3 Case method teaching

While newsclips can easily be accommodated into the standard lecture–seminar structure, the use of longer and more comprehensive case studies requires some adjustments in the organisation of classroom activities.

3.1 Lectures versus case teaching

Teaching a case is very much an exercise in leadership: engaging student participation in the collective exploration of a problem and the effort to reach a joint resolution. In a traditional lecture, you analyse course material and convey your interpretation of it to the class. In a case discussion, the students analyse the material themselves and your function is to guide and facilitate their work: frame the task, focus the enquiry, stimulate interaction, probe thinking, set direction, register progress and bring closure. The different interaction between the instructor, students and course material in lecture and in case discussion is described by Boehrer (1995), as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 4
T: Teacher M: Material S: Students

Figure 4 Interaction in lectures and case teaching

The teacher stands between the material and the students in lecture. In case discussion, the students meet the material more directly, and they interact with each other as well. Your role in teaching a case is to manage those encounters towards purposeful ends and, as the dotted lines suggest, to learn from them as well, about the students and the case. While intellectual and procedural authority (*) belongs to the teacher in lecture, teacher and students share it in case discussion. Both determine what is learned, and students, as well as teachers, can raise questions. With case discussion the exercise is more challenging and interesting. However, the success of the discussion is critically dependent upon a number of factors that need to be carefully considered when planning the introduction of the case method. The remainder of this section discusses these factors.

3.2 Placement

The first task in teaching a case is to place it purposefully within the framework of a module. It is also important to keep in mind that one case will often fit into several modules. Having assigned the case to a module segment, you need to determine where it fits into the sequence of related classes and materials, particularly those that concern theory. The most obvious sequence is to present the theory first, then ask your students to apply it to the case, but cases can contribute to the learning of theory in alternative ways. Pedagogical issues can guide the decision concerning the placement of the case studies. In this respect, you can consider two approaches that are not necessarily exclusive.

Motivating students to learn theory

In the first approach, the case is used to motivate students to learn theory. This can be an extremely successful technique, but it requires careful attention to the timing, selection and teaching of the cases. This application of the case method tends to be more difficult than the use of cases as applications. However, it is especially rewarding, particularly since it increases student engagement in the lectures on theory that follow.

Top Tip: To motivate students to learn theory, discuss a case before the lectures take place.

To be used as motivating devices, cases should be introduced before the students have heard lectures on the relevant aspect of theory. At first, the students will find this approach more difficult, even if engaging. Thus, it is important to reassure them that you are aware that they do not have the theoretical tools necessary to complete the analysis of the case. Take special care to allow them to explore all possible analytical methods without imposing a particular structure. The goal is to allow them to come to the conclusion that they need some analytical tools, and this will happen only if they are given the opportunity to think the problem through on their own.

Make sure that the case you select raises interesting and relevant questions, without undue complexity. Some quantitative data should be included, but you should be careful to avoid overwhelming students with too much information. Select decision-forcing cases where the outcome of the case is not indicated and challenge students to determine what the best course of action would be. This type of case works much better than those with a described outcome.

You should steer the class discussion towards the generation of a list of questions that need to be answered before the problem posed in the case can be solved. This is a better approach than to present the students with a menu of possible solution choices. In this way you stimulate the development of analytical skills in students: break up the problem into simple elements, synthesise them to create a new entity and evaluate possible courses of action. The questions raised in the discussion should be of a type that can be answered by the application of economic theory. Students will tend to pose these questions in terms that are specific to the case. You should gently intervene and guide them to rephrase them in more general terms.

You should end the case discussion with a set of questions that need answers. They will be provided progressively in the lectures that follow the case discussion. In the subsequent lectures, you should restate the questions at the beginning of each lecture to remind students of what they are trying to understand and continue to make the connection between the case and the theory. This use of the case method motivates students to learn theory, primarily because they wish to understand the case and evaluate the arguments presented in it.

The case as an application of theory

The second approach to placement is to use the case as an application of theory, providing students with an opportunity to ‘do’ economics and to apply acquired knowledge in real-world contexts. This approach to case study teaching fulfils other pedagogical goals by inducing students to apply theory, use evidence and recognise the legitimate range of application of economic analysis. In the cognitive skills ladder, the approach helps to develop the higher-order skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation.

Top Tip: Discuss cases after the lectures in order to show the application of theory.

You can structure the learning activities by choosing between two alternative approaches. One option is to introduce a case after each lecture. One or more seminars after the lecture are then dedicated to the analysis of the chosen case. A second option is to teach a series of cases after the completion of a series lectures on a theme. In this instance, the traditional weekly lecture–seminar structure is replaced by a series of lectures followed by a set of case discussions.

This second method is more demanding for students, since it forces them to do more work in figuring out which theory to apply in which case. In this respect it helps to address the pedagogical goal of identifying the relevant theories to apply in economic analysis. The major drawback of such an approach is that it produces a long series of lecture classes uninterrupted by the change of pace provided by cases. This dilemma can be dealt with by teaching some short cases during the part of the class period throughout the lecture sequence. The short cases can be used to reinforce specific theoretical concepts. At the same time, students’ interest is kept alive since application of abstract knowledge to real cases is shown.

Top Tip: Use brief newsclips to intermit the sequence of theory lectures and show the applicability of theory in short cases.

You could then teach two or three broad and more complex cases after all the lectures on the subject have been completed. The choice of how many cases to explore is yours and you should base it on factors such as students’ interest, the availability of cases and the time required to present theory.

3.3 Structuring the case discussion

Case discussions depend upon the active and effective participation of students. Students must get involved and take the prime responsibility for their learning. In this respect there are various issues that students and lecturers need to consider in order to make a success of the case study approach. This section discusses five issues that are pivotal to this success: the relationship between the student and the lecturer; the leading questions that will direct the case study; preparation for the case study by teacher and students; the procedure for the case study; and closure.

The relationship between the student and the lecturer

The relationship between the student and the lecturer is vital to the operation of the case class. Both parties play an important role in making the case method successful, and both the students and the lecturer have duties and responsibilities. To show your commitment to students and to induce students to participate actively in the exercise, you can make an explicit contract with the students at the beginning of the module (see Shapiro, 1984).

Top Tip: At the beginning of the module, establish an explicit contract with the students by showing your expectations of their performance and yours.

The contract will describe how the teacher and students will be expected to behave with dedication, responsibilities, integrity and a commitment to excellence. Students should commit themselves to the ‘4 Ps’ of the student involvement in case discussion:

  • Preparation. If the student does not read and analyse the case, and then formulate an action plan, the case discussion will mean little.
  • Presence. If the student is not present, she or he cannot learn and, more important, cannot add her or his unique thoughts and insight to the group discussion.
  • Promptness. Students who enter the classroom late disrupt the discussion.
  • Participation. Each student’s learning is best facilitated by regular participation.

The students will, over time, grow to understand the importance of these four elements, but it is important that they are stressed early in the module. Your contractual responsibilities might typically include:

  • careful and complete preparation for the classroom experience;
  • concern and devotion to the students in all dealings;
  • striving to make the course a satisfying development experience.

In general, the more you do, the more the students will do. By showing your commitment to the students, by being well prepared and by showing concern for the students, you will be able to extract a similar level of commitment on the part of the students. Nothing creates student commitment to preparation as much as having the instructor quote case facts, such as numbers, from memory in the first class. Students will generally prepare up to, but not beyond, the standards of preparation shown by the instructor.

Leading questions that will direct the case study

The central task in teaching a case is asking questions, to guide students’ preparation, to guide discussion and to facilitate students’ participation. They are your fundamental means of mediating your students’ encounter with the case and managing their interaction. In planning case teaching, it is important to identify central aspects of the case and to formulate key questions that will direct students’ investigation.

A case discussion requires just a few major discussion questions. Class sessions seldom afford time for more than three to five. Typically, they encompass defining the problem, selecting among action alternatives and reflecting more broadly on the situation. A typical sequence of questions would invite observation, analysis, prescription and then evaluation. Questions such as ‘what stands out?’, ‘how does it fit together?’, ‘what should be done?’ and ‘what does it all mean?’ help students to focus on their main objective and set the boundaries within which the discussion should be conducted.

Preparation for the case study by teacher and students

The foundation of good case discussion is preparation – the students’ as well as your own (Hitchner, 1977; Zimmerman, 1985; Gomez-Ibañez, 1986; Lundberg, 1993). The contract that you agree with the students at the beginning of the module should emphasise the importance of discussion learning and clarify your view of the connection between their participation and their learning. You can use three common tactics for stimulating students’ preparation:

  • Study question. You can assign study questions to guide students’ reading of the case with the aim of a) getting them to organise the information in the case for themselves, b) focusing on key discussion issues and c) beginning the analysis of those issues.
  • Encourage conversation. You can encourage preliminary conversation of the case among students by organising study groups of five or six students or simply suggesting that students meet informally to talk about the case before class. Group work increases the incentives for students to prepare individually and enables them to pool information and try out ideas. It also helps to build confidence for participating in class discussion.
  • Written assignment. You can also ask the students to prepare a brief written assignment. The thinking required by a written piece of work usually results in a deeper discussion. You could, for example, ask the students to provide some tentative conclusions, as in a one-page memo from a policy adviser or a short economic report. You can then decide to collect this written assignment and make it part of the overall assessment, or simply use it as a means of giving feedback to the students. Writing encourages thinking and reflection.

Top Tip: You can use the communication facilities in a Virtual Learning Environment to stimulate discussion among students.

As part of your preparation for the case discussion you should consider the following:

  • Structured questions. You could formulate questions to foster discussion and guide the students towards a full exploration of the case. You also need to master the information in the case.
  • Anticipate students’ reactions. List key facts and issues, outline the situation, summarise different actors’ perspectives and consider alternative analyses of the problem as you prepare to react effectively to what your students say.
  • Organise the discussion. Plan how you will display the students’ analysis on the white boards and arrange the room, if you can, to enable them to see and talk directly to each other. Think in advance whether you want to stage any role-play during the discussion. Plan how you might open the discussion, which students you might ask particular questions and what transition you can make from one question to the next.

Example: teaching trade policy with the case method

This example is drawn from an article by Velenchik (1995) and shows how the case method is used at the beginning of a trade policy course. The course starts with a case discussion of a several-page transcript of the congressional testimony of the president of the National Association of Manufacturers of Scissors and Shears with regard to a proposed reduction in tariffs pursuant to the Trade Expansion Act of 1962. He argues that the tariff must be maintained, and his testimony in support of this belief includes both quantitative and qualitative data, as well as several attempts at analysis of the situation in the industry, not all of which are correct. He makes statements about the competition from German and Japanese industries, the employment consequences of tariff removal, and the importance of scissors and shears to the domestic economy. The case provides students with the opportunity both to evaluate the veracity of the testimony and to consider how they would go about deciding whether to maintain the tariff.

The students were given the case before the class discussion and they were encouraged to prepare some written analysis of it. These reports were not marked but students could receive informal feedback from the lecturer on request.

In the course of the analysis, students discover that their decision depends on the answers to some specific questions requiring knowledge and tools they do not yet possess. By the end of the class, students have produced a list of questions that usually include the following:

  • What determines a country’s trade pattern?
  • Is free trade good?
  • Who gains and who loses from trade?
  • How do tariffs affect these gains and losses?
  • What are the efficiency and equity trade-offs in making trade policy?

However, students do not usually generate these questions in this form. The class usually begins with a question like ‘Why is the US scissors industry less and less able to compete with Japan and Germany?’ and from there, with some gentle prodding on the lecturer’s part, develop the more general form in the first question above. The case motivates students to learn theory, primarily because they wish to understand the case and evaluate the arguments presented in it. After the case, the lecturer gives a series of lectures on the basics of trade theory and the theory of commercial policy, making frequent references to the case and to the questions the students raised.

Procedure for the case study

The process of case discussion needs to be carefully structured and managed (Shapiro, 1984; Boehrer, 1995).

You need to provide the discussion with context and direction, draw your students into the case situation, keep their comments focused on the current question, help them develop their ideas, encourage their efforts and challenge their thinking, pull the strands of conversation together, and bring the whole exercise to some sort of conclusion. (Boehrer, 1995, p. 6)

In managing the discussion process, you should consider the following issues:

  • Introduction. It is a good idea to start framing the discussion with a few remarks that tie the case into the module and set an overall direction.
  • Role-play. At the beginning of the session you can ask students to put themselves in the position of one or more of the economic agents involved in the case. Much of the power of the case to engage student thinking and generate learning through discussions lies in its being a real story that comes to life when students inhabit or take ownership of the situation and face the problem as if it were their own. You can decide to assign students to specific roles before class, but it can also help if you make them act spontaneously.
  • Generate participation. Once the first question has been posed, it is your task to generate participation. You can use various techniques to stimulate discussion. You can invite a couple of students to open the discussion and give them time to think while you make your opening remarks. When they have commented, you can open the conversation to the rest of the class. Well-prepared students will volunteer while others will need to be called upon. Try not to surprise the students: make advanced eye contact; call them by name and ask a question that they can decline. You should spread participation around the room and be selective.
  • Active listening. Your role as a listener in the discussion is a critical element in establishing the students’ ownership of the discussion. You should limit your own comments during the discussion and you should be sure to listen hard and carefully to each comment. Your listening should be active insofar as it encourages elaboration, confirms your understanding and asks for evidence or illustration from the case. It is often necessary to act as interpreter to make what one student says clear or accessible to the rest of the class. You may also have to ask for the relevance of a comment, or remind the group what the current question is, in order to keep focus. You may want to probe a student’s reasoning or assumptions, or challenge the thinking you hear. In order to encourage students to participate and to voice their ideas, you need to make sure that their interventions are respected and protected. Protection does not mean that standards are low and any idea is accepted and embraced. It does mean that such a comment is not ridiculed but is subject to positive, critical review, preferably by other students’ comments.
  • Use of the white board. You should record your students’ contribution on the board. This will help them to track the discussion and help you to reflect their thinking. The board can also be helpful in occasionally summarising and assessing the students’ progression. Use the board to list and prioritise topics and to compare and contrast contributions. The board might also be used for flow diagrams and tables that list advantages and disadvantages or arguments for and against a proposal. It is important for you to remember that the board provides students with important feedback by setting each contribution in context and by providing a critical review of the significance of comments.

Top Tip: Use the board to clarify conflicts and issues. Do not use the board as a passive recording device.

  • Keep to the teaching plan. Keeping your teaching plan in mind will alert you to openings to subsidiary issues and the next major question. By planning your questions in advance, you make a smooth transition between issues more likely. When an opening emerges from the discussion, you should decide how to proceed. If the previous issue has been well explored, you can briefly summarise it and continue the discussion of the new opening. Taking an opening when it comes helps to keep the discussion moving. On the other hand, if the previous issue has not been fully explored, you can acknowledge the opening and reserve it as the next step in the discussion after the conclusion of the present issue. When a spontaneous issue emerges, you can consider adjusting your teaching plan if you regard it as an important development in the discussion. Often some of the best discussions take their directions from student questions.


It is important that at the end of the discussion you provide a structured closure. To be satisfying, the exercise requires some sense of completion, even if time runs short. One class seldom exhausts the possibilities of a good case. However, irrespective of the state of the discussion, you should reserve some minutes to end it.

The notes on the board can represent a starting point for your summary. You must be careful not to invalidate your students’ work by presenting a solution to the case. Though good cases concern problems that have no single correct answer, some students feel ‘lost’ if they do not get a clear-cut answer to a problem. It is your task to make them understand that the most important aspect of the whole exercise is their ability to provide a structured approach to the problem. Whether the analysis leads them to one solution or another simply helps them understand how many real-world outcomes are determined by circumstances and other external factors.

A good summary of the discussion should also involve the students. If the discussion itself has generated new questions, it will be worthwhile to formulate them as an invitation to continued exploration. They may help you tie the case into upcoming classes. In general, however you end the class, a good sign of a successful case discussion is if your students keep talking about the case after its end.

3.4 What makes a good case?

Once you have decided to adopt the case method in your teaching, you need to find the cases to use in your classes. You have two options. You can use ‘ready-made’ cases supplied in textbooks or by academic institutions. Harvard Business School Publishing and the Case Program at the Kennedy School of Government are the natural places to look at for such cases. Suggested sources of available case studies are indicated in section 4.

Alternatively, you can decide to create your own case studies. As mentioned above, you can use a gradual approach and take newspaper articles as your starting point. Contacts with members of the business community, consultancies and research work in external agencies can constitute other sources of inspiration. Robyn (1986) discusses the core elements of a good case, and some guidelines to take into consideration when developing a case are summarised below:

  • Pedagogical utility. The most important question you should ask yourself is: what teaching function will the case serve? What pedagogic issues will the case raise? Are those issues that cannot be raised equally well or better by an existing case? The rule of thumb for judging the pedagogical value of a potential case is: ‘Every case needs a theory’. The corollary to this rule is that cases should not be thought of in isolation but rather as part of a module or course sequence.
  • Conflict provoking. Controversy is the essence of a good case discussion: it engages the students; it forces them to analyse and defend their position; and it demonstrates to them that, while there are generally no right answers, there are certain questions that it is essential to ask. Most cases are fundamentally about something controversial: a policy over which people disagree; a managerial decision that involves difficult trade-offs; an ethically questionable business decision. In preparing your case, you can ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this an issue about which reasonable people could disagree?’
  • Decision forcing. Generally a case works better if it leaves decisions unresolved. That is, it is helpful if the case presents a choice or decision that confronts a manager or analyst without revealing what the protagonist did and the consequences of that action. A case that forces students to make a decision will prove more effective at getting them to take the first-person perspective rather than looking on from the outside.
  • Generality. A measure of a good case is its generalisation to some larger class of economic or analytical problems. Usually, if a case is interesting because it is unique, it is probably not a very useful case pedagogically.
  • Brevity. Cases that are too long and that contain too many facts tend to keep the discussion grounded in particulars. Thus, brevity is generally desirable.
  • Quantitative information. The cases should contain quantitative information presented in a variety of forms, including tables, charts and graphs. Ideally, some of this information would be irrelevant, some would need additional manipulation in order to be useful and all would require significant interpretation beyond that provided in the text of the case.
  • Institutional and historical knowledge. While the analysis of the case should require students to use theory learned outside the context of the case, it is important to select cases that do not require students to posses a large stock of institutional or historical knowledge. Usually, students have different backgrounds and cases that require previous knowledge tend to disadvantage students whose backgrounds are less comprehensive. However, if you decide to use such a case, make sure that you provide students with an accompanying handout, including definitions or some historical information if the case is incomplete.

3.5 Assessment within the case method approach

The case method does not provide any prescription about the strategy to use in assessment. For example, Carlson and Schodt (1995) report assessing their students through exam (70 per cent) and homework and case discussion (30 per cent). However, alternative strategies are feasible. In general, the issues raised in subsection 2.4 hold within the case method approach. However, given the particular importance of participation and class discussion for the case method, you should consider making class attendance compulsory and awarding grades for the level of class discussion.

You might also consider group work as a viable and effective way of developing both subject-specific and transferable skills. For example, groups of students could be given separate cases to investigate. Their findings could be summarised in a written report and presented to other students, who will have an opportunity to test their colleagues. This strategy will help students to develop an ability to work with others and to present in public, and it also encourages greater discussion among students.

3.6 The costs of adopting the case method

The pedagogical value of the case method has been discussed throughout the chapter. However, you must be prepared to face the following costs if you intend to introduce the case method in your teaching.

  • Class control. The use of the case discussion means that you trade off considerable control over the class outcome for a dynamic, student-centred exercise. This can be problematic. By allowing students to express their ideas, the case method gives some students the impression that all ideas are equally good. It is up to you to guide the class through the process of distinguishing between good and bad ideas. Similarly, students do not always take away from the discussion the ideas one hopes. Even if this problem is common to other teaching methods, it is particularly evident in case analysis. However, a good closure at the end of the case discussion can help reduce or eliminate such a problem.
  • Preparation costs. Preparing and conducting a case discussion tends to demand more energy and time than lecturing. It is still relatively difficult to find good cases in economics and instructors find they must spend time working them up themselves.
  • Students’ preparation. Students must prepare much more than they typically do for seminars and they must also take the risk of expressing their ideas in public and being willing for these ideas to be subject to critical review.
  • Breadth of curriculum. Teaching cases takes time and it can lead to the elimination of some material from the curriculum that would have otherwise been presented. However, the experience from lecturers who have adopted the case method shows that while students tend to have a less thorough and detailed knowledge of models, they have a good understanding of the fundamental insights and basic mechanics of some central ideas in economic theory and are able to apply them to the analysis of policy. What they learn is not what we cover.
  • Colleagues’ involvement. The use of the case method in big modules where the teaching is shared among more than one lecturer requires that all those involved in the teaching share the same passion and belief in the method. Sometimes it can be difficult to find such co-operation. In this respect, it can be helpful to prepare relatively detailed teaching notes that simplify the work required by colleagues and promote consistency in the teaching approach.