Teaching with cases - what's involved?

writing casesEver more instructors are selecting the case method. We have gathered perspectives from leading proponents worldwide as to how best to approach and support teaching with cases.

Why teach with cases?

The traditional lecture or seminar still dominates most higher and further education, yet increasing numbers of educators are choosing to teach with cases; in 2012, nearly 5,000 ordered cases from The Case Centre for teaching in a remarkable 96 countries. For certain subjects, cases are uniquely powerful learning tools, especially in professions where learning how to take good decisions is a vital part of qualification. It is well known that business and management are frequently taught with cases; but they are also used in medicine and the law, both domains in which dilemmas occur that future professionals will need to deal with and often where the human stakes are high.

John Alford is Professor of Public Sector Management at the Australia and New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG) and at Melbourne Business School. He directs the ANZSOG Case Program and explains the classroom success of the growing case collection set in the public sector in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific: "Cases are an ideal way of examining the subtleties of the public sector environment, for instance the need to adapt to the style of an incoming minister, or how to work collaboratively across a range of agencies with differing cultures and capabilities."

An effective case session enables participants to mimic and view a situation in the ‘safe’ classroom environment, but with the energy and immediacy of the actual situation they may one day encounter. A successful case class also enables the relevant theory to be extracted and assimilated and, as an added bonus, can often be enjoyable for both participants and the teacher. Achieving this pedagogical alchemy depends on the skill of the instructor at every stage from selecting a case, through planning and teaching it - and thereafter. While some case teachers appear to be ‘natural talents’, for most - including the apparent naturals - there is a vast amount of acquired skill and intense work required to succeed. The process begins with identifying the ‘right’ case.

Selecting a case

In May 2013 there were 48,000 cases available through The Case Centre’s online search tool. The choice ranges from traditionally written cases, with or without teaching notes, and some available in various languages; to a wide variety of multimedia cases and additional materials. It may appear to be a daunting prospect to look through thousands of potential cases, even on a flexible, advanced search engine such as The Case Centre’s. So how do you select the best case for your class? It can be helpful to read reviews by other teachers or speak to colleagues to find out how well they have found particular cases Selecting caseswork in class. How often a case has been ordered can give a clue to its classroom potential. Information on the most popular cases is provided by The Case Centre for reference, and Award-winning cases are identified in the online catalogue.

In his book Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide, John Heath identifies the essential steps before searching for a case: to be "clear about your teaching/learning objectives" and understand the level of experience and maturity of the group to be taught. He advises that both the content and the way the case is written are important: the case "should not only address the issues you wish to explore but also capture a student’s interest in its first few lines." In addition, Heath recommends that the search for a case should be completed well in advance of the class to leave plentiful time for preparation. For, whichever case is selected, there will almost always be a level of customisation required to tailor the teaching material to the precise needs of the class participants and the learning objectives of the course. It is widely acknowledged that this preparation stage is absolutely key.


While a skilful case teacher can make a classroom session seem almost effortless, it would be a mistake to assume that this occurs without a substantial and intensive period of preparation. Even cases with the most comprehensive teaching note and exhibits will need to be adapted to the specific teaching situation. Kevin Kaiser, Professor of Management Practice at INSEAD, and finalist in the inaugural Economist Intelligence Unit Business Professor of the Year Competition is unequivocal. He believes that preparation is absolutely fundamental to how successful a case class will be. "I am a huge believer in 'over'-preparation, both in terms of time and of content," he reports. In Kaiser’s view, one of the main pitfalls of a case class is having failed to identify the key pedagogical issues ahead of the class. He recommends: "think of ten questions …. and then think of ten more." He warns that the content of a case, or the way it is written, can distract from the key learning points: "Prepare by first thinking of just teaching the theoretical context you need to get across; only then think about how you will structure the class questions and discussion to achieve this," he advises.

Teachers also need to get participants to prepare before a case class. While some instructors simply ask them to read a case, others will set questions to be considered as they read. Kevin Kaiser places the full onus onto his participants: "The key to successful management is identifying the right questions in the first place, so I ask my participants to identify the questions we should be answering in the class themselves. Some cases already include questions to be answered, in which case, I get my participants to challenge them and to check they are the right ones: come up with the right questions and only then turn their attention to the data. The case process itself is part of the pedagogy and these are all matters they will need to master to become good managers in the future."

In class

For the potential of a case class to fully unfold, there are additional aspects the instructor needs to consider, beginning with the layout of the classroom. Many feel that it is beneficial to get away from the conventional lecture layout and to achieve a set-up that enables participants to look at each other as well as at the teacher for the discussion. The 'amphitheatre' or ‘horseshoe’ layout is often found to facilitate this interaction.

conductorKnowing the participant group, where possible as individuals, is also important and enables the teacher to become a kind of conductor of an orchestra, bringing in particular participants - some which may be shy - at a moment when they may have the most pertinent contribution to make based on their experience. In our time of highly diverse and multicultural classroom groups, teachers also need to be aware of international, cultural and gender issues which may make some students more or less likely to contribute. A successful case class leaves all those who took part feeling they have learned by taking an active role in the process, whether or not they have actually spoken.

Leading class discussion

Of all the challenges the case teacher faces, facilitating the discussion is perhaps the most demanding. By its very nature, discussion gains its own dynamic, so the main skill of the instructor needs to be in managing it at crucial moments to ensure all the planned pedagogical issues have been covered. While many cases have a detailed teaching note, this will almost always need to be adapted to suit the particular participant group and it can only provide outline guidance to the unpredictable discussion part of the class. In their book Teaching with Cases, James A. Erskine, Michiel R. Leenders and Louise A. Maufette-Leenders of the Richard Ivey School of Business define the crucial active listening required by the instructor to ensure the flowing of a case discussion: "Listening means much more than just hearing the words, It also means evaluating the speaker’s understanding and use of case information…… While the student makes a contribution, the instructor must listen, understand, reflect and decide how to respond."

In his classic book Teaching and the Case Method, former Harvard Business School Professor, the late C. Roland Christensen identifies the teacher’s role as an both a craft and an art: "A critical responsibility of the instructor is leadership of the case discussion process..... The key ...... is the instructor’s artistry, which consists of mastering detail." While these abilities sound highly challenging to acquire, Christensen believes that "case discussion leaders can be helped to learn their craft." So, where can aspiring case teachers get this help?

Support and feedback

Evaluation after a case session is an important part of the process through which an instructor will assess the class and consider in how far the planned objectives have been met. Some institutions operate a mentoring system for faculty less experienced in teaching with cases. Where this is not in place, it makes sense to perhaps seek the input of a more experienced colleague who may agree to sit in on the class and provide subsequent feedback. Seize any opportunity to attend a class run by a successful case instructor as an observer. The internet can also be a source of case sessions to learn from. For more direct and personalised support, teaching with cases workshops are available from The Case Centre. These provide a 'safe' learning environment to practice with peers, under the expert guidance of a recognised practitioner. Helpful books and articles on teaching with cases are also available through The Case Centre's online search.

Ultimately, practice and developing confidence are vital ingredients for the success of a case teacher. But, once these are both in place, the experience of working with a positive class on a great case can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding an educator can have.

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

Top tips 

Debapratim Purkayastha
I always find that I have to put in extra hours of preparation to run a case-based session where I may be speaking for less than 10% of the time. Setting up a climate where students feel free to express and explain their views in the classroom is the key to a successful class. 
Debapratim Purkayastha, Assistant Professor
IBS Hyderabad /ICMR India 
Pierre Chandon,
I always survey the students before class. This allows me to know what they think and to organize the class discussion accordingly. It’s also a great way to get inputs from shy students and to show the diversity of approaches to solving the same managerial problem.
Pierre Chandon, Professor of Marketing and Director, INSEAD Social Sciences Research Centre
Richard Jolly
Always keep in mind: 'what do I want this audience to remember in five years time from this case and how can I make it truly memorable?
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 out believing the opposite of what they walked in believing.
Nirmalya Kumar, Professor of Marketing and Director of Aditya Birla India Centre
London Business School
Loizos Heracleous
Choose a case that involves dilemmas where there are no easy answers, and pose these dilemmas in the narrative directly or indirectly; this ensures robust debate and engagement in the classroom. 
Loizos Heracleous, Professor of Strategy & Pro Dean (Strategy)
Warwick Business School
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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
Media and Systems Development Manager
+44 (0)1234 756416