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Preparing to teach with cases: laying the foundations

By Emma Simmons

preparing to teachIn this series of two articles, we examine the issues around preparing to teach with cases with the help of instructors from across the globe.

In Part 1 - Laying the foundations, we look at the macro issues: we examine why an educator might want to teach with cases, the implications and requirements for the future instructor, their students and school. And, we explore the personal insights and steps necessary to lay the groundwork to become a case teacher. In Part 2 - Preparing to teach a case class, (to be published in the September issue of Connect), we continue into the micro detail of preparing to teach a specific case class.

Part 1 - Laying the foundations

There are many reasons why a teacher decides that he or she would like to use the case method. Individual interest may have been sparked by observing a colleague’s class, in contemplation or discussion of a learning objective that is not satisfactorily served by more traditional teaching methods, or an educator might simply have been intrigued by something they read, or have a deep interest in developing as a practitioner. On a school level, the case method is an established pedagogy in a growing number of institutions across the world, and their new faculty, including those who have never taught before, will be expected to teach with cases at some point. The core curriculum can have particular cases built in, and any faculty could find themselves asked to stand in to take an indisposed colleague’s case class. Add into the mix that some will have experienced cases in their own education, but there are many more, who have never been exposed to participant centred learning.

New territory

Rachida JustoSo how do you begin? “For anyone who has never taught with cases before, a massive shift in mindset is required,” suggests Rachida Justo at IE Business School. “A new member of faculty could be under the impression that having a case, and a teaching note, would mean using it in class would be a simple process. As soon as the inevitable ‘unplanned for’ questions start coming from the participants, that teacher is going to realise that the challenge is more complicated than they imagined,” she adds.

According to Annie Peshkam at INSEAD, the first step is to get to grips with the underlying pedagogy of the method: “The fundamental thing an aspiring case teacher must understand is that the real purpose of using a case is to put the participants in the shoes of the protagonist and to get them to grapple, moment-by-moment, with the dilemmas, accessible and missing data, and grey-area decisions. In the absence of this, a case discussion will miss the opportunity to develop the participants’ ability to think critically as a manager,” she suggests.

Dianne Bolton At Swinburne University of Technology, Dianne Bolton remembers the evolution of her path to case teaching through a process of a constructive and collaborative critique of programme design and learning outcomes. “Students need to be challenged in class by reflecting the true complexity and sometimes chaos of what they will have to face in business,” she says. “Cases can respond to this challenge by exposing them to multi stakeholder perspectives and a cross disciplinary approach to problem solving. If you want to teach with cases you are going to have to understand something about group learning. You will need to develop your role as educator by creating a lens of theory through which the students’ own critique of the case can develop in discussion,” she adds.

Getting started

Mark JenkinsMany people have written on case teaching. The Case Centre collection includes selected books and articles on its theory and practice and there is much more published material available to discover.  But for the practitioners we spoke to, the most essential preparation to become a case teacher is to get hands on. At Cranfield School of Management, Mark Jenkins concurs: “The key is getting into the classroom as soon as possible. Ask to sit in on colleagues’ sessions; there is no one right way to use a case, so look at as many different approaches and styles as you can. Ask for your colleagues’ perspectives as teachers – that can prove really useful – and ask them to sit in on your classes and to provide you with honest feedback,” he recommends.

At the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, Linda Ronnie agrees. She recalls her early days as a case teacher and the invaluable support she received. “The best way to learn is to sit in and observe other case teachers – lots of them – teaching in many different ways,” she says. “And then you need to have a go yourself – wherever possible with guidance from a more experienced colleague.” In her early teaching days, Linda’s own mentoring professor would support her to first take half a class – initially the theoretical part, graduating to the discussion part; and then he would give her valuable feedback.

Jim ClawsonOf course, the usefulness of a mentor figure presupposes that the prospective case instructor is open to receive whatever feedback might be offered. At Darden School of Business, University of Virginia, Jim Clawson remembers feeling exceptionally fortunate to be ‘taken under the wing’ of the late Tony Athos, once featured on the cover of TIME magazine as one of ‘the country’s (USA) best teachers’. “I have been forever grateful,” says Jim. “Once, when I asked for feedback after teaching a class, he said I was ‘boring’! But then he guided me to a new way of thinking about my craft, changing VABE’s (values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations) about teaching and learning.” And a powerful mentor can remain your inspiration for a lifetime: “I have Tony’s initials tattooed on my wrist to remember him by,” Jim reveals.


Alongside help from individuals, many of those we spoke to highlighted the benefits of attending group training, in a more protected environment than a real class, such as case method workshops. The Case Centre and other organisations regularly offer such events and many schools also provide in house programmes for their case teachers, whether given by their own staff or with the support of outside organisations.

Birgit Suberg At Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, Birgit Suberg found both reading books and attending a workshop really useful, not least because it reminded her of what it was like to be in a student role and provided her with the opportunity of experiencing that side of case teaching as well. “I also prepared by just reading as many cases as I could,” Birgit says. “Initially, I would really study and follow the teaching notes, but with time and growing confidence, one learns to become more flexible with the process and produce one’s own class plan that is more suited to the students, the targeted learning outcomes – and oneself.” Birgit also recalls that simply having the certificate for attending the workshop gave a boost to her motivation to apply the learning as a prospective case teacher.

Student prep

Training does not only benefit prospective instructors. For many class participants, the case method will be a completely new – even counter intuitive –  concept that calls into question what they have previously understood to be teaching: being simply handed the wisdom. Ideally, students also need to have their expectations managed before the teacher takes his or her first step into a case class. Most of those we spoke to provide introductory sessions about the pedagogy to each new cohort, or it forms part of the school’s induction programme. Recognising the importance of this support, The Case Centre has just launched an Interactive Study Guide for students, to help initiate them into the case method and learning with cases.

Stephan WirtzStephan Wirtz teaches in both Central and Western Europe, and in China at EM Lyon Business School, Shanghai Campus. His students vary tremendously in culture, background and the expectations of their learning journey ahead. The majority come to class unfamiliar with participant centred learning. But he identifies an attribute they tend to share and has created a path to help them become more receptive to case teaching. “Students generally dislike ambiguity,” he observes. “Part of case teaching is to confront them with the idea that they must learn to decide, and this can be really difficult for many of them. Therefore I begin by introducing my students to the idea that there is no single ‘right answer’ and that they must be prepared to ‘forget what they know’ and to get ready for the unexpected – just as they will be challenged in their future professional lives,” he says.

“A major challenge is bringing participants up to the level that they can benefit from a case class in the first place,” says Dianne Bolton. “Part of this is helping our students understand that they are diverse stakeholders in the class – just like people out in the real world that they will encounter at work. Integral to the class discourse has to be an openness which students need to learn to participate in, and also to see things from the point of view of others than themselves.”

Building confidence

Annie PeshkamIndeed, it takes huge courage and confidence to stand – especially for the first time – in front of a class of bright and expectant participants, a number of whom may well know more than the instructor about the company or industry in the case. INSEAD provides support for its teachers through its Initiative for Learning Innovation and Teaching Excellence, which is endorsed up to the highest level of the institution, a crucial level of support for case teachers that is not a given at all schools. “Mentorship is invaluable, and we have a full programme in place across our campuses,” says Annie Peshkam, “but it has its limitations too. Learning from a senior colleague’s ‘war stories’ can help an ‘apprentice’ teacher, but we have found that instructional coaching can delve further into psychological aspects such as building confidence, thus freeing faculty up to develop their craft.” Where required, the school also provides support for course design incorporating all teaching methods and materials. It should be noted that selecting the ‘wrong’ case, for a group of participants or the teaching objectives, can represent a considerable a setback to an effective class process just as a lack of confidence in the teacher can.

Linda RonnieFor Linda Ronnie, building confidence as a case instructor is key. “Paradoxically, an aspiring case teacher is going to need to understand and accept that, no matter how well prepared they think they are, they will not have ‘all the knowledge’ that will be aired in the session. If, as a teacher, you want just one answer, then the case method is not going to be for you,” she asserts. “I still go into class to learn myself. The point is to develop the courage to let the class come alive; it is that dynamism and fluidity that will lead to the learning and to it being fun for both the students and the teacher,” she explains.

Birgit Suberg endorses the need to develop that inner confidence to become a facilitator, part and parcel of which will be getting your students – and yourself – through the inevitable moments of great class uncertainty that arise in case teaching. “Having helpful phraseology in your toolkit is always going to be useful at such tangential moments,” she recommends. “A simple statement such as ‘Let’s explore this’, can build a bridge from an unforeseen or unplanned turn of the discussion to a valuable learning opportunity. Ultimately, confidence is about learning to have the path and the destination in mind for the class – and being well prepared – but then trusting in yourself to ‘free up’ on the discussion journey – to allow time to spend in the ‘playground’ for learning.”

Stephan Wirtz recommends planning to keep a strong focus on the fundamental issues of the case as a way to classroom confidence. That foundation will allow a teacher to embrace the dialectic of the class discussion and to keep it interesting and lively for the student audience. “These days, I see myself as a ‘Knowledge DJ’,” he says. “Students now want to be entertained, so I recommend coming to class with a responsive mindset ready to divert into the full potential of global multimedia available through the internet, depending on where the case discussion goes, as long as the selected items relate back to the core issues of the case. Films and YouTube – such as spontaneously seeking out a clip of Steve Jobs actually talking, while teaching an Apple case – can add great relevance, engagement and enjoyment to your class.”

‘Know thyself’

Delphi amphi theatreTo develop such confidence also requires an understanding of oneself and this awareness is seen by Rachida Justo as a pre-requisite for becoming a confident case teacher. “In order to effectively teach a case class, you are going to need to understand who you are as a teacher and what your own expectations are,” she observes. “All case faculty have their personal style – some do cold calling and some choose not to, for example. Even the choice of case should ideally be made in full awareness of one’s own personality; a case involving certain ethical or controversial issues may not be comfortable for all teachers and if they don’t realise that at the outset, the class will certainly reveal it to them.”

Jim Clawson shares inspiration on the source of confidence from the personal reflections of a successful sportsman: “Vijay Singh, the golfer, once suggested that confidence doesn’t come from winning; it comes from practice, and winning comes from confidence. So, if you have prepared golf trophyyour case deeply, you can be confident.” Jim’s book Teaching Management and website include more lively inspiration and advice for the apprentice – and more experienced – case teacher. “With your preparation in place and with confidence, the challenge will then be not to subtly force your analysis onto the students, but to let them find their own way there, under the gentle guidance of your well framed questions. Nevertheless, rather than focusing on covering all your prepared material, focus on what the people in the room are learning, something you are only going to find out if they are speaking – not you,” he advises.

For Mark Jenkins, gaining confidence as a case teacher will always be directly associated with constantly practicing the art, but there is a further boost available: “The very best way to become confident in a case class is to write your own case because you will know the material so well and you will also know the ‘back story’. Even in the early stages of becoming a case teacher, writing your own can be a viable aspiration,” he says. For some faculty, having their own interesting case to write may have led them to case teaching in the first place. “Many teachers think that writing a case is a challenge too far,” Mark adds, “but the main barrier may well be in their mind and it is often less difficult than you might think.” And, as we have discovered in this exploration of laying the groundwork for becoming a case teacher, there is plenty of support out there to start writing your first case too.

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