The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

1.1 The case method

The case method was born out of research, teaching and consultancy activities at Harvard Business School. Over the years, case programmes have been established at both Harvard Business School and the Kennedy School of Government. The experience accumulated by tutors and teachers is shared through the publication of short papers that discuss the various pedagogical approaches to case method teaching (see, for example, Boehrer, 1995; Shapiro, 1994). The classical case method has three main components: the case itself, the students’ preparation for the case, and the discussion that takes place in the classroom.

Cases are stories about situations in which individuals or groups must make a decision or solve a problem. Cases supply students with information, but not analysis. Although many cases are drawn from real events in which decisions have been made and the outcome is known, most do not describe the decision itself, leaving students with the task of determining what the correct course of action would be. Case method teaching is a form of discussion teaching in which students prepare a case, either individually or in groups, and then seek collectively through in-class discussion to discover a solution to the problem presented by the case.

Unlike problem sets, cases do not set the problem out in clear steps; nor do they lead to a single correct answer. Unlike examples used in lectures, textbooks or scholarly articles used for discussions, cases contain facts and description but no analysis. The story in the case can be told in narrative form, with numerical data, charts or graphs, with maps or other illustrations, or with a combination of all these techniques.

Newspapers and magazine articles, insofar as they chronicle events without presenting analysis, can effectively be used as cases. This is true even for articles describing a policy decision or an action that has already been made, as long as they do not provide an analysis of the decision-making process itself. Cases can often be composed of a number of newspaper articles, particularly if they present different points of views about a single issue. For the inexperienced lecturer, approaching case method for the first time, newspaper articles (or newsclips) on a particular case can be effectively used as the first step towards the gradual development of an in-depth and comprehensive account of the case. This ‘progressive’ approach to the use of case studies will be discussed in more detail later in the chapter.

The success of the case study method is critically dependent upon student preparation. Students must come to class well versed in the facts of the case and prepared to provide an analysis of these facts. In the early stages of a module, it is usually helpful to provide students with study questions to guide their preparation, including questions aimed at focusing attention and questions that help them to begin the analytical process. These questions generally ask students to think about the relationships between the facts and events described in the case.

The in-class discussion, the core of case method teaching, is flexible enough to accommodate a variety of different strategies for involving students. Role playing, for example, heightens the identification of students with actors in the case. Students may be organised into groups as a means of building consensus or of sharpening conflict. Students might prepare the case within a group or form groups more spontaneously during the course of discussion. Individual or group presentations can be the starting point of the discussion.