Pedagogy in Action > Library > Teaching with the Case Method > What is Teaching with the Case Method?

What is Teaching with the Case Method?

The case method combines two elements: the case itself and the discussion of that case. A teaching case is a rich narrative in which individuals or groups must make a decision or solve a problem. A teaching case is not a "case study" of the type used in academic research. Teaching cases provide information, but neither analysis nor conclusions. The analytical work of explaining the relationships among events in the case, identifying options, evaluating choices and predicting the effects of actions is the work done by students during the classroom discussion.

What are Cases?

Cases are narratives that contain information and invite analysis. Participants are put in the position of making decisions or evaluations based on the information available. Cases can be acquired from the formal, purpose written material available from such sources as the Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School or constructed by faculty members from newspaper articles, cartoons, radio stories and even grocery store coupons and fliers. (See the examples collection.)

Cases can involve situations in which decisions must be made or problems solved, or they can involve evaluation or reconsideration of existing policies, practices or proposals. Effective cases are usually based on real events, but can be drawn from both the present and the past, even the distant past. Cases require students to make choices about what theory or concepts to apply in conducting the analysis, which is distinct from the one to one correspondence between theory and application that they see in their textbooks or hear in lectures.

How do Cases differ from other kinds of examples?

Unlike examples from textbooks or those we insert in lectures, cases include information but provide no analysis. Cases present students with complex, unstructured problems that may include extraneous or irrelevant information and often don't include every piece of information an analyst would like to have. Unlike problem sets, they do not break the problem down into clear steps, and frequently have no single "right" answer. Cases provide a rich contextual way to introduce new material and create opportunities for students to apply the material they have just learned. The same overarching case can even can be used several times in the same course, as students return to the story of the case with new analytical techniques and tools. Cases require students to make choices about what theory or concepts to apply in conducting the analysis, which is distinct from the one to one correspondence between theory and application that they see in their textbooks or hear in lectures.

What happens in a Case Method classroom?

In classroom discussion, students analyze the information in the case and use it to solve the problem set up by the case. The discussion can take many forms, including closely directed questioning by faculty to help students draw out the information from the case and identify the central decisions or evaluations that need to be made, more open-ended questions and discussions as students evaluate options and weigh the evidence, and small group work by students focused on specific analytical tasks. Many faculty members use role-play as a technique to put students completely in the case environment. Ideally, case method discussions involve mostly conversation between and among students, rather than discussion centered on direct participation by the faculty member. Many case method teachers describe their role as conductor, facilitator, or guide, drawing attention to their role in setting up discussion in which students are the primary participants.

In what contexts are cases used?

Faculty members use cases in any environment in which they can effectively manage discussion. There are faculty members using it successfully in very large courses (Steve Lamy at USC teaches cases to as many as 300 introductory IR students) and others who use it in very small graduate classes, though very large classes and very small classes can pose particular challenges in generating sufficient participation, focusing attention, or producing the diverse viewpoints that make discussion rich. Cases are used effectively to teach critical thinking and quantitative reasoning, and have been successfully applied in a wide range of disciplines including political science, economics, law, business, chemistry, history, and linguistics, and in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms.



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