Learning with cases - what’s involved?

Learning with cases In our third feature on the case method, we explore learning with cases. Is it the case or the class that determines the learning? What role does emotion play and how can schools help participants get the most from a case class?

For many business students, the first case class is a completely new experience. Some participants may be disturbed by the contrast with more familiar and conventional lectures, in which they have been used to sitting passively and taking notes while ‘the expert’ holds forth. For certain students, being expected to participate in their own learning - to speak up and put forward their own thoughts in front of the group - can, at first, seem to go against deep-seated conventions of culture or gender. Meanwhile, others, are ‘blown away’ by the energy and participative enjoyment of the session, though even they can harbour initial doubts as to whether they have actually ‘learned’ anything from the instructor, who may have seemed more like a circus ringmaster than a traditional professorial figure.

But ask alumni of programmes that use the case method what they think, and reactions are overwhelmingly positive. Indeed, many feel that the teaching method itself – rather than any particular case or theory - has contributed the most to their learning, equipping them for their future life in business or management. In a series of video clips available on The Case Centre website, alumni of various schools express their perceptions: Barbara Fraser, HBA ’71 at the Ivey School of Business expresses how learning with cases still influences the way she operates today. She feels that the case method has interaction at its heart, and that interaction is to be found at every level in business. Alumnus, Stephen McDonald, MBA ’83, now Group Head and Co-CEO, Global Banking and Markets at the Bank of Nova Scotia, feels that the method approximates to ‘real life learning’ helping equip people for high general management positions. Enthusiasm for the impact of learning with cases is palpable among such alumni voices. But how can it be that a teaching method evokes such passions and what is the alchemy that occurs in a case class?

Harnessing the power of emotion

Nader Tavassoli, Professor of Marketing at London Business School believes that in the same way that many business and leadership decisions are based on much more than facts alone, and involve an emotional dimension, the latter also provides a key component of effective learning. A carefully crafted case session can harness this power: “Without emotions, learning is shallow and typically fails to change behaviours,” he asserts. So, how can a case bring about an emotional response? “Emotions can emerge from a variety of sources,” says Tavassoli, “One source could be an ‘aha’ moment in the case, which changes the participants’ perspective; another could be when students can identify with the protagonists or subject matter.”

While both these aspects relate primarily to the content of the selected case, Tavassoli believes there is much an instructor can do to facilitate an emotional response. It helps, for example, to ‘embellish’ cases with additional materials, or even to add drama: “This could be supplementing the case with audio visual materials, actual documents from the business ‘story’, or other props - such as the product being discussed,” he suggests. “Drama can be brought in through role play or through the journey of the class itself: thesis, antithesis and resolution. But, Tavassoli believes, fundamental to the success of an effective case session will always be to know the group - how well will they prepare before class; know the institution - how embedded is the case culture; and know yourself - how developed are my abilities as a case teacher?”

Class preparation

Successful learning with cases is almost certainly closely related to how well both instructor and participants prepare ahead of class. A first year Harvard Business School MBA participant She-Rae Chen recognises that preparation before class is “crucial”: “if you aren’t prepared for the class, you can’t engage as much,” she says. At the Darden School of Business, Professor Peter L Rodriguez illuminates the highly charged moments just before class: these are when everyone is wondering how the ‘dramatic’ first exchanges of the case will unfold (termed the ‘cold call’ at Darden): “no-one knows, what will the first question be? And they certainly don’t know who’s going to be asked that question,” says Rodriguez. The conclusion might be that human nature is involved in the process: no-one ever wants to fail - especially not in front of a group of peers whose opinions you care about. But Rodriguez also explains that excelling in that ‘cold call,’ and maintaining a key role throughout the rest of the class, can be a moment of invaluable leadership learning for the selected participant.

Some faculty express feeling nervous immediately before a class and many have rituals they need to go through before they begin. In another parallel with the art of drama, these feelings are reminiscent of experienced actors who testify to a battle with nerves before a performance no matter how many years they have been on the stage. Yet part of the mystery of case learning is how, like theatre, preparation that begins as a solo affair for each class participant - and for the instructor - unfolds into learning through a shared group experience - the discussion. 

The role of discussion

Many regard the discussion phase of the case journey as the stage at which real learning is unlocked, and the ‘best’ case teachers are invariably skilled proponents of the art of facilitating class interaction that leads to the key learning points and theory being revealed. Peter Killing, Professor of Strategy at IMD, is a highly experienced case writer and teacher and winner of the 2013 Outstanding Contribution to the Case Method Award. He has been variously described as a ‘master at running case discussions’ and in his view, the quality of the case itself is a major determinant of the discussion that can follow: “For me, cases lie at the heart of the teaching process,” he says; “A great case leads to great classroom dialogue and that leads to learning.”

The composition of a class can also contribute to a thought-provoking dialogue. A typical multicultural MBA class of today will probably include people with experience in a rich variety of business sectors and environments, and some students feel they end up learning the most from their peers. Individual ideas and opinions can be totally reversed through other peoples’ insights during the discussion. To benefit from this unpredictable dynamic requires concentration throughout the class, and another aspect of the case method is that classes can be astonishingly engrossing and enjoyable and the time can pass by quickly - in stark contrast to the clock-watching that accompanies many a traditional lecture. Jan W Rivkin, Bruce V Rauner Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School talking about case learning highlights the element of joy as an important part of the experience of learning: “I think fun is one of the most underrated aspects of the case method,” he says.

writing cases

Putting the class in context

While both individual preparation and the case discussion contribute strongly to learning, what happens after class should not be overlooked. How faculty ‘link’ classes and topics throughout a core theoretical course, or specialist elective, can be critically important to the overall logic of a programme, which will often also need to be traditionally assessed or examined. Many instructors begin the next class with a brief recap of the key learning points of the last, recounting, perhaps, ‘what really happened’ and then building a bridge to the next aspect the current class will examine through the new case.

If the case learning process appears complex at first, most participants adapt to it. Students can be surprised at how much they remember after a lively class and discussion of the topics can continue long afterwards. But with ever increasing pressure on business programmes to deliver quickly - some leading MBA programmes involve a mere ten months of classes - certain schools feel that there is simply not the time to wait for participants to get the hang of the method, and offer case learning training sessions as part of their induction programme.

Stephanie Hussels, Lecturer in Entrepreneurship at Cranfield School of Management leads case induction sessions and believes they can transform the speed at which participants begin to feel confident about their case learning: “They offer students a great opportunity to familiarise themselves with the case study methodology and concentrate straight away on the core subjects when their course starts,” she says. “More importantly, perhaps, the experience of teamwork in the safe environment of such sessions enables participants to get to know each other and gain the confidence to fully participate in class. This opens their eyes to how much they can learn from each other and enables them to trust the group learning process which will be so critical to their personal development once their programme gets underway.”

Back in the real world…

The annual recruitment ‘milk round’ at the world’s case-using business schools reminds us of how global corporations, management consultants and financial institutions want, and are willing to pay richly for, graduates who are prepared to leap immediately into the deep end of business and management challenges. Many of these organisations send their high potential and leadership staff to the same business schools for executive education involving cases. In parallel, increasing numbers of case-educated business graduates feel confident enough in their own new abilities to take the leap into starting their own enterprise.

It seems that learning with cases can build high levels of confidence and give participants the feeling that they have gained lots of experience of real business situations, whereas in fact they have been sitting in the classroom. At IESE Business School, participant Jeroen Kemperman says: “I feel like I get many years of work experience - failures, successes condensed into two years of MBA.” While business school applicants increasingly look to realise a positive return on the investment of their costly studies, it would appear that the case method remains hard to beat in terms of delivering effective learning.

Read the other articles in this series on Teaching with Cases and Writing Cases.

Top tips 

David B. Yoffie
Always focus on the exhibits and ask: why is this data in the case and what insight does it offer.
David B. Yoffie, Max and Doris Starr Professor of International Business Administration, Harvard Business School
Pierre Chandon,
I have found that students learn better when they are excited about the product, company, or setting.
Pierre Chandon, Professor of Marketing and Director, INSEAD Social Sciences Research Centre, INSEAD
Tim Calkins
Great cases are the ones that students remember years later. To resonate so strongly, cases need to be vivid and the key lesson needs to take them by surprise.
Richard Jolly, Adjunct Professor of Organisational Behaviour London Business School
Nirmalya Kumar
To me a great case session leads to a transformation of consciousness - where the first obvious answer is wrong. Either the data analysis from the case or the application of theoretical framework leads participants to walk about believing the opposite of what they walked in believing.
Nirmalya Kumar, Former Professor of Marketing and Co-Director of Aditya Birla India Centre, London Business School

Emma Simmons, author of this article, would like to dedicate it to the memory of António Borges
(1949-2013), former Dean of INSEAD.
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If you have recently registered a case with us and would like the chance to talk about your experience of writing and teaching it please contact Antoinette.
Antoinette Mills Antoinette Mills
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+44 (0)1234 756416