Linda and she called the police. He shot himself but did not die immediately. Susan was distraught. During her childhood her two prize possessions were Harry’s coin collection and a tape recording of him.

Despite these family issues, Susan was an excellent student throughout school. She was active in a number of clubs and held leadership positions in several of them. She even volunteered at the local hospital. During her senior year she was voted “Friendliest Female” and she was popular with her classmates. Her life was filled with turmoil, however.

Over the years, it became increasingly important to Susan to have the attention of her stepfather. When Susan was 16, an incident that would dramatically affect her life occurred. Her stepsister spent the night and so Susan slept on the living room sofa. That night, Bev molested Susan. He later claimed that Susan had initiated physical contact and had not protested his advances. Susan filed a complaint with the South Carolina Department of Social Services and the Union County Sheriff. Under pressure from Linda, Susan withdrew the charges.  The family went to a counselor for four or five sessions. During the investigation, Bev moved out of the house but returned a short time later.

Six months later, Susan reported a similar incident to her guidance counselor. Social Services again conducted interviews but no charges were ever filed because Susan, again under pressure from Linda, refused to press charges.  An agreement was reached between Bev’s attorney and the District Attorney that was sealed and never made public.

The molestation continued throughout Susan’s adolescence. The family seemed to blame Susan for contacting the authorities and for instigating and continuing the sexual contact when the events came to light during the trial for the murder.

During the summer between her junior and senior years, Susan began working at the Winn-Dixie supermarket. She was soon promoted to bookkeeper. She also began to secretly date a co-worker who was married with children. Susan became pregnant and had an abortion. She also began to date a second co-worker while still dating the first co-worker. When the first co-worker, the older, married man, found out about the second boyfriend he ended their relationship. Susan became depressed and attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pills.

She was hospitalized and it was revealed that she had also attempted suicide when she was thirteen. Her managers at Winn-Dixie were sympathetic, though, and Susan returned to her job. Prior to the hospitalization, she had become friendly with David Smith, a clerk at the store. When Susan returned to work, David broke up with his long-time girlfriend and began dating Susan.

David was a year older than Susan. His father was a Navy veteran who had served in Vietnam and his mother was a devoted Jehovah’s Witness. He spent most of his childhood in a small community near Union. David’s mother had kept him protected from many outside influences during his childhood but as he got older, he rejected her religion as his father had. Because of friction with his mother, David moved in with his great grandmother during high school.

David began working at Winn-Dixie during high school. He became engaged to Christy, a girl from high school. Then, in 1990, he began to see Susan on a casual basis. Christy and David ended their relationship.  Soon, however, Susan became pregnant. David and Susan decided to marry. The decision was not a popular one with either set of parents. Susan’s mother felt that David came from a lower socioeconomic background and she wanted Susan to marry someone with a college education. David’s family was dealing with the sudden death of his older brother from complications of a chronic disease. The wedding went on eleven days after the death of Danny, the brother,  because Linda was afraid that Susan’s pregnancy would show if they waited.

David and Susan were planning to move into a small house on his great-grandmother’s property that he had renovated. After Susan’s parents visited, however, Susan refused to live in what she called a “tin-roofed country shack” and the couple moved in with David’s great-grandmother.

Three months after the wedding, David’s father attempted suicide by taking an overdose of pills. Susan found him on the floor of his home.  Soon after he was released from the hospital, David’s parents divorced.

Susan and David both continued to work at Winn Dixie until Susan went into labor with Michael. Following his birth, Susan worked part-time and began college classes. Tension in the marriage began to grow, particularly over the bills. Even though they made a very good salary ($39,000 combined), Susan often asked her mother for loans.  Linda and David’s relationship was also problematic. Linda often offered advice and tried to control Susan’s behavior and child raising.

A third problem was work where David was Susan’s supervisor. A fourth problem was their mutual extramarital affairs. By their third anniversary, they had separated and reunited several times. During one of the reconciliations, Susan became pregnant again. In order to try and make the marriage work, they bought a small house on the same road as Linda and Bev. Things did not go smoothly. Susan had some problems with being pregnant this time around; she felt unattractive unloved and she soon stopped talking to David. David began an affair with a cashier at Winn-Dixie. In August 1993, Alexander was born. David and Susan reconciled for a few weeks after the birth but soon David moved out and the relationship appeared over permanently.

Susan found a job at Conso Products and began, what to her was an exciting new life. She dated Tom Findlay and made many new friends. David and Susan tried one last time to reconcile since David believed the boys needed both parents. Susan, however, wanted a divorce. She believed her dreams of love and stability would be fulfilled by Tom Findlay.  On September 21, 1994 she served David with divorce papers. On October 17, she received “The Letter.”

Tom Findlay sent Susan a letter in which he told her that their romantic relationship was over. In the letter he complimented her in many ways but he said he was not ready for a ready-made family. He also had concerns about the disparity in their backgrounds: she, the child of a mill worker and he a child of privilege. He also disapproved of some of her flirtatious behavior. The letter was not harsh in tone but its intent was clear. The letter was written on a word processor and appeared oddly formal.

Susan was intensely angry and hurt by the letter. She tried to patch up the relationship on October 23, even telling Tom about her stepfather’s betrayal. Tom, however, seemed shocked rather than sympathetic by her history. She spent the next two days growing increasingly depressed. Finally, on the night the October 25th, she killed her two young sons by driving the car into the Lake with them strapped in their carseats.


Ø       Susan violated what most people consider our most sacred trust when she killed her children. How could she have done it? Develop a profile of a woman who might kill her own children. Online, find the FBI’s profile of women who kill their own children. Compare your profile with the FBI’s profile.

Ø       Discuss potential effects that sexual abuse can have on a young woman. How might Susan’s experiences with her stepfather have affected her behavior?

Ø       Discuss possible pressures on a young couple that marries in their teens, especially under the circumstances of David and Susan’s marriage.

Ø       Identify nonverbal cues that Susan gave. Discuss how it is possible to tell if someone if lying from nonverbal behavior. What information does the use of the polygraph supply?

Ø       Speculate on why Susan might have done what she did.  Include speculations about her marriage as well as her own childhood and adolescence.

Ø       Susan wanted relief from loneliness and the problems in her life. She wanted to commit suicide but did not want her sons to suffer as she had after her father’s suicide. She believed that if she killed her sons first and then committed suicide, her sons would suffer less than if she left them on their own. She felt burdened and was overwhelmed by the responsibilities of being a single mother. What role might depression have played in her actions?

Ø       Classify Susan according to the DSM IV categories.

Ø       Why didn’t her attorneys use the mental illness defense?

Archives of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.
Archives of the New York Times.
Eftimiades, M. (1995). Sins of the mother. New York: St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
Gleick, E. (1994). It did happen here. Time (December 19, 1994).  Retrieved June 21, 2001 at http://www.time.com/time/magazine/archice/1994/941219.crime.html
Herreid, C.F. (1997, November). What is a case? Bringing to science education the established teaching tool of law and medicine. Journal of College Science Teaching.   pp. 92-94
Herreid, C.F. (1997, December). What makes a good story?  Journal of College Science Teaching. (December 1997/January 1998), 163-165).
McBride-Chang, C, & Chang, L. (2001). "Theory into practice: Cases as illustrations of developmental theories."  Teaching of Psychology,  (v. 28, #1), 48-50
Norcross, J.C., Sommer, R., & Clifford, J. S. (2001). "Incorporating published autobiographies into the abnormal psychology course." Teaching of Psychology, (v. 28, #2. (125-128).
Collection of articles on problem-based learning: www.samford.edu/pbl
Collection of case studies: http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries/projects/cases/ubcase.htm

Teaching Notes

During the penalty phase of the trial, Susan Smith’s attorney said that she was a deeply depressed and fragile person who spent her whole life trying to win love. She displayed many classic signs of depression although her behavior could also be interpreted as that of someone with antisocial personality disorder or dependent personality disorder. Her behavior was certainly, typical, of an abused child as well as a child of suicide.

Some of the clues that led to consideration of Susan as a suspect include:
1)       her unusual calm during the early time of the disappearance – unusual for a parent dealing with the disappearance of her children
2)       her disinterest in finding her children and her concern about a confrontation between David and Tom Findlay
3)       her preoccupation with other things during this time. She talked about having one of the agents teach her a new dance and she planned to go to the beach to escape the media.
4)       She was concerned about how she looked on television interviews
5)       She would sob but there would be no tears
6)       Her descriptions of the carjacker were vague yet she could identify details in the sketch artist’s sketch

Susan was molested by her stepfather over many years while she was a teenager. He continued the sexual relationship while she was an adult.  Her destructive cycles of sexual relationships could be traced to these incidents. During the six week period before the murders, Susan had sex with four different men. These relationships eased her depression but even in them she was seeking to please the men.

Early in her life, Susan’s father committed suicide. He was her emotional support and his death left her searching for someone to fill that void. His suicide also made Susan statistically more likely to also attempt suicide.

Susan had no prior history of abuse or violence towards her children. She had no outward signs of a biological disorder nor psychosis.

Susan Smith’s nonverbal communication played a role in her identification as a suspect. There are many different channels in nonverbal communication and it can be difficult to control all of them at one time. “Leakage “ will usually occur, even in an experience liar.  Experts pay attention to microexpressions, those expressions lasting only a few tenths of a second. Inconsistencies (crying- no tears) are considered. Paralanguage including pitch, speed and fluency can also provide clues as to the truth of the speaker. An increase in blinking or dilated pupils can signify lying.

As an adolescent, Susan appeared to be a happy and popular teenager. There were terrible secrets occurring at her home. Her accusations of molestation were met with skepticism and the system failed to protect her. Because her family appeared to be a “model” family, it is possible that all involved were incredulous about the accusations.

A psychiatrist, hired by the defense during trial, diagnosed Susan as having “dependent personality disorder.” He also said she “feels as though she can’t do things on her own” and “she constantly needs affection and becomes terrified that she’ll be left alone.” She did not suffer from deep depression but when she was depressed, she became suicidal. The psychiatrist believes she has a genetic predisposition to depression and alcoholism, given the numbers of people in her family who suffer from both.

One theory put forth by the prosecution was that Susan was a selfish, manipulative killer who sacrificed her children for the love of a rich man. She wanted to escape her loneliness, unhappiness and the stresses in her life by establishing an intimate relationship with her wealthy boyfriends. The children were in the way.

Susan’s attorneys decided not to plead not guilty by reason of insanity because, while Susan had deep emotional problems, she was not mentally ill. She was depressed and suicidal but that defense requires that the perpetrator be unable to distinguish between right and wrong, either morally or legally. They also rejected the guilty but mentally ill defense since that route required that Susan be mentally incapable of complying with the law at the time of the murders even if she knew her actions were wrong. Again, Susan was not insane (i.e. delusional, psychotic, schizophrenic).

Susan and David married under less than optimal conditions. David was engaged to another girl at the time and their relationship was not particularly serious. The timing of the wedding was awkward, coming a few days after David’s beloved older brother died unexpectedly. Susan was pregnant and the wedding was not a planned event.  The demands and responsibilities were often overwhelming. Money troubles were common. David and Susan grew up in two different socioeconomic circumstances and Susan had difficulty adapting to a lowered income level. In addition, there were tensions between David and Susan’s mother whom David viewed as controlling. Susan usually did what her mother said, causing more tensions. David and Susan were both emotionally needy and they seemed to fulfill needs in the others yet their different backgrounds continued to cause problems.