Using cases in teaching: beyond the case method

Alt textThere is a common misconception in academic circles that to use case studies effectively in teaching, one must exclusively be a case method teacher. This is not true. There are many different, equally legitimate, ways to use case studies, depending on the type of students and programme, other methods of learning used, the personal style of the teacher and the learning context. In recent years, advances in technology, growth in student numbers and teacher workload have influenced the learning experience, prompting the development of new ways of using case studies. Indeed, the strength of many well-written cases that have stood the test of time is their potential to be used in a variety of teaching situations.

A case teacher can be someone who, simply, periodically uses case studies to support a course curriculum, to draw together major learning points, to assess student progress or (and sometimes only) for end-of-course assessment. Important, in this scenario, is that case studies are just one method, among many, in a pedagogical toolbox, which may include lectures, essays, seminars, tutorials and other approaches. By contrast, the traditional case method teacher uses the analysis, evaluation and presentation of case studies as the foundation of all learning.

The case method

Pioneered by Harvard Business School (HBS), the case method, in its original form, is still extensively used in many of the world’s leading business schools, although some also include some lectures and seminars in the curriculum. So, why has teaching with cases in its many forms endured so long? A look back at its origins sheds some light. In his 1920 address to the HBS Faculty, Dean Edwin Gay spelt out the teaching philosophy that underpins the school: “The school should equip the student for business by providing a background of facts and principles and by giving the student training for practice in dealing with business problems . . . . Instruction should be based on specific facts and problems stated in varied forms as they present themselves to the businessman. The student should be required in each course to investigate the facts, to sort undigested material, to state problems, to analyze problems, to reach conclusions and to present subject matter and his decisions orally, and in writing, as he will be required to do in business.”

Although the nature and complexity of the problems and issues facing business have changed dramatically in the intervening 85 years, this statement still represents the raison d’être of the case method and the strength behind its subsequent spread, first across the United States, then to Europe and the rest of the world.

Effectiveness and limitations

The essence of effective case method learning comprises three key elements: a case study, a class of students willing to prepare the case thoroughly, and a classroom discussion, under the guidance of a skilful teacher. What is distinctive about a case study is that it is essentially a story, which, ideally, describes or is based on real events, but it is written with a clear learning focus. It presents, more or less explicitly, a problem, or problems, for students to identify and rigorously analyse. After thorough discussion with their peers and the probing of a guiding teacher, they attempt to reach a consensus view on the best of several solutions that might appear.

This approach to teaching has its critics as well as its advocates. Even among case writers, there are those who choose to approach the case by presenting solutions to the problems with the students expected to review the quality of the decisions taken in light of the information provided. To succeed, the case method does need a constant flow of new case studies to reflect the emerging issues faced by business, which, in turn, requires a heavy investment of human and financial resources in research and writing new cases. A case method class means work and preparation for teachers. They must read and understand the case, devise a teaching strategy, decide on critical questions and plan time management and other classroom issues. The effectiveness of a case session is heavily dependent on the knowledge, skill, personality, style and ability of the teacher. Some teachers do not feel comfortable with such an eclectic learning process, preferring more structure and certainty in their teaching. Others express concern that results do not justify the intense investment of staff and financial resources necessary.

The case method is no less demanding of the student and is definitely not for the faint hearted. Participants face the challenge of fellow students and the professor, and their logic and argumentation must be equal to a searching public examination. There is no all encompassing ‘theory of the firm’ to fall back upon, so, each student must learn to grasp complex problems and issues, analyse and evaluate the facts, develop alternative scenarios and exercise critical judgement in selecting a course of action. By exposure to a range of differing case studies (a Harvard MBA graduate can use as many as 500) students develop confidence in their skills of analysis, synthesis, decision-making, judgement, leadership and communication; skills that business values highly, and, consequently, students from business schools that use the case method are among the most sought after by recruiters.

Flexibility and learning

The cardinal points on which the success of the case method is founded are also the very reasons why some teachers have turned to alternative ways of using case studies. It is the very strength of good cases that they can be used in many ways. According to the work of JB Kassarjian and Kamran Kashani, both experienced and highly respected case writers and teachers at IMD “…a ‘good case’ is not just a well written document and a teaching tool, or even simply an engaging story about a compelling management issue. It is an opportunity to embark on a personal journey of discovery, for the case writer, for the teacher, for the participant, and sometimes for the company. It opens horizons instead of closing them; it raises new questions instead of merely answering them, and it provides a rich forum for personal development and growth”.1 This great potential for learning, evident in successful cases, allows teachers to make them their own in the classroom or teaching situation. Indeed, although many cases have an associated and insightful teaching note, most teachers will develop their own teaching note according to their individual teaching objectives and preferences.

According to Jeff Gray, a previous Director of The Case Centre, “A glance back at the origins of the case method will always give the teacher, who is considering the use of cases, useful insights, but this should not be a source of intimidation. Training can be helpful and working with a colleague or fellow teacher more experienced in using cases can be of great assistance.”

1 Taken from Mastering Executive Education, The IMD Guide, FT Prentice Hall, 2005

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  • what is a case and why use cases?
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  • the case writing process
  • developing a teaching note

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