Contextualising the Use of Cases

By Emma Simmons

Even at business schools renowned for teaching with the case method, it is unusual for instructors to only teach with cases. So how is the pedagogical decision arrived at as to when to use a case? What context is necessary for cases to work to their full potential? We asked top case teachers and writers from around the world.

The case for a case

Wouter De MaeseneireFor many teachers the starting point in deciding to use a case is conceptual because a case can fulfil many pedagogical objectives at once. According to Vlerick Business School’s Wouter De Maeseneire: “Teaching with a case provides an integrative learning experience; by definition, a case transcends the boundaries of a single management domain, prompting students to adopt a wider view on typical business problems while getting to grips with the technical skills of each discipline.” He adds: “Cases provide a continued opportunity for hands-on learning, while nurturing in-depth understanding in the context of ‘the big picture’.”

Nirmalya Kumar “Cases work especially well to illustrate or demonstrate best practice,” says Nirmalya Kumar of Singapore Management University. “They are particularly useful to make a specific academic concept come alive. If there are two competing concepts creating dilemmas, cases can help participants grasp how you might approach these.” Meanwhile, at Ivey School of Business, Nicole Haggerty highlights outcomes: “The skills best developed by cases are constructing order out of ambiguity, assessing and evaluating internal and external factors faced by an enterprise, integrating analysis and data sources and creating solutions and action ideas.”

Mark SchofieldAt Edge Hill University Mark Schofield sees the choice to teach with a case as being directly linked to growing practical future employability skills, especially important in undergraduate teaching.  He prompts instructors to reflect: “What specific skills, values and knowledge attitudes do you want your students to develop? How can you help equip them with the tools for knowledge and skills? What do you actually want your students to learn?” Mark continues: “Cases allow participants to rehearse the skills they will need in their future working lives; to integrate new knowledge as they go along.” By selecting the right case(s), a teacher can help students move from the stage of finding the concrete solutions to simple problems, to confronting more complex dilemmas, requiring multiple solutions and options. “We need to help our students travel beyond experience to learning, reflecting on and processing the knowledge they will apply; cases provide uniquely effective and enjoyable vehicles to be able to do this,” observes Mark.

Can cases teach theory?

todd BridgmanWhile there is a general understanding among case and non-case using educators worldwide that cases can help develop diverse skills, from analysis to teamwork, there is also a commonly held perception at many institutions that they may be less suitable for teaching theory than other teaching methods such as traditional lectures, private reading and study, or learning by rote. Not so, according to Todd Bridgman at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand: “Cases are a great way to teach theory because they bring it to life.” He points out: “Applying theory to real situations not only helps students learn it, but also enables them to see how different theoretical perspectives can generate deeper and more sophisticated ways of looking at human behaviours in organisations”.

Todd cites a case he authored (Leading Culture Change at New Zealand Police) as an example in which a dominant ‘mainstream’ theoretical position (about leadership and its potentially transformative power in organisations) was challenged by a more ‘critical’ theoretical position (that this power is often limited in certain large organisations). According to Todd, this, essentially academic, debate “would probably bore students if taught in the abstract, but, the case brings the whole debate to life and helps them to both critically evaluate the conflicting theories, and to reflect on their strengths and limitations.” Notwithstanding the case content, Todd says that he often precedes the case session with a brief interactive lecture; “I then get the students to analyse the cases using the theoretical material I have set out.”
Nirmalya Kumar takes a precise view of the relationship between theory and using a case to teach it: “There has to be a conceptual framework to apply; the theory comes first – and the case is used to reveal it,” he comments. Wouter De Maeseneire also believes that the key to successful teaching resides in linking theory to practice: “As teachers we need to provide examples that ‘stick’ and a ‘learning-by-doing’ approach is one of the best; that’s why I am a big fan of case-based teaching,” he says. Mark Schofield emphasises that this underlying logic must be apparent to students to make the case process credible to them: “As teachers we need to give authentic, realistic, ‘stretch’ to provide alignment between theory and practice,” he suggests.

Limitations and constraints?

HaggertySo are there contextual limitations to using a case? Nicole Haggerty reports rarely encountering situations when she cannot use one. Nevertheless, she urges precision in specifying teaching objectives and selecting teaching methods that ensure that class time use is maximised: “For me, it’s often a question of trade-offs between efficiency and effectiveness.  For example, if I want students to build a specific skill, I can use a case, but it may not be ‘classroom efficient’ because of the time needed to elicit facts, construct the (financial) analysis, discuss assumptions etc.  A short exercise may be more efficient for me to assess whether students have grasped the technical capability. However,” she adds, “context matters, because a student will rarely perform that analysis in their professional life, without then having to make a decision. Using a case has the benefit of both portraying the complexity of finding information and constructing analysis, but then incorporating the decision tool into a whole array of contextual factors for a specific situation - that will matter. In that sense, a case is a far more effective tool.”

studentsBut are there times when context suggests a case may not be the best choice? Beyond pedagogical considerations, some schools and educators raise potential physical, and logistical, constraints to teaching with a case. Practical issues such as room size or flexibility crop up, especially in the undergraduate environment, when classes may be large and buildings old fashioned. “Some people use the size or layout of the room or the number of students involved as an ‘excuse’ not to teach with a case,” says Mark Schofield. He challenges such faculty: “Don’t let the room dictate whether a case is possible – get creative! A room can always be sub-divided into areas, or corridors and outside spaces used for break-out teamwork. In the end, it’s all down to teacher confidence, and students need to develop and share that same trust and confidence to engage in a successful case learning experience.”

Cultural context

Anand NarasimhanBut, can the background of particular students affect the suitability of choosing to teach with a case? At IMD, Anand Narasimhan highlights the importance of cultural sensitivity in selecting the actual case, which can profoundly affect how well it will work – or even if it will work at all. “Just because a case has been proven to be very successful in one environment, may not mean that it will work in every class,” says Anand. “For example, many cases are ‘very male’ and take place in a Western setting, while participants are diverse. Whoever they are, and wherever they are from, participants need to be able to identify with protagonists and often also to project themselves into the future, as they work on a case. If they feel its context to be ‘irrelevant’, this will restrict their interest and their ability to learn.”

Anand reports using a powerful leadership development case, (Johannes van den Bosch) which he had previously taught successfully, only to find the South American cultural context did not work at all for the particular executive group. He subsequently developed his own case (Chris Moller Sends an Outlook Invitation) to teach a similar leadership issue, but with a Middle Eastern context, in order to use it with an executive group operating in that region. It worked.

audioIt seems that teachers need to really know the context of their audience to effectively select and use a case. According to Nirmalya Kumar, it is always advisable to try to produce and work with cases of local relevance, however, he observes: “Cultural context per se should not be a barrier to using cases as long as the class can relate to the main focus of the content, and students can identify with it on the pedagogically important level; it’s the instructor whose responsibility it is to figure out cultural norms or behaviours in any particular context and to adapt materials or teaching accordingly.” Nirmalya reports currently working on new cases planned for use in the diverse Asian context, including supplementary Chinese and Indian short cases to provide relevance for those environments. “Reaching students through translating cases is also a good thing, otherwise language can become a real barrier to class participation for some students,” adds Nirmalya.

Pedagogical context

On a fundamental level, many new course or programme participants – often the majority – will lack any experience of being taught with cases, something that needs to be planned for and addressed if a fertile classroom context is to be prepared. For Anand Narasimhan this is particularly important because, cases will frequently be new, especially to executives. “Part of the skill of the instructor is introducing the case method; a teacher needs to speak to the class about how it works and what the ‘rules’ are, in order to prepare them and manage their expectations,” he says. Anand also points out how important it is to build contextual relevance for executive participants. “I often teach a case in conjunction with a role playing exercise which allows the participants to ‘rehearse’ the situation in a familiar context, as it would be at their own work place,” he reports. “It works well to do a subsequent debrief with the class. Because everyone has read the case, they can also comment on what they are actually seeing and how those in the role play are responding, and the implications of the choices they are making in their quasi real working environments.” Todd Bridgman also highlights the collective class context: “Cases are useful because they provide a shared experience for the whole class to think about and discuss,” he observes.

So, the onus is on the instructor to position the case within the overall course design to achieve the learning objectives and outcomes.  Nicole Haggerty comments: “It is important to find ways to send students out to practice problem definition and all the ancillary skills that need to be developed in order to figure out ‘what is going on’ and ‘what the problem/issue/challenge’ really is. In professional life, the context within which organisations operate and problems occur is so much richer than can be portrayed in ‘10-12 pages with exhibits.’  I am an avid case teacher, but they can limit the ability to develop students’ capacity to distil complexity in the real world, determine information needs, and be information gatherers. So, as teachers, we need to ensure that complementary pedagogical opportunities around the actual case are provided.”

Mark Schofield also highlights the importance of both the induction and the debrief phase. “No pedagogy should be a secret,” he says. “Throwing students into the case method without context and preparation can actually be very dangerous. Consequently, it is imperative that the teacher fully explains to students ‘what the plan is’; it is not going to be just about them gaining knowledge but also about applying and integrating it. It is ‘giving them permission’ to solve problems themselves. What you want is to create a climate of discovery – working within uncertainty. This makes debriefing at a later stage also really important because students often still don’t realise that they are actually learning through cases,” he adds.

School policy and exams

Institutions themselves have a strong influence on whether specific courses or programmes will be taught with cases. Among those we spoke to, individual pedagogical freedom to choose teaching methods was the norm and they experienced good support  - often encouragement - for the choice to use cases, which is not by any means always the norm at schools around the world. Wouter De Maeseneire is unequivocal:  “I continuously advise all my Vlerick faculty colleagues to strive for an optimal (read: maximal) usage of cases in their course offerings,” he says, but there is a caveat: “Any member of faculty who teaches a case class shoulders a responsibility for the reputation of the method for us all,” he cautions. “Faculty must keep updating their case approaches and skills and also not ‘overdo’ it with cases, which must always be relevant and up to date.”

audioCase instructors also face the institutionally sensitive question of whether to examine with cases whether or not students have been taught with them. While some of the teachers we spoke to, such as Todd Bridgman “always examine with cases when they have been used on a course,” others did not always, depending on what precisely – such as a particular analytical skill - needed to be assessed following the course. Nicole Haggerty points out the additional challenge exams pose to the case teacher: “I often have to write a case to serve this purpose and that requires advance planning – it can take up to a year to find the right situation in an organisation and craft that into an original case to examine with.”

Imagination, confidence and planning

This article has highlighted that teaching with cases doesn’t ‘just happen’ but that it is hugely affected by many different contexts, all of which need to be understood and catered for by dedicated and skilful instructors. Nicole Haggerty puts it like this: “Teaching with cases is HARD!  It is a relentless, full contact sport, which requires enormous commitment by faculty in course design, case selection, case preparation and class delivery.  But, it is an extremely versatile methodology limited only by the instructor/designer’s imagination and access to, or ability to create, useful cases. In the end, it is the planning that will lead the teacher to rise to this challenge.” For Mark Schofield: “Confidence is key and if you have a learning design from planning to assessment, you will be confident”. The concluding recommendation comes from Nirmalya Kumar: “Plan – you have to know where you are going from the start, or you are not going to arrive at the end.”

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