Teaching with the Case Method in Economics

Initial Publication Date: November 13, 2009
Most of what you'll need to know to use the Case Method effectively in the Economics classroom can be found in the main Teaching with the Case Method module. What follows here are the answers to some Economics specific questions.

In what Economics courses can the Case Method be used?

I know faculty members who use the method in courses ranging from Principles to graduate level seminars. I have used it with great success in Principles and Intermediate Microeconomics, in intermediate level undergraduate courses in International Trade and Economic Development as well as in advanced seminars on the Economies of Africa and Economic Development. It can work in 10 student seminars and in very large lecture courses. While some people teach virtually all of the material in the course using cases (see Tony Gomez-Ibanez' micro course at the Kennedy School, for example), most people use cases in courses in which they are also lecturing and doing other forms of active learning.

How are Cases different from Examples?

Although some instructors feel that they can use the case method to present new theoretical or methodological material to students, most case method teachers use the method as application of theory that students have learned in lecture, or to motivate the introduction of theoretical concepts to come. Cases are richer, more complicated and more compelling than the examples we usually include in our lectures or draw from textbooks. Because they are based in the real world, cases don't always fit the theory "neatly" and require students to think carefully about which theoretical concepts to use and how to use them. They also ask students to look at real world data and figure out how to apply definitions and concepts to interpreting those complex data. Most important, though, unlike an example in which the instructor walks the students through the application of economics to the example, the case method instructor guides students while they do the application themselves.

Where do I find good Economics cases?

A list of good cases sources can be found on the Where to Get Good Cases page. These cases are often accompanied by teaching notes that will guide you in your use of the case.

Most case teachers also make their own cases, often starting with news stories. In recent years, I have found a number of good sources on National Public Radio. Using NPR materials allows students to both listen to the story and read the transcript. While these stories sometimes do include analysis, the analysis is rarely complete, certainly doesn't incorporate diagrams, and almost always leaves open significant avenues for discussion that explains what is happening in the story, evaluates the policy or program it describes, and considers alternative solutions to the problem presented. Recently I heard a story about outdoor wood boilers on NPR's Living on Earth, and I plan to use that story to develop a case to use in a course on economic policy I am teaching in the Fall of 2009. I'll post the case when it is completed.

Don't be daunted by the formality of published cases -- the material you produce yourself need not be a seamlessly woven narrative with beautifully crafted exhibits to be successful fodder for case discussion. The examples section of this module includes a number of things drawn from the press and other sources that have been effectively used in classrooms for many years.

Small groups and role play in an Economics classroom:

Economics cases are particularly well suited to both small groups and role play. It can be useful to divide the class into small groups to work on specific analytic and technical tasks (making calculations, drawing diagrams) that they can then report back to the larger group. In a case about U.S. peanut policy, for example, I frequently have one group of students draw a diagram illustrating the effect of the price floor, another to illustrate the effect of the import quota, and a third to draw the effect of the growing permit program. A representative of each group comes to put the diagram on the board, and then they all get combined together. Having the students work in groups helps produce good results -- it is unusual for an entire group of students to produce output that is way off base, while individual students might have difficulty getting to the correct answer on their own.

Economics cases are also great for role play. Policy questions often have winners and losers, marketplaces involve producers and consumers, and domestic and foreign governments are also frequent actors. Role play not only heightens debate during the discussion (and is often an instance in which students surprise you with their passion and eloquence), it also reinforces the idea of competing interests and the complexity of measuring social welfare and designing policy.