The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

1.2 The pedagogy of case studies

The case method is based on a philosophy of professional education which associates knowledge directly with action (Boehrer, 1995). This philosophy rejects the doctrine that students should first learn passively, and then, having learned, should apply knowledge. Instead, the case method is based on the principle that real education consists of the cumulative and unending acquisition, combination and reordering of learning experiences.

There are two fundamental principles underpinning the case method. First, the best-learned lessons are the ones that students teach themselves, through their own struggles. Second, many of the most useful kinds of understanding and judgement cannot be taught but must be learned through practical experience. When instructors assign problems or papers in a course, they are motivated by a similar concern: by working through the problem set on their own or writing the paper, students reach a deeper understanding of the concepts and ideas than they would have if they only read the text or listened passively to lectures. Case method teaching extends this principle to make preparing for class and the class session itself an active learning experience for students. By using complex real-world problems as the focus, it challenges students to learn skills that will be appropriate to deal with the practical problems that they will face as economists, civil servants or private managers.

Teaching through the case method allows educators to address specific pedagogical issues and to develop higher-order skills in students. Velenchik (1995) highlights four pedagogical issues addressed by the case method:

  • Motivation to learn theory. In general, undergraduate economics courses tend to treat applications as secondary to the exposition of theory. In our teaching we often use examples to illustrate the application of particular theoretical concepts. However, we tend to use the example to reinforce the theory, having taught the theory first, rather than thinking of the theory as a set of tools for answering the question posed by the application. The focus, therefore, is on the theory itself, and the application is often perceived as incidental. When students do not understand the purpose of theory, the process of learning becomes more dry and difficult than it needs to be, and they often fail to grasp the tools they need. In the case method, the problem that the students are challenged to solve takes centre stage. They soon realise that they do not have the tools and they start looking for the tools. They want to learn theory.
  • Application of theory. The ultimate goal of economics education is to enable students to apply economic reasoning to particular policy issues. The focus is generally as much on the process of policy analysis as on the specific area of policy. One method for illustrating the process is through examples related to lectures. However, this is problematic. The example is often preceded by theory, so that students think of the application as a use of the theory, rather than seeing the theory as a tool for dealing with the issues raised by the application. Examples are commonly selected because they are good illustrations of particular theoretical concepts, but they do little to help students learn which theories are appropriate for which kinds of policy problem. On the other hand, the case method requires the student to identify the theory that best addresses the economic problem under investigation.
  • Use of evidence. Empirical analysis, guided by theoretical concepts and analytical tools, is central to many economics modules. Students are often required to develop an ability to use quantitative evidence. This often involves a number of tasks, including determining what types of evidence are relevant measures of particular phenomena, evaluating the credibility of available information, performing calculations to arrive at appropriate and useful measures, and finding the best way to convey this information using tables and graphs. In this respect, although the lecture and example method usually provides students with some exposure to quantitative information, it does not require them to do the work themselves. A prepared classroom example does not provide training in how to select, manipulate and present such evidence; nor does it help students learn to interpret evidence themselves. Case studies include raw data that students have to manipulate, represent and comment on in order to solve the problem.
  • Limitation of theory. One of the most difficult aspects of applying economic analysis is understanding which parts of a question can be answered by economic analysis, and which are best addressed using other disciplines. In particular, students need to learn the difference between identifying economic consequences of a policy choice and considering these decisions in the broader social and political context in which policy-makers and business leaders find themselves. It is difficult to use a lecture and example to fulfil these goals, since classroom examples are often abstracted from their context. The case method forces students to be confronted with the broader (non-economic) consequences of economic decisions.

The case method can also be used in a very effective way in order to move students gradually up the cognitive skills ladder from the low skills levels of knowledge, comprehension and application to the higher and more desirable skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation. This educational taxonomy was originally proposed by Bloom (1956) and, even if not uncontested, it provides a transparent and structured approach to the development of students’ skills. The following list describes this educational taxonomy and then explains how the case method helps in developing each of the skills.

  • Knowledge. This refers to the student’s ability to remember previously learned information. It involves the recall of a wide range of material but all that is required is bringing appropriate information to mind, not necessarily understanding its meaning. The case method is probably not the most efficient way to convey knowledge. However, in combination with some lectures, it can be used to broaden knowledge.
  • Comprehension. This skill is defined as the ability to grasp the meaning of material and it can be demonstrated by translating material from one form to another, by interpreting material and by extrapolating information. By basing knowledge within a real-world context, the case method supports and facilitates the comprehension of basic knowledge.
  • Application. This is the ability to use learned material in new and concrete situations. It may include the application of rules, methods, concepts, principles, law and theories. Through the analysis of policy decisions or business strategies, students develop an understanding of how theory is applied in real-world contexts.
  • Analysis. This identifies the ability to break down material into its component parts so that its organisational structure may be understood. The process generally includes identification of the parts, analysis of the relationships among the parts and recognition of the organisational principles involved. As already mentioned, analysis is at the centre of the case method. The case studies require students to break down complex information, establish relationships and identify issues.
  • Synthesis. This skill refers to the ability to put parts together to form a new whole. The process may involve, for example, the production of a unique communication (presentation) or a plan of operations (research proposal). Case studies foster this skill by requiring students to identify relevant information, summarise fundamental concepts and present a concise summary of main events.
  • Evaluation. Critical evaluation is concerned with the ability to judge the value of material for a given purpose. After having analysed and synthesised a particular case, students are required to engage in an evaluation of alternative policies or strategies available to policy-makers or business leaders. This can include an evaluation of decisions already taken against possible alternative solutions.

The case method is a rich and powerful approach to the development of cognitive skills in students. It is also a flexible approach, in the sense that lecturers can use it in alternative ways. These are discussed in the next section.