Preparing to teach a case class

By Emma Simmons

preparing to teachIn this series of two feature articles, we examine the preparation for case teaching, with the help of instructors from across the globe.

In Part 1 - Laying the foundations, we looked at the macro issues: why an educator might want to teach with cases, and the implications and requirements for the teacher, the students and the school.

In Part 2 – Preparing to teach a case class, again assisted by our global panel of experts, we drill down into the many micro issues of pedagogical and practical preparation for a class.

Selecting the case

So, you are going to teach a case class. In some schools, especially on core courses, the case will already be on the syllabus. But, more often than not, finding the right case is the initial task the instructor faces.

Educators arrive at their case selection via many different routes: some cases are well known or recommended by colleagues; teachers may first look at the work of reputed case schools or authors; the issue, company or region might be the key word that starts a case search; the budget available or class size may entail a search of free, or group licensed, cases. A flexible database such as that of The Case Centre will allow a search along any, or all, of these lines - and more.

Annie PeshkamFor some pedagogical situations, topical material will be important, for others, the level of the students may dictate the length or complexity of the case. At INSEAD, Annie Peshkam confirms that the needs of the students should remain at the forefront of the search. “Finding the right level of case is key,” she says. “Importantly, a case should help the participants to be able to feel they are the protagonist and work out what data they will need and how to get it to advance the case situation.”

Indeed, specifying your teaching objectives should precede and inform any case search. Stephan Wirtz teaches in both Central and Western Europe, and in China at EM Lyon Business School, Shanghai Campus. He urges teachers to: “Focus on what you want to achieve with the case. But then, stay aware that cases can be somewhat one-dimensional, often slanted towards the ‘macho’ or quantitative side, or repeatedly considering the same companies. It’s really important to engage both sides of the brain with the case,” he feels. “In our fast-changing world, our students are going to have to manage in uncertainty and build linkages in their perceptions with open minds, so the cases we select need to help them with this – to look for and see the ‘third dimension’.”

Rachida JustoRachida Justo at IE Business School suggests that less experienced teachers consider following the syllabus and case choices of an experienced colleague, especially for tightly accredited courses. “When you have gained confidence and experience with the class and the topic, you will be more prepared to look for your own, new, case choices; refreshing materials is always a good thing for both the students – and the teacher,” she adds. “Allow plenty of time to research different cases to find one that will work well for you.”

At Cranfield School of Management, Mark Jenkins agrees: “Everyone brings their own individuality into teaching, so you need to find a case that is right for you as you stand in front of your class. Don’t ever use a case you find boring yourself,” he urges. “Seek out cases where you will learn too.”

Birgit Suberg, at Xi’an Jiaotong-Liverpool University, recommends: “Read and re-read the case first and only then any teaching note, to see how it fits with your class, and be aware that case titles can be quite misleading – some correctly set your expectations of the content, but plenty do not!”

Learning and adapting the case

Jim ClawsonJim Clawson remembers his early teaching days at Harvard Business School: “We (a team of four to nine colleagues) could spend eight hours preparing to teach two cases, then do our individual preparation - meaning reading the case several times, doing our own analysis and answering all questions (if there were any in the syllabus) we expected the students to answer. And, that was just ‘learning’ the case. Next came the time spent learning how to teach it - so it ‘sang’.” He likens this investment of time early in the career of a case teacher to the practice of a musician or actor. “Eventually, one’s case ‘repertoire’ will become extensive; I progressively filled four office cabinets of case files A-Z, most of which are now digitised into ‘Teaching Files’.”

Of course, the time available to instructors for this stage will vary greatly, but a core element of the process of learning and preparing the case should always involve adapting it to the specific requirements of your students, the course, and your teaching style. According to Dianne Bolton at Swinburne University of Technology, “Every use of a case will be different – both the pedagogical purpose identified and, depending on the individual teacher, its ‘message’. Cases have been written in many different circumstances and for lots of reasons, so you are always going to need to adapt and tailor them to yours.” Dianne is open about this process: “I tell my students what I am doing,” she says. “Pedagogy includes using cases in a dynamic way – teaching ‘truths’ is the ‘easy way out’; I don’t want my use of a case to constrain the class moment, I want to open the case to the experience and interpretation of my students so that they reach their own judgment.”

Using the teaching note

Winding road Data from The Case Centre confirms that cases with a teaching note are consistently more popular than those that do not have one. In reality, like cases themselves, teaching notes vary tremendously. Some include a detailed 'roadmap' which will support an instructor throughout the complete process of using the case. They may include questions for the class, strategies for orchestrating the learning, plus plentiful suggestions and links to additional resources.  Importantly, they usually clarify the author’s point of view on the purpose of the case which the instructor needs to compare to their own pedagogical circumstances.  In most cases therefore, the advice is to take as much from the teaching note as is useful to your particular class, but then to adapt and personalise it, including adding your own, or updated, materials.

At the Graduate School of Business, University of Cape Town, Linda Ronnie highlights the relevance of the experience of the teacher: “When I was a younger, less confident, teacher, I might follow a teaching note very closely – but now I am freer,” she says. “My first questions always have to be ‘What do I want to get out of the session; how can I pull it together and consolidate the learning?’ and while the teaching note will often still be useful, I invariably adapt it, adding my own literature, sources and questions.”

Mark JenkinsMark Jenkins recommends reaching out further. “If you are being asked to teach a case you don’t know, seek out people who have taught it, or even, why not contact the case author?” he suggests. “And there is never just one way to approach a case – look for different classroom strategies. If possible sit in on another class where the case is being taught; it is astonishing to realise how many different ways there are to use one case.”

Planning the classroom strategy

Having selected and adapted the case, can you just go into class and teach it? There are fundamentals the teacher must first address. “It is essential to know how to perform the forensic analysis of the case,” says Annie Peshkam. “Then there are basic steps to consider: How do I frame and ask a question as the discussion moves along? What kind of responses might I get? Do I cold call? What do I do with the answers?”

Jim Clawson dispels any doubt: “Instructors who ‘wing it’ will find themselves embarrassed from time to time as students ask questions or take the discussion in unexpected ways.” Jim has evolved a structured approach, firmly anchored in the case itself: “I use a three part model: What are the problems? (- from multiple points of view.) How do we understand those problems? (- analysis.) Finally, what would YOU (each individual student – not the protagonist) do about those problems?  If I’ve done my homework on those three steps, what I call the Leadership Point of View (1. What do you SEE?  2. What do you UNDERSTAND?  3. Do you have the COURAGE to act?), then I will be prepared for whatever comes up in the class discussion, whenever it comes up.” 

“I create a sort of ‘dramaturgy’ flow chart,” say Birgit Suberg, “which includes all the elements of the theatre to follow, but not in an order in which they will appear. That is a surprise I leave for my students to spring.”

Dianne BoltonThe inherent uncertainty in how a case discussion will unfold means that there is always a need to plan ahead for troubleshooting, especially when participants go too far ‘off script’ or, for example, get influenced by additional insights they might find on the internet, even during the class. “As teachers, we must be able to accommodate whatever happens and incorporate any dynamism that arises in the class and in the case,” says Dianne Bolton. “It is often useful to be ready with the relevant theory - as a lens through which to demonstrate various interpretations of the case,” she recommends.

Trees through a lensFor Rachida Justo, it is important, where possible, to plan to preempt unproductive diversions during the class. “The way an instructor plans a class inevitably relates to their own personality; some follow a tight script with timings. In my experience, being ‘freer’ can lead to a better session. However, with limited class time, if students become too ‘playful’ we need to get the class back on track. When I plan to use role play, for example, I have sometimes already removed those roles that I feel will just lead the class down a blind alley, irrelevant to where we need to go.”

It is important to know your students. “In executive teaching in particular, but also on the MBA, someone in the class may well have relevant experience,” says Mark Jenkins. He advises humility and that teachers embrace this and prepare to give the class the opportunity to ‘know more’ than you do. “Case teaching has unpredictability built in, but don’t fear the unexpected,” he urges, “embrace it as an opportunity. As long as you come prepared with clarity on where the key arguments, tensions and dilemmas of the case lie, you can bring them out. And never forget, you are in control of the questions you ask, and there is no substitute for practice. Even after 20 years, I am still learning from the cases I teach,” Mark says.

Linda Ronnie Linda Ronnie looks forward to “tricky dynamics” and suggests that “identifying the expert” can present an opportunity. “Finding out what experience the class members have, must be part of the preparation,” she says. “Plan to involve them, perhaps by suggesting they make a mini presentation or provide some original materials.” She also takes account of their personalities: “I want to facilitate ahead of time that all students will speak, so I set group assignments and suggest people who will be asked to report.” This strategy gives notice and support to those who find participation challenging. “I want them all to understand that the class is a safe space and that there are no wrong answers, only potentially poorly argued ones,” she adds.

student readingsMost instructors give students preparation to do ahead of class as well – at least to read the case properly. Jim Clawson is unequivocal: “For case discussions, students must read and analyse the cases and form opinions and conclusions BEFORE they come to class. At first, many students aren’t ready for that.  So institutional and programme cultures are important elements to nurture in fostering, or inhibiting, good, robust, case instruction.”

Optimising the room

Birgit SubergOn a practical level, instructors are strongly recommended to get acquainted with the actual room they will teach in ahead of time because by no means all spaces will be designed for, or indeed optimal for, a case discussion. Due to the background of her students, Birgit Suberg finds that many can be reticent in a case class. “I often plan to arrive early and move the tables so that I can sit my students into groups of four or six; I may also plan to sit some of the shyer ones near the front of the class,” she explains. “I usually let them work in the groups first; it may all take a while longer, but the students almost always find it easier to contribute later when they are invited to speak up, and many are grateful for the support this forward thinking gives them.”

Stephan Wirtz The use of technology and the internet is normal in today’s classes. Stephan Wirtz frequently has audio visual elements such as film clips, ready to add to his case sessions if the discussion leads to them. He offers sound advice, especially for teachers in a guest role or in unfamiliar or distant locations: “It is absolutely vital to prepare for the precise room in which you will teach the case,” he says. “In some places I have taught around the world, stable internet access and audiovisual technology was a problem, and it is essential to have found this out in advance and to have a contingency plan for the materials you want to use. Yes the case needs preparing, but you can’t do too much of this practical preparation as well.”

After class

Mark Jenkins recommends allowing time for feedback straight after class too. “Prepare to photograph the whiteboard and spend half an hour considering both what went well and less well. If a colleague sat in, get that feedback straight away. Depending on their maturity, students can provide good feedback too, especially if you are still trialling a case, so plan ahead to get them involved with this. Make provision to keep adapting your materials and approach.” And so the circle is squared, and your preparation for the next case class is already underway.

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Case method training

If you'd like to learn more about the case method why not take time out to participate in one of our case teaching or writing workshops?

These short, practical workshops cover topics such as:

  • what is a case and why use cases?
  • course planning using cases
  • preparing to lead a case class
  • managing the classroom process
  • assessment
  • the case writing process
  • developing a teaching note

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