developed in business and law contexts, case method teaching can be productively
used in liberal arts, engineering, and education settings to develop critical
thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as to present students with
real-life situations. For the sake of simplicity, this section offers
ideas from a business orientation; you can easily adapt details to your
studies of case method teaching describe the experience for both teacher
and learner as exhilarating. In theory, the case brings into the classroom
a "chunk of reality" on which students spend hours in rigorous
analysis. In class the instructor asks questions, moderates, and guides
the case discussion, which is rational, civil, and at times, passionate.
The end of class comes too soon, with many hands still waving in the air
but without having arrived at "the right answer." Students continue
the debate outside the classroom, and so the learning continues: learning
how to think, how to plan, and how to act in specific contexts.
of course, things are different. Students challenge the case: it has too
little or too much information, it is poorly written and confusing, no
real business could possibly have all these problems. Some students don't
devote time to analyzing the case because they don't know how, or don't
think they need to. In class, students are silent or passive, and their
comments seem strangely unrelated to the case at hand. The instructor
resorts to lecturing about the case, berating the students and explaining
"the point" in detail. At long last class ends, and students
leave knowing that "that was the right answer-what the teacher just
between the ideal and the real raises several questions for the practice
of case method teaching. Here are a few tips, based on classroom experience.
How Do You Select Cases?
were taught with the case method, your best source is your own experience:
teach first the cases you were taught and loved. Your interest in the
case and your enthusiasm for exploring its possibilities will inspire
both your discussion leadership and your 39 students. Search for and select
cases that are exciting, controversial, challenging, complex, and well
written. The ideal case would be short, five to ten pages, but still require
a full class period to explore fully. It would clearly describe a complicated
situation in which people must act on difficult problems that cannot be
perfectly resolved, but can be addressed in at least two reasonable ways.
When possible, use more recent cases, in settings your students may eventually
enter, preferably with an international backdrop. These features, however,
are secondary to the basic requirement for a good story open to different
endings. You may well be able to find cases in your discipline; otherwise,
you might choose to write one yourself.
Can You Help Students Prepare for Good Discussions?
students for the course. As with any course, begin with your syllabus,
which clearly identifies this as a case method course or a course that
includes cases. Outline your expectations, especially for class participation.
- In the first
session, describe the course, cautioning, "This will not be like
your other courses." Emphasize the importance of "the four
Ps:" preparation of each case before class, presence at every class,
promptness in arriving, and participation in discussions (Shapiro, qtd.
in Christensen, 1987). Explain how you grade participation, promise
a written mid-term assessment of that grade, and invite students to
discuss their participation with you. For suggestions about grading
students' participation, see "Evaluating Students' Work."
in general terms how a case discussion runs. You will begin class by
designating one student as "the opener" to summarize the key
issues of the case, and another as "the action plan person"
who will be called on about halfway through class to describe what should
be done about the problems in the case. Your role as discussion leader
will not be to point to "the truth" but instead to question
and to challenge their remarks with a little drama, a little humor,
and a focus on their thinking. The students' role is to think, to listen,
to express and defend their thoughts, and to argue with and challenge
the statements of others.
- State your
ground rules for class discussions, and include these two: 1) No one
will be humiliated for anything they say. Carefully distinguish humiliation
from embarrassment here. Although you will not permit anyone to berate
or personally attack any student, you hold students accountable for
their remarks and may want to ensure, in fact, that students are embarrassed
by seeing the implications of thoughtless comments or careless suggestions.
With this rule you simultaneously establish high standards for discussions,
deter banal or foolish remarks, and demonstrate your respect for students'
minds. 2) Rude or offensive comments or class behavior, including bigotry
of any kind, will not be tolerated. Your discussions are to be civil,
with every student showing proper respect for the beliefs and the dignity
of every other student.
why you use this method in your course. In an introductory management
course, for instance, cases help students learn to think like managers.
- In business
courses, you may want to distribute short notes available from Darden
Educational Materials Services which offer guidance on preparing for
class and useful checklists for students. Christensen (1987) also helps
students and instructors prepare cases.
students for individual cases. Students usually analyze every case
to answer two central questions: What is your analysis of the situation?
What should Actor X do about it? The materials mentioned above, together
with class discussions, help students understand those questions.
at the end of class, you may wish to offer some brief descriptive comments
or specific questions to guide students in preparing the next assigned
case, especially when the case is lengthy or extremely complex. For example,
for a case which recounts several events over the life of a task force,
you can ask students to divide the case into six different time periods
and assess the actions of the task force leader in each period, the choices
made and what might have been done better, before recommending future
also use study questions to establish "interest groups" and
thereby determine in advance the class controversy or debate. To highlight
the conflict between staff and line groups in organizations, for example,
you might ask students on the left to take the position of the headquarters
staff and those on the right to argue as general managers of subsidiaries.
however, give this type of direction rarely. Because undergraduates often
do what they are told, they may read the case solely to answer the study
questions, excluding all other issues. Worse, too much direction does
little to develop their confidence and ability to see what is and is not
important in a situation. Better that they should struggle to make sense
of conflicting and ambiguous data than learn to depend on "the boss"
to direct them to "the problem."
an expert all the time, you're an authority figure, you're unapproachable,
you cut off discussion.
How Can You Get Them To Talk?
answer is that you invite them, one by one. To promote active discussion,
you must know who they are. First, learn your students' names and something
about them as individuals (see "The First Day of Class" and
"Discussion Sections"). Announce that for the next class, you
will prepare and distribute a permanent seating chart to help you learn
who they are. Or have them make large name cards everyone can see.
start slowly and prove that discussion is safe, rewarding, and enjoyable.
Early cases must be accessible, and initial participants, as many students
as possible, must be allowed to speak without interruption. Give verbal
and non-verbal encouragement-nodding, saying "Go on"-and be
patient if a student stumbles or falls silent in the middle of a comment.
Ask many open-ended questions: "What do you think?" "Do
you buy that?" "Any other ideas?" "I saw your hand
earlier; what were you going to say?" In early discussions, no student
trying to participate responsibly should be "interrogated,"
or pressed to the point of being uncomfortable. In later classes, you
should become increasingly more challenging and less supportive; at the
start, tread softly.
Should You Be Doing?
most familiar with the lecture method may have trouble imagining spending
an entire class period without speaking from notes or writing key phrases
on the board. If class time is filled with students talking and arguing,
they ask, what am I supposed to do?
the discussion. Your work begins when you prepare each class. First,
master the material in the case itself. Even when you've taught the case
before, read it again, write a brief situation summary, and develop what
Christensen (1987) calls "blocks of analysis," groups of ideas
that represent a logical flow in the case. Consider how much time you
wish to spend discussing each one, and work within that time frame to
plan the discussion process.
the discussion process is, in essence, developing a list of questions.
What question will you ask the student you call on to open the discussion?
How will you introduce a given topic if no student raises it first? What
question will you ask to move the discussion into consideration of action
alternatives? You must come to class with a mental list of such questions,
including followup questions based on probable student responses. The
only certain way to avoid dead silence in discussion is to have another
question to ask. Prepare many questions.
the board. In a case method class the board is used, not for documenting
"the truth" or "the right answer" but for recording
logically the flow of the discussion. Making sections of the board correspond
to their blocks of analysis, many experienced case method teachers know
before class begins how the board will look at the end.
work from left to right, arranging the board into sections for the organization
and its environment, the critical decisions to be made, the different
perspectives of key individuals involved, options, and then an action
plan. Given the many mental activities required to teach the case method,
using the board effectively is exceedingly difficult; you will improve
your questioning, listening, and responding skills. These key skills
are critical not only in case method teaching but also in facilitating
meetings, leading discussion sections, and performing in other settings.
As you develop them, you may find your conversational style improving.
Here are a few suggestions:
your own questions before asking them in class. Questions can be broad
and open-ended or narrow and pointed. Which type of question do you
want to ask? When? Why? Remember that even a little word, an "and"
or a "so," can color a question in unintended ways. Monitor
your tone as well; the same question can be inviting and intimidating,
depending on how it's asked. Consider videotaping a class to analyze
your style objectively.
- When listening
to students, pay attention to them, mentally and physically. Look them
in the eyes. Stand near them, move toward them as you call on them;
use body language to signal your interest in what they have to say.
While you listen to a student speak, you must also try to listen for
that bridge to the next comment, the next block of analysis. Try to
remember who made what critical comments in the course of a discussion;
few things invite more participation than the remark, "I'd like
to return to Anne's earlier suggestion that we . . ." (see also
the most frustrating thing about case method teaching is that each class
is unpredictable: you never know what a student will say, and so how
can you know how you will or should respond? Remember that you have
a wide range of possible responses to any statement or classroom event,
including silence and verbal and nonverbal responses. Let students respond
to classroom incidents before you do. When in doubt, ask a question.
Finally, be aware that everything you do movements and facial
expressions as well as statementswill be interpreted by students
as a response to what they have said. Choose your reactions with care.
a cliché to say you teach in order to be taught, but there are
ways of remaining open to surprises-indeed, of structuring classes so
that good surprises are inevitable-just as there are ways of shutting
down those opportunities. I count on my teaching to keep me intellectually
What Should Happen At the End of Class?
closing moments of class, summarize the discussion and end with some important
questions the case has raised, asking: "What does this say about
. . . ?" "Under what circumstances can we . . . ?" "What
if . . . ?" "How can . . . ?"
also use the last ten minutes of class to lecture briefly on key concepts
or theories that relate to the situation just discussed. If useful, draw
a chart or write terms on the board, but avoid making comments such as,
"And so this explains why X occurred in the case." Such summations
encourage students to shift their attention from understanding problems
to memorizing tools. For the same reason, never end class with the comment,
"Here's what this case was about."
remarks, you may tell students why you selected that particular case,
pointing out how you believe it relates to previous cases. Remind them
of assignments due in the next class period. If appropriate, offer praise
for the quality of the discussion, not for "the answer," and
for the class as a whole, not for individuals in it.
Some Final Advice
- For most
students, the case method represents a big change, and change brings
fear. You are fighting against years of experience where good students
are quiet in class and listen attentively to the teacher, and where
bad ones can get away with no preparation, poor attendance, sleeping,
writing notes, or doing other homework on your time. Be clear, consistent,
and firm in your expectations of them, and perform up to those same
expectations yourself: your students will come around.
your students. Respect their minds: if the assigned material is too
difficult, let them tell you- let them tell you twice before you judge
that they can't handle it. Even when they are floundering, hold them
accountable for what they say. It is not cruel to ask a student to defend
a silly comment or an ill-advised suggestion. That's how they will learn.
the limitations of this method, which is not the only, the universal,
or the best teaching method. Be prepared for detractors, for students
who say they don't know if they've learned anything, and for colleagues
who may agree with them.
- Be clear
about your objectives. With the case method, students can learn how
to think, how to approach problems. Although an inefficient way to learn
terminology and theory, the case method is an exciting and productive
way to involve students in any discipline with a real problem.
giving case exams. This means many pages of essays on the same situation:
"What should Ms. Gilcrist do?" Although time-consuming and
at times painful to grade, they let you provide extensive individual
feedback on your students' thinking and see students' progress.
the one aspect of case-method learning that cannot be measured but that
students routinely describe as valuable: from a well-orchestrated process
of discussion, students improve their listening skills and their ability
to express and defend their thoughts to others.