Preparing students to learn with cases

By Emma Simmons

Preparing students to learn with casesCase writing and case teaching are much taught and written about. Less frequently shared is how to induct participants into case pedagogy, and help them to learn with the method – yet it is vitally important to its success.

For many, the case method’s non traditional classroom challenges, such as dealing with ambiguity and learning through active participation, will be completely new. We talk to educators about their approaches, and look at available resources.

Why prepare students?

At Berlin-based ESMT, Zoltán Antal-Mokos finds himself with upwards of 30 nationalities in a typical new student cohort. "The majority of my class come from traditional learning environments," he remarks. "The case method will challenge them in completely new ways, so we need to give them an induction." Even at national institutions with a more homogenous participant intake, only a small minority will generally have been exposed to case learning.

Joanne Lawrence operates across Hult International Business School’s seven campuses worldwide, which teach students at all levels from undergraduate to masters, and executives. "For the majority of our participants, cases will be their first example of experiential learning," she observes. "We need to explain cases and how the participants can get the maximum value out of the process". Add into the mix that teaching will usually be in English – a second or even third tongue for many - and the need to support students in understanding the case method, and to provide them with learning strategies and tools, becomes even more apparent. "We need to establish a level playing field for class," says Lawrence.

David WoodAnd there are other considerations. Many business programmes are compact with a lot to get through: whether a one-year MBA, a single term for undergraduates to study business strategy, or an intensive three-day management course for executives; the same pressures on time apply to individual case classes. According to Ivey Business School’s David Wood, "We have to maximise the use of participant and class time, so we need to ensure our students fully understand the case process and our approach to learning."

At Sheffield University Management School, Jamie Rundle observes, "Time is perceived as precious especially by undergraduates, who may be balancing work with studies; as pre-experience students they often need to know why they are being asked to read something (a case) that they may not be directly assessed on, and why they can’t just come to class to 'hear the story’. They frequently want to know its purpose and, crucially, what’s in it for them, so it is really important to explain the benefits and skills, in addition to subject knowledge. They need to understand the links to academic theory, why it matters to fully participate in an in-depth and frequently ambiguous discussion, and how their future employability might be supported with career-related skills if they engage in the process."

Preparing for case learning

For strong case-using schools, induction often starts before application, giving a taste of what classroom life will be like. "Ivey faculty travel worldwide to give sample condensed case classes to prospective students and we also offer opportunities to sit in on case classes as part of our campus open days; we want to show prospective students, up front, the power of case learning," reports David Wood. "We aim to communicate the fundamental difference between a case method school and a school that may occasionally use a case to illustrate theory."

Zoltan Antal-MokosAt ESMT’s Open House days, master classes based on a case are provided for prospective students as an introduction to what to expect in the classroom. Not least important is managing expectations that a class discussion will be an important ingredient of valid learning, which students used to more passive learning methods can find hard to understand. "We also sometimes interview with cases," says Zoltán Antal-Mokos. "For the Executive MBA Programme in particular, a small group interview using a short case can provide a powerful introduction to case learning for prospective applicants."

Accepting a study place provides the next opportunity. At Ivey, all students joining the MBA programme are sent as pre-reading a hard copy of the book Learning with Cases – one of a flagship trilogy of volumes exploring teaching, writing and learning with cases. "The advantage of sending our students this book up front is that it introduces the case method to them, but then it comes with them to campus where it becomes a practical support with tools and templates on their bookshelf throughout their case learning journey," says David Wood, who is also one of the co-authors of the book’s fifth edition. A small selection of articles taking varied approaches (including a recent one co-authored by David Wood), and books on learning with cases, are available which can be suitable to help particular participant groups and contexts.

Many schools use the very first day or days of a programme to introduce students to what will follow in terms of case classes. Some schools provide student case learning workshops either led by their own faculty or provided by third parties including The Case Centre. At Ivey, a very short case (readable in a break) is introduced by David Wood and colleagues on day one and worked through to ease students into the learning approach. At ESMT, Zoltán Antal-Mokos also takes the opportunity of his first module session with a new class to introduce the pillars of case learning through a short and accessible case.

Students enjoying learning with cases"It makes sense to start from the beginning," Joanne Lawrence suggests. "It helps students to get some background to the case method itself – to understand why it started as a way of bringing experience and real life decision making into a class; but it also helps at an early stage, and in a practical way, by addressing questions such as: How do you read a case? How do you pull out pertinent information? How do you get the maximum value out of a case, and how does it relate to the rest of what you are learning?"

Sometimes, however, it is not viable for such opportunities to be routinely provided to students, or at institutions where cases are only used for a single programme module, or by just one member of faculty. To address this, The Case Centre has developed and recently launched an online interactive study guide available to purchase at a lower unit cost than an article. Some schools, such as ESMT, already recommend or purchase it for their new student cohorts, and it can also be bought by individual students. Designed to act both as an introduction to the case method and as an ongoing resource that can be dipped back into throughout a programme, it includes a case analysis framework, practical exercises, videos, templates, and a section on cases and assessment. Feedback from students so far has been positive.

Informal and continuing preparation

Some approaches described above represent an ideal introduction for students. But barriers to deploying such resources do exist when classes are huge, students are inexperienced, funding is an issue, faculty use the case method in isolation, or if the case method is not widely supported or understood at an institution.

Jamie RundleJamie Rundle considers the task of helping his students learn with cases to be an ongoing process of coaxing and communication that evolves through every class. The key for him is that students understand the learning objectives. "In week one, I outline the cases we will use and give reminders as we go through the course; I try to use materials – stories - that will be enjoyable to all, that are newsworthy, that will appeal and engage the large group of students – that’s the basis I have found to capture interest and that is also a main reason why I started to write my own cases. Then I can communicate to the students that the learning process will be about 'how' and 'why' knowledge will be applied, and not just 'what' knowledge, which they may have been previously used to. I can then get across how preparing and participating fully in the case class will bring the future benefits in their careers."

David Wood also highlights how, even at a committed case-using school, it is important to keep actively communicating about the case learning process. "We spend time with students working through the actual case process at the outset of their programmes, but, especially during the initial weeks, faculty check in on the students to ensure that they are focussing on, and achieving high level case learning outcomes." Both Ivey and ESMT put participants into learning teams/groups that meet virtually, or face-to-face, outside of main class. "The learning groups can act as an early warning system and faculty can reach out in the case of problems with the learning," comments Zoltán Antal-Mokos. "For example, it can take a couple of months for students, especially those who are more shy and from certain backgrounds, to realise that the class discussion is risk free, but in time, with support, they all become used to it."

Context and preparing the teacher

By its very nature the case method is a collaborative process between the student, the group or class, the case (author), and the teacher/facilitator. Helping students learn effectively with cases requires input from faculty that goes beyond preparing and teaching the case class, or indeed authoring the case.

Joanne Lawrence"We have a mutual responsibility with our students to facilitate and achieve learning through cases," says Joanne Lawrence. "As in life, it is ultimately a team undertaking, and as in life, we need to apply the collective intelligence and different perspectives of many. As context changes, for example with technology, we also need to reflect how we adapt cases and learning; as students change and, for example, read less, so our cases also need to evolve accordingly. Having realisied how valuable a teaching tool cases are, especially for students in emerging markets, I started Hult Case Publishing to create more cases that resonated with our participants," she adds.

"Faculty have different teaching styles and that will affect how their students arrive at their learning," comments David Wood. Jamie Rundle also highlights the need for alignment between teachers, especially on large and complex programmes with multiple staff teaching the same content, to ensure that students are helped to achieve the same learning outcomes, even when individual teaching methods are being used. He recalls realising at his previous institution that a growing number of colleagues were interested in case teaching. "We established a special interest group to meet bi-monthly at lunchtimes to pool teaching objectives, resources and ideas, and it flourished," he reports. Zoltán Antal-Mokos also sees great value in offering faculty their own ongoing opportunities for learning: "If we are going to prepare our students for case learning then we need to make sure we, and our teaching colleagues, are also prepared," he concludes.

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Learning with Cases: An Interactive Study Guide

Learning with cases can be a challenging experience for students. 

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