Using Cases with Undergraduates

By Emma Simmons

class assessment“Undergraduate classes are too big and students lack the necessary experience for an effective case discussion”. These are just two of the often cited reasons why not to teach with cases below master’s level. Nevertheless, over the past five years, The Case Centre has seen a significant growth in orders destined for the undergraduate classroom. Many instructors are now regularly using cases with this student group and finding that they can play a particularly useful role in enabling learning, that other methods cannot. We spoke to faculty from across the globe.

Benefits - theory and practice

Anne-Valerie Ohlsson-Corboz

Paradoxically, for most of the teachers we spoke to, the very fact that undergraduates lack work experience is precisely what makes cases so useful for their learning. At Singapore Management University (SMU), Anne-Valerie Ohlsson-Corboz is in no doubt: “Cases are the best way for undergraduates to gain an understanding of the real world in class. I often need to take my students into the mind of a protagonist and, as they usually lack the experience themselves, the right case can allow them to get right into the decision maker’s shoes and to see scenarios through eyes other than their own”.

For most undergraduates, previous academic learning will have been based on acquiring theory, and most first degrees also require the assimilation of much theoretical content for which the instructor is responsible. “Cases can show the difference between theory and its limitations, and practice,” observes Anne-Valerie Ohlsson-Corboz.

Christopher Williams

At Durham University Business School (UK), Christopher Williams concurs. He values how cases can bridge the gap from theory to practice. “Cases bring the theory to life; the students can see – and often experience – the concepts they are assimilating in a real, active, context,” he says. “Because the students are young, cases can also allow them to get a sense of what is out there in their future careers. As instructors we always need to remember that, ultimately, we are developing students for the real world; case classes help students develop active learning and team skills, such as how to effectively communicate their ideas and be persuasive”.

Winnie O'Grady

Winnie O’Grady, at The University of Auckland Business School, uses cases to teach undergraduates across various strategic management accounting modules. “Of course, our students need to come out of their course having grasped the necessary technical theory. But by using cases, we are trying to help them gain the actual skills they will need in their future profession: learning how to apply the theory, and to construct creative and strategic approaches; in our area we want them to develop a sense of the value they can add to business as a management accountant”.

The right case

Scott Andrews

But there are challenges. Scott Andrews has mentored many instructors in finding, developing and using cases for undergraduates in many countries. “Selecting the right case is absolutely key to classroom success, especially for undergraduates, who really need a case that they can relate to,” he says. “That means that cultural considerations, in particular, are really important for this group.” Topicality, too, is important because most undergraduates have a shorter experience of the world to draw on than older students, a point Winnie O’Grady emphasises: “Finding the right case to satisfy the specific teaching objectives is really worth spending time on. Sometimes, for the case to be flexible and topical enough for the students to learn to think more widely about new problems and dilemmas, it has to be written by oneself,” she observes.

During the last decade, The Case Centre has seen an increase in demand for local cases to be used for teaching at all levels, and this is accentuated in the case of undergraduate pedagogy.  Anne-Valerie Ohlsson-Corboz was instrumental in setting up the case writing centre at SMU to address the need for strong cases on Asian business.”There are real limitations to just using multinational or Western cases with Asian undergraduates,” she reports. “Asia is experiencing hyper growth across business and younger students need to be able learn from topical examples from the local context which are directly relevant for them.”

Mike Guolla

Another measurable trend has been towards cases getting shorter. At the University of Ottawa’s Telfer School of Management, Mike Guolla highlights their particular usefulness with undergraduates: “Suitable cases for this group of students need to centre on a clear decision and it tends to work best if they are shorter than conventional cases,” he finds; “in fact, as short as possible – even down to one page - if it is a powerful case.” Like several of the faculty we spoke to, Mike Guolla will often write his own cases for his undergraduate classes and also cases for use in their final exams.

Tao Yue

In practice, case length per se may not be the most defining factor of an effective case for this student group. At Rotterdam School of Management, Tao Yue writes cases for use in different geographical and cultural settings, and often for the undergraduate audience. “Sometimes it is actually better to provide a longer case that includes as much relevant information as possible,” she says. “It can be time inefficient on undergraduate programmes to expect students to search out too much additional information out of class, bearing in mind that they are relatively limited in the background they can draw on from their own experience. If the business problem is big and complex, trying, first and foremost, to make it a short case can end up being counterproductive”.

But seeking out, or writing, cases for undergraduates does require a sensitive understanding of them as an audience. In particular, maximum precision is required when defining the teaching objectives and in deciding how far to go with the case dilemma. “Cases for undergraduates need to be written as clearly as possible, with fewer ‘red herrings’ thrown in than for other audiences,” says Tao Yue.” If we relate this to Bloom’s taxonomy, with undergraduates we are usually guiding them through the first five levels: remembering, understanding, application, analysis, and sometimes evaluation, whereas with graduates and executives we will be looking to go right up to the top of the pyramid.”

Ian Birchmore

As ever, the key is in the teaching purpose the case serves, which is also influenced by the faculty area. At Aberystwyth University, Ian Birchmore points out: “One of the objectives that I am, at times, seeking to address for my students centres on dealing with significant volumes of information, for which a longer case can, of itself, provide some of the learning. Sometimes, I also want them to practice finding their way through conflicting and more difficult information, which can also be a deliberate part of designing a case for a specific class.”

Managing the class

class size ratio

‘Size matters’ in respect of the class too: beyond a certain number, case discussions can become very difficult to manage, especially when instructors are also trying to assess class contribution. Among those we spoke to, the view of the feasible maximum seems to be around 50, though in practice, their classes varied in size both below and above this.

So how do instructors manage large undergraduate numbers? Here, Ian Birchmore sees a direct connection between how well prepared the teacher is and how well a larger undergraduate class will function. ”I find that facilitating group work by students in a class of 50 to 60 can work well as long as the facilitator is very familiar with the case, any associated theory and other relevant material,” he says. “These days, teaching modules often include the development of group working skills as a learning objective; in that sense, breaking a larger group down into smaller groups to work on a case is quite consistent with what we are trying to achieve.”

Winnie O’Grady and her colleagues in Auckland tend to subdivide their cohort of undergraduates into permanent smaller groups across the semester for the sessions taught with cases. For them, as for others around the world, cases are just one part of a rich teaching mix which includes conventional lectures and exercises for the larger group, often taught by colleagues who do not use cases. “You do need the commitment of the institution to use cases because the numbers make it a resource intensive undertaking,” she comments. When in-class contribution to the discussion forms part of course grading, most instructors we spoke to said that they try to get students to always sit in the same seat because that really helps with correctly recognising everyone and achieving accurate assessment.

The larger undergraduate class numbers also have logistical and financial implications for the purchase and distribution of materials. Several of the faculty we spoke to use books of cases, and some, like Mike Guolla, have written such books themselves. This approach can help to contain additional costing issues for the institution and/or its students, who will have traditionally bought text books for their degree, whereas paying for individual cases may be a more unfamiliar thing for them to be asked to fund.

Vicky Lester

The Case Centre itself has addressed this challenge by the creation of the CoursePack Creator. This highly flexible online resource, which costs instructors nothing each time they set one up, allows them to compile materials for a course or even a single class and to orchestrate student access to it. In addition to any cases, they can add their own materials, background and technical resources, including articles from within, or outside, The Case Centre’s collection. Institutions can select to bill students directly for these materials through their access to the CoursePack and can also clear copyrights. According to Vicky Lester, Deputy Director of The Case Centre, “CoursePack Creator is proving to be a very popular solution for instructors worldwide to create tailored class materials. We recognise the challenges institutions face, and we are also in the later stages of developing a teaching licence model to transform the financial viability of using cases with undergraduates.”

The students’ view

So how do undergraduates cope when faced with the unfamiliar experience of being taught with cases?

undergraduate students Scott Andrews believes that an induction is always essential. “Even in front of a big class, instructors are ultimately in the business of providing a personalised learning experience to each student. Managing individual expectations and explaining the concept of participant-centred learning is particularly important, especially in some cultures where speaking up or challenging the teacher have not been encouraged,” he says. “It is invariably helpful to talk with students about case pedagogy at the outset, perhaps including a case ‘practice’; it’s almost like agreeing an ‘educational contract’ between the students and the instructor.”

In Singapore, Anne-Valerie Ohlsson-Corboz keeps it simple: “I just explain that we are using a case to be a proxy for reality and I invite my students to disagree with me, which can be very surprising for them,” she says. “They soon learn that there are extra marks available, say for a creative approach in group presentations, or a challenge to engage me or the rest of the class, which moves the case discussion on. There is so much energy to be harnessed in a class of undergraduates”.

For Christopher Williams managing expectations is important, especially now undergraduates increasingly pay for their education. “Here, the University publishes up-front descriptions of courses, how they will be taught and how they will be assessed,” he reports. “In particular, if cases are to be used in exams, undergraduates need forewarning because they often come from a learning culture which just examines how much information you have retained.” Back in the classroom, he feels that it is his responsibility to make sure all his students have spoken up. “One needs to be sensitive to each individual. By the end of the course, I try to have helped everyone to contribute and be heard, no matter what cultural or personal backgrounds they may have. I try to make classes fun,” he says. “I find it is important to put students at ease in class; they learn better that way.”  

group of people with puzzle

Another surprise for undergraduates can be the potential ambiguity of a case discussion. According to Winnie O’Grady: “Students are sometimes unsure whether and what they are learning when there is not a ‘right answer’, so I periodically build in ‘time out’ for reflection to enable everyone to consider their progress to date. To help students deal with multiple possible answers we talk about being in the right ballpark, rather than having the right answer, and using the results they have to begin discussing the strategic implications of their analysis.”

Our conversations with faculty revealed that it is not uncommon for them to wonder whether their undergraduates are in fact enjoying learning with the case method. Ian Birchmore decided to find out: “I recently surveyed a second year group of undergraduates after they had returned a case study assignment. I gave them the title of an essay I could have given them to achieve the same learning objectives. They came out 85% to 15% in favour of the case study, a ratio that was almost identical to what I had received when I carried out the same poll a year before,” he reports. “When I asked them why, the reasons they most commonly gave were the greater real-world resonance of the case and the fact that it was just more interesting.”

Demands on the instructor

hult student session

Given the complexities of the undergraduate audience, extra demands are put on instructors, but if our conversations with faculty worldwide for this article have revealed one thing, it is how much care they show for their students and how much creativity and energy they, themselves, put into their case teaching. Mike Guolla tries to consider the learning experiences his undergraduates are having across their whole programme so as to avoid them getting bored. “I use cases in many different ways,” he says. “If I am teaching more than one module to a particular cohort, I make sure each class takes a different approach. I might use group preparation and presentations in one, a short theoretical lecture followed by a short case and discussion in another, or a case exercise in which I invite the students to involve their ubiquitous personal technology and social media in the class for collective background research, or I might bring a real protagonist into class. I try to experiment and do something new every year. That helps keeps my energy levels high too”.

The last word goes to Winnie O’Grady, who surely speaks for all: “My colleagues and I who are developing our use of cases with our undergraduates are learning as we go along. We try to get across to our students that there isn’t necessarily one right answer, and that they should just make a start and refine the process as they go along. That applies to us too: our approach isn't always perfect, but it is an honest attempt to engage and develop our students.”

For those interested in learning more about using cases with undergraduates, The Case Centre will be holding an Inspiration Day - Undergraduates and Cases: Transform your Teaching in June 2017. Find out more >

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Training & resources

Case method training

Undergraduates and Cases: Transform your Teaching

Do you teach undergraduates? Or are you new to teaching undergraduates? Are you looking for fresh and exciting ways to engage and motivate your undergraduate students? If so, come on our Inspiration Day and find out how the case method can transform your teaching and make a real difference to your students' lives.

Venue: Friends House, London, UK
Date: 2 June 2017
Fee: £35, including lunch and course materials

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