University challenge - using cases with undergraduates

University challengeDuring the past five years, teachers from almost twenty countries ordered cases from The Case Centre for undergraduate classes. Most cases are developed with the MBA or executive audience in mind, so we spoke to teachers worldwide about their experiences in the undergraduate classroom. Why are cases useful and what are the needs of this audience? Are there practical issues to consider and are the right cases available?

According to Keith Dixon of the Accounting and Information Systems’ faculty, University of Canterbury, New Zealand, “useful understates the importance of cases; vital would be more accurate.” All agree that the fundamental lack of business experience of undergraduates puts cases firmly on the teaching method-of-choice shortlist because of their capacity to bring a compelling version of reality into the classroom. Professor Neil Thomson teaches business to undergraduates at the Georg-Simon-Ohm Hochschule,Nürnberg, Germany. He feels that “reality is complex and cases are an effective halfway house from classroom to reality, working best when theory is woven in through the case teaching.” Thomson is co-author of a recent book1 which explores these issues with a fresh mindset, and includes suitable cases and guidance for teachers and students. In Japan, where more than 95% of undergraduates come directly from high school with almost no real world experience, Roy Larke, Professor of International Marketing and Japanese Business, Rikkyo University says “cases with broader, international, less technically specific issues are important.” He has found it easier for his students to deal with cases that need a broad strategic perspective (eg CEO level), rather than with very specific operational solutions (eg IT implementation).

Theory and thought

Geoff Easton, Professor of Marketing at Lancaster University Management School, UK, and a member of The Case Centre's executive committee, has been using cases with undergraduates for more than 30 years. Easton believes that one of the prime purposes is to teach the ambiguity that must be confronted in all real business situations: “There are good decisions and less good ones.” The bottom line is to “teach students to think, and give them the belief that they have the capacity to solve problems themselves and always be critical about their own ideas”. In Denmark, Sine Nørholm Just, Associate Professor, Department of International Culture and Communication Studies, Copenhagen Business School uses cases primarily as practical examples to help undergraduates understand the relevance and applicability of theoretical concepts and analytical models. She has a nurturing approach: “It is important to guide students towards the most relevant concepts while encouraging them to be as specific and precise in their use as possible.”

Ian Hunter, Director of the University of Auckland Business Case Centre, feels that cases help develop vital management skills: “They enable us to encourage and test capabilities and tools, which we want our undergraduates to emerge with: creative thinking, synthesis, discernment, judgement, group problem solving, decision making.” He urges experimentation and has recently found video cases to be particularly powerful, “bringing two significant elements into the classroom at a level the narrative case cannot: emotion and context.”

Trauma or enjoyment?

But many teachers observe that the new interactive way of learning and unfamiliar case content can initially unsettle undergraduates. Keith Dixon feels this is a price worth paying: “Students sometimes feel a bit lost when there are no nicely packaged chunks of knowledge. Once accustomed, however, to the give-and-take interchange of the case method, the exhilaration of deep involvement in the learning experience and the sense of constant discovery are well worth any initial trauma.”2 Gina Vega, Professor of Management, Bertolon School of Business, Salem State College, USA observes that well chosen cases can work from the beginning: “Students enjoy the cases initially on the story telling level and later on the more analytical level.” The ability to ‘meet’ and relate to a protagonist, a ‘real’ human figure, is a clear strength. Respondents also stressed the benefits of cases about companies students can identify with, the need for more local cases and cases in languages other than English. Many respondents write their own material to accommodate these requirements, such as Sine Nørholm Just who develops cases in Danish. Gina Vega explains: “It can be very challenging to write cases for undergraduates because of their limited life experience; it requires identifying topics and companies they are interested in – beer is always a big winner! But when the case works, it’s a magnificent feeling.” She has also pioneered work on getting undergraduates to write their own case studies, a process which reaps pedagogical rewards on numerous fronts.3

Case length, class size, cost

All teachers agreed that long cases are problematical and the lack of shorter cases can be an issue. Undergraduates notoriously prefer an ‘easy’ life without much preparation, especially when it involves reading paper rather than surfing online. In reality, they are often time-pressured, according to Neil Thomson, especially in countries like Germany where the Bologna reforms have compacted study durations. He prefers to use cases of different lengths: “Really short cases can be too sanitised – good students will rise to the challenge of a long case.” Gina Vega’s undergraduates initially have trouble with full length cases so she phases them in gradually. Optimal is “around seven pages... twenty throw undergraduates for a loop! I used to get irritated by this, but I figured out that a better solution is to find (or write) cases of a length that they can cope with to access learning more readily.” Managing large undergraduate classes poses problems and requires creative solutions. In Japan, where fewer than 200 students is considered a ‘small’ class, Roy Larke uses the intranet for posting solutions and peer reviews, in addition to paper based assignments for the students. Geoff Easton urges trial and error to find the best solution for your undergraduates, who often find it difficult to engage with case work between classes without incentives. Neil Thomson feels a ‘stick’ that all cases during the semester are fair game for exam questions is often needed with undergraduates, as well as an essential ‘carrot’ that case work will contribute to final marks. Additionally using the dynamics inherent in group work and grading limits the potential for students to get a free ride.

Tight university budgets make overt cost the major deterrent to using cases worldwide. But Keith Dixon feels nothing comes free: “People don’t realise how much it costs to produce alternative, usually poorer, materials because they aren’t itemised among our salaries.” At Babson College, USA, the creation of cases for undergraduates has been taken to a new level. Erik Noyes, Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship, and his colleagues use annually with 475 undergraduates a specially written series of twenty short cases throughout the whole of the first year of study. The series facilitates all the faculty’s major teaching objectives, in all disciplines (entrepreneurship, marketing, strategy etc) plus a business plan, while allowing the undergraduates to engage profoundly with a single narrative, two companies’ stories and one set of characters. “The beauty is breaking down complexity into manageable chunks,” says Noyes, “it’s the power of the iterative process and testament to the great flexibility of cases that we can adapt this complexity so successfully for our undergraduates.”


1 Thomson, N and Baden-Fuller, C (2010), Basic Strategy in Context: European Text and Cases (Wiley: Chichester, England) ISBN 978-1-4051-6108-4 (pb)
2 Dixon, K, ‘Case Study Learning’, available at
3 Vega, G (2010), ‘The Undergraduate Case Research Study Model’, Journal of Management Education, Volume 34, No 4

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Resources for students

We distribute a range of books and articles to help your students get more out of learning with cases, here are a selection:
Paper icon Learning with Cases
James A Erskine, Michiel R Leenders and Louise A Mauffette-Leenders
Richard Ivey School of Business
Paper icon The Case Study Handbook: How to Read, Discuss and Write Persuasively About Cases
William Ellet
Harvard Business Publishing
Paper icon Note to the Student: How to Study and Discuss Cases
Robert F Bruner
Darden Business Publishing
Paper icon A Note on Case Learning
E Raymond Corey
Harvard Business School

Full list of books and articles