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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.