The Case Method Teaching
“How we teach is what we teach”- John McArthur (former Dean Harvard B. School)
The Case Method
Having attempted a specific definition of the case, let us now turn to defining the case method: It makes sense to think of it as the development of a subject by the assignment, study and discussion of a large number of cases in planned combination, even though the case may not be the only methodology used in the course. Planned combination means that a case is placed at a specific point in time for a reason related to the learning objectives of the course and therefore builds on previous ones and prepares for the ones that will follow.
The following would be some examples:
- Assigning cases with the exclusive objective of applying principles previously taught (situations where the student “solves” the case according to the guidelines carefully presented earlier).
- Lecturing about case situations (showing how deep is the knowledge of the situation that we treasure and how familiar we are with the company or the industry…).
- Using a case to give students -or the teacher- a break after a number of normal lecture-type sessions or as an aperitif of some real case course coming afterwards.
In the classroom, a case can be lectured, theorised or illustrated (used as a war story) and the lecturer can even get away with it (if done only a few times). At the end of the day, however, we must ask ourselves the real learning that has taken place (and not only the “preaching”). In fact, if our teaching objective is to communicate knowledge, the case method has proved to be one of the least efficient methodologies to use.
Let us clarify from the very beginning what we mean by a case and by the case method using some ideas presented by Erskine and Leenders in their book “Teaching with Cases”. (Erskine, Leenders & Mauffette Leenders: Teaching with Cases; School of Business Administration; University of Western Ontario. 1981).
What a case is not…
- A well-structured and defined problem with a specific solution (and only one); problems presented in a case can be approached using different actions, but this should not be an argument to justify that “anything goes”, because some approaches will always be better grounded on analysis. – A technical exercise, which is usually connected with resource optimisation given certain constraints (and therefore also with one answer).
- An arm-chair example not taken out of reality; although some very senior faculty can generate a case that duplicates real life almost perfectly, most “case creators” will be too influenced by their own biases and simplify the situation too much.
- An example to illustrate correct handling of an administrative situation. Even though quite a lot can be learned about possible managerial approaches and relevant industry practices as a by-product of the case method, these learning benefits tend to be very short lived.
What a case is…
- A description of an actual administrative situation, involving a problem, and therefore a need to make a decision (explicitly or implicitly). Written from the viewpoint of the decision maker and therefore inviting readers to identify with him/her and face the decision.
- A chunk of reality brought into the classroom, simulating as much as possible a decision-making setting but still keeping it in a “laboratory” environment where qualified observation will take place and risk of failure is non-existent.
- A vehicle to do clinical research; although many of our colleagues might argue with the academic rigour of such an approach, working with a sample of one (or a very small sample anyway) can be extremely enlightening when we deal with complex entities like organisations.
A case is a collection of facts; it forces students to digest, interpret and find meaning to the information given to them usually in an unstructured way (such as it comes in real life). This task is always a requisite for discovery, so it vividly shows to what extent analysis can enhance our “intuition”. It may be convenient at this point to remember Napoleon’s definition of intuition as “the solution that comes spontaneously to our minds about an issue that has been thought over for a long time”. It can be said that case method learning is one of the situations where the “NO PAIN, NO GAIN” principle applies.
References: ‘THE CASE METHOD’, prof Joe Pons, IMTA 2010.