Helping students excel with cases

StudentsA new book, The Case Study Handbook, opens the door to learning with cases, allowing instructors to focus on teaching the case. The author of the book is William (Bill) Ellet, principal and editor of Training Media Review. He has more than twelve years’ experience teaching how to learn with cases at Harvard Business School.

During many years as a consultant and coach to students at Harvard Business School, Bill Ellet observed how challenging working with cases could be to those unfamiliar with the method. Many students just seemed to ‘muddle through’ and he was frequently asked for help. He became convinced that there was a need to offer a clear and systematic approach to looking at cases and writing about them, if students were to get more out of the whole process and have the best chance of fulfilling their potential. The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss, and Write Persuasively About Cases, published recently by Harvard Business School Press, came directly out of his work and aims to help achieve this.

Many students have never encountered a case study before arrival at business school. For them, learning with cases is a completely new approach, demanding active participation, and is fundamentally different from the, often, passive nature of their previous classroom experience. In addition, many programmes, especially MBAs, are of ever-shorter duration, there is a large and growing syllabus to cover and English is not the first language for many students. Writing about cases, notably in exams, is particularly challenging for those new to the case method, especially for the many engineers and others not practised in the arts of verbal analysis and reasoning on paper. It is, therefore, not surprising that many teachers become frustrated at the amount of time they must spend helping with basic learning approaches, rather than being able to focus on developing their students’ path to knowledge through cases.

Bill Ellet’s new book begins with an overview of the skills needed to work on a case, which he develops through the book. Understanding the point of a case is fundamental to helping a student work on it. Ellet seeks to identify exactly what a case is: “What it does” and “What it doesn’t do” and highlights the inherent paradox of a case and the challenge this presents: “A case is a text that refuses to explain itself. How do you construct a meaning for it?” Faced with an often long case document, most students will simply sit down to read; ploughing through it as though it were a - more familiar - textbook. “Thinking, not reading is key”, asserts Ellet. “Cases require active readers”. He describes this as “taming” a text.

The central sections of the book set the practical agenda: “Analysis”, “Discussion” and “Writing”. In “Analysis”, Ellet offers a systematic way of reading a case by determining whether, at its core, it is dealing with one of four scenarios: a Problem, a Decision, an Evaluation, or a Rule. Establishing this should facilitate the student’s case analysis by providing a starting point for grappling with the detail. He takes the student through the analysis of each scenario using frameworks and examples. The final section of the book includes all the, carefully selected, cases that are worked on throughout the book.

“Discussion” recognises the importance of class discussions in case teaching, which “teach the application of concepts and methods…the knowledge most students identify with professional business education.” They also help you learn to think about business issues on your own and as part of a group. Ellet discourages the notion that there is one ‘right’ answer to a case: “In the long run . . . the learning about how to think is at least as important as the learning about what to think.” This section is refreshingly personal, with anecdotes from Ellet’s own experience and humour and empathy for how students may feel in a class when required to speak: “A case classroom can be an intimidating place”. And there are surprises, such as when Ellet explains how it is possible to over-prepare for a case class discussion, surely music to the ears of many a stressed MBA.

Ellet sets out the importance of being able to write persuasively about cases. “Audiences have much more exacting expectations of a text than they do of spoken comments. They want to know the end product of the writer’s thinking, expressed logically and economically”, says Ellet. This applies particularly to case exams in which able students can often under perform. Case teachers frequently feel disappointed “by superficial, incoherent, and indecisive written performance” in exams. The “Writing” section is full of real examples of how to approach different case assignments and can be used as a workbook.

Bill Ellet’s purpose is “encouraging effective communication”. By doing this he also helps prepare students for life in the real world of business: “a practical Art”. His case analysis frameworks could also be applied to many real business situations. All managers will encounter problems and need to make evaluations and take decisions. According to Ellet, “The ability to thinkclearly and communicate convincingly has always been an important skill for managers and leaders.” The book demonstrates how to construct a persuasive argument in a concise way. “Many MBA students have had little background in recognizing when an argument is required or how to develop one. They need to argue that a particular view of a case situation is reasonable, and they need to marshal a coherent body of evidence to defend their argument.” This valuable skill is frequently required in business - the “elevator” speech being a prime example. Bosses and employees don’t just blindly do what a manager demands; they need to be motivated: persuaded by an argument, convinced and won over.

The Case Study Handbook helps students leapfrog problems of understanding the case method into enjoying it, and gaining skills to do their best. In writing a book of this kind for students, Bill Ellet’s book is almost unique. Many case teachers, especially less experienced ones, would also find it enriching and would have the option of exploring its content with their students as an added dimension of their case teaching. Ellet tested his approaches in the book in class. He gives a paradoxical word of advice: “Start at the end of the book: begin by reading the cases. If you want to understand how to analyse cases, you will need to have read some first.” 

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Case training for students

Case method training
The Case Centre offers case training for students at universities and business schools to help maximise their learning experience and enjoyment of cases. These sessions are led by an experienced tutor, are moderately priced and tailored to the precise needs of the students at your institution.