Why Teach with the Case Method?

In a case discussion, students "do" the work of the discipline, rather than watch or read about how it is done by others. By engaging in the case, students apply the concepts, techniques and methods of the discipline and improve their ability to apply them. Case discussions bring energy and excitement to the classroom, providing students with an opportunity to work with a range of evidence, and improving their ability to apply the vocabulary, theory and methods they have learned in the course. Introducing the case method, like any change in pedagogical practice, represents an investment of faculty time and energy. Is the investment worth it? I think so, but it is worth thinking about the case method relative to some alternatives, and considering the benefits and costs of introducing it.

Case Method vs Lectures -- The Case for Active Learning

The advantages of incorporating the case method in a fully lecture-based course are best understood as part of the bigger case for active learning techniques in general. A detailed discussion of the benefits of active learning approaches can be found on the active learning site, but it is useful to highlight some main components of the argument:

  • Active learning methods appeal to students in the affective domain, motivating them to engage with the material even when it is quite challenging
  • Students learn the material more deeply, and work with it at a higher level, when they are active generators rather than passive recipients of knowledge
  • Students retain more of the material they do than material they simply read, hear or see

The Special Features of the Case Method

  • Cases are real

    Cases compel students to work on real world problems that are complicated and messy. Those complications force students to hone their skills in finding and using evidence, choosing which concepts, theories and methods are relevant, and ignoring extraneous and irrelevant material, no matter how interesting it may seem.
  • Cases are big

    Written cases are longer than most other kinds of active learning exercises and take more time for students to prepare and for classes to discuss. Cases often have many parts and reflect many points of view, require analyses that involve several steps and involve a variety of kinds of intellectual tasks. The decisions to be made in case analysis push students closer to the top of Bloom's pyramid (Acrobat (PDF) 18kB Apr6 09), since they involve synthetic and evaluative activities.
  • Case discussion is public

    Case discussions, in the whole class or in small groups, help students learn effective listening and response skills, push them to present clear and reasoned arguments and enhance public speaking skills. They provide an opportunity for students to learn from each other, which gives them the opportunity to take ownership of their learning. From the faculty perspective, case discussion provides a great opportunity for on-the-spot assessment of student learning, since the discussion reveals information about individual student's mastery as well as a sense of the gaps in the whole group's learning.

Costs of Introducing the Case Method

Time Costs

  • Time spent teaching cases is time not spent lecturing on other material -- significant incorporation of case teaching means some topics go untaught
  • Preparing to teach a case is as time consuming as preparing a lecture, if not more so

Other Costs and Risks

  • Students may need time to master the method, so early attempts can feel unsuccessful
  • Faculty may need time to master the method, so early attempts can feel unsuccessful
  • Case Method teaching makes students more responsible for their own learning, but also reduces faculty control