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