The Handbook for Economics Lecturers

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.