Participant-centred learning and the case method

Published in July 2005

Alt text David A Garvin, the C Roland Christensen Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School (HBS), recalls how, on being hired in 1979, he was simply told, “we use the case method.” Though interested in the method, he was uncertain how to approach case teaching, having previously only lectured and been taught in lectures.

Once at HBS he had the privilege of working with and learning from C Roland Christensen, one of the greatest exponents of the case method and he has since become one of HBS’ most prominent proponents of participant-centred learning and the case method in his own right.

Participant-centred learning

It still happens, at institutions around the globe, that teachers would like to use the case method, but are either uncertain how to approach it, or lack experienced case teachers, close to them, to learn from. A group of such business school teachers, professors and deans from across the world, met at HBS in 2003 to take part in an intensive programme on participant-centred learning. Professor David A Garvin was one of eight HBS faculty who joined them to explore the craft of discussion leadership and the skills and processes involved. The action in the amphitheatre classroom was filmed and used as a basis for the three CD set, ‘Participant-Centered Learning and the Case Method’, which aims to help teachers, wherever they are in the world, to gain insight into the method and have the opportunity to learn from the words and actions of some outstanding practitioners.

A three part series

The three disks in the set are clearly indexed, of high visual and sound quality and easy to navigate. The first CD, ‘A Case Study Teacher In Action’, features Professor Garvin as he prepares, teaches and reflects on a classroom discussion of a case study. The CD includes a variety of items, such as Professor Garvin’s teaching tools and plans and includes easily downloadable copies of interviews and exhibits. It is a clear and revealing presentation of a skilled case teacher at work, with hands-on advice about such topics as opening questions, shaping the discussion, introducing concepts and theoretical material, making transitions, and summarizing.

The second and third CDs, ‘Answers, Insights, and Advice 1 & 2’, look, in detail, at some of the fundamental issues of participant-centred learning. (1) investigates topics such as the key qualities and behaviours of an effective discussion leader, the creation of a ‘contract’ with students and the need for a support system for new teachers. (2) explores strategies for managingthe process, including handling participation anxiety among students and feedback, using role-play and monitoring student engagement. David Garvin and the seven other HBS professors: James Austin, Thomas DeLong, Frances Frei, James Heskett, Ashish Nanda, Thomas Piper and Howard Stevenson appear in video clips, addressing these issues in considerable depth in the classroom, creating a kind of masterclass on participant-centred learning - through the participantcentred learning method. Again, there is much useful material to be downloaded, and, contrasting the classroom presence and teaching approach of the eight faculty, is thought provoking and instructive in its own right.

Advice for case teachers

Talking recently to Professor Garvin about the new CD set, we asked him if he had any advice to offer new, or aspiring case teachers. “It’s fundamentally about preparation and trust”, he began. “Analyzing the content of the case might necessarily account for up to 70-80% of the preparation, but, crucially, the classroom process must be prepared as well. Consider such issues as: what learning objectives am I aiming for, how might my students become diverted or confused along the way, what are their expectations and who are the experts on the subject already in the class? As teachers, to ensure learning, we must first activate prior knowledge and experience. Then we must provide opportunities for practice. The case method is so strong because it provides the student with a vehicle to recognise real situations and gives the chance to mimic the taking of decisions on events in real time - the core activity of the successful manager. The effective case provides the context of a real life scenario, which works on different levels for different participant groups: MBA students can gain simulated experience and executives’ own past experiences are triggered.”

According to Professor Garvin, trusting the process is key. “Classes almost always get there!” he muses. He urges teachers to “take full advantage of the skills of the case writer and the natural tensions presented in the case.” Cases have generally been tested in the classroom before release. Most include multiple dilemmas that offer several choices to be explored, all equally valid for learning. “You could actually teach anything by discussion,” he adds, “but a case was specifically written for discussion. Use its ‘natural’ structure.”

On a practical level, Professor Garvin recommends working on case teaching with a buddy. “Everyone needs a mirror to reflect positives and negatives in their approach. Observing each other and working through issues with a colleague will add variety and help keep your motivation up, especially after a tough class.” He also suggests using the CD set with a colleague or team of colleagues, to get the most out of it. The booklet accompanying the CD set offers advice on how to approach using the disks in a group; indeed, some business schools have ordered a copy for every member of their faculty. Professor Garvin encourages taking time over learning to be an effective leader of case classes: “screen the videos over time, reflect on your own teaching and practise. Do your own de-brief after the class and observe others.” He urges people to stay flexible and to try new things. Building an interactive relationship with 80 people is never going to be easy, and there is always room to improve. “During my first year of teaching, I always stayed in the middle of the room,” he recalls, “by watching others, I realised I could move around. My teaching improved, and students’ energy and attention went up. Broaden the range of what is possible for you and you will broaden the range of what is possible for your students.”

Viewing ‘Participant-Centered Learning and the Case Method’

This resource is now available free online rather than as a CD set. View Participant-Centered Learning and the Case Method' 

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  • managing the classroom process
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  • developing a teaching note

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