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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
“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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
potential effects that sexual abuse can have on a young woman. How might
Susan’s experiences with her stepfather have affected her behavior?
possible pressures on a young couple that marries in their teens, especially
under the circumstances of David and Susan’s marriage.
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
on why Susan might have done what she did.
Include speculations about her marriage as well as her own childhood and
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?
Susan according to the DSM IV categories.
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
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.
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
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.
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,
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.