How to Teach a Case

Initial Publication Date: November 13, 2009

You can't wing this. The secret to successful teaching is instructor preparation, which is why introducing the method can be so time-consuming. Here are some guidelines about what to do before, during, and after leading your students in discussion.


Master the case

The best case discussions happen when the instructor is extremely familiar with the information in the case. An effective case instructor will have spent considerable time learning the case, which also explains why so many of us hate to stop using cases that have worked effectively for us. Read the case several times, following the instructions you gave students. Take notes and mark important places in the text for easy reference. Do all of the analytical steps you would ask your students to do.

Plan your approach

Leading a case discussion consists of two primary activities: questioning and listening. Although every discussion is different, it is important to have an overarching plan. Start with your pedagogical goal, and be sure that your goal drives what you do in the classroom. Working backward from that goal, think about the problem solving steps you would have your students go through, divide them into chunks and then think about the order those chunks need to go in. Design questions to get them through those steps. A standard set of steps might follow the following arc:

  1. Describe the situation
  2. Define possible actions
  3. Identify the consequences of each action choice
  4. Select the "best" action
  5. Summarize and generalize the case.

The "big" questions in the discussion should move the students through this arc, but you should also prepare a series of questions designed to do smaller tasks, including:

  • Getting information from the case into the discussion
  • Drawing student attention to important information they have missed
  • Inducing students to respond to one another
  • Fostering debate
  • Clarifying previous questions and student comments
  • Pushing students to support their claims and defend their points of view.

The examples in this module include teaching notes with suggested questions.

Finally, be prepared for the unexpected. Your students may veer down a different path. How will you handle it?

Think about your classroom. Can you rearrange seating to maximize students' ability to see and hear one another? Where will you be standing? Will you use a blackboard to keep track of the discussion? Are you technologically prepared? Is the technology ready to go?


Be a facilitator

During the discussion, the instructor acts as a guide or conductor, steering student participation to meet pedagogical goals and keeping the discussion moving. It is the instructor's job to make sure that the important ideas in the case get aired, that the discussion does not get bogged down in irrelevancies and that a range of ideas are expressed. Most important, the instructor needs to make sure that the discussion of the case meets his pedagogical goals. This is a process of questioning, listening, and questioning again. Note that the instructor role shifts dramatically, and perhaps uncomfortably, from content provider to process facilitator. There will be a certain frustration level in your students as they analyze the case. You will need to jump in and give more guidance when this frustration gets too high, but rapidly telling students the answer is not appropriate either.

Incorporate other techniques

It's often a good idea to incorporate other active learning techniques. Divide students into small groups either as they prepare for the case or during discussion. Use role play to get students to put themselves in the shoes of actors in the case. These roles can be assigned in advance (a good tactic to use with reluctant speakers) or taken up on the fly. Small groups are especially well suited to role playing. It can be very formal (see the Wesselman Woods public hearing example by Eric Ribbens), in which a large number of students are assigned specific roles, or it can be a part of the jigsaw technique, in which students are assigned roles, each role discusses their strategy, and then are redivided into groups of different roles to solve the problem.

After: Wrapping up the Case

At the end of a case discussion it is useful to take a few moments to summarize the discussion, highlighting the key analytical and conceptual points. Most students don't take notes during the case discussion (although some may write down what gets put up on the board) and some final summarizing remarks from the instructor can give them some record of the discussion to use for future reference.

The end of the discussion is also a good time for the instructor to get a sense of what students are taking away from the discussion. Students can be asked to do a form of one minute paper in which they are asked to write down their answers to a few questions, including "What was the main point of the case? What did you learn from the discussion? How well do you think you performed? What did you like or dislike about the discussion?"