Cases are narratives, situations, select data samplings, or statements that present unresolved and provocative issues, situations, or questions (Indiana University Teaching Handbook, 2005). The case method is a participatory, discussion-based way of learning where students gain skills in critical thinking, communication, and group dynamics. It is a type of problem-based learning. Often seen in the professional schools of medicine, law, and business, the case method is now used successfully in disciplines such as engineering, chemistry, education, and journalism. Students can work through a case during class as a whole or in small groups.
In addition to the definition above, the case method of teaching (or learning):
- Is a partnership between students and teacher as well as among students.
- Promotes more effective contextual learning and long-term retention.
- Involves trust that students will find the answers.
- Answers questions not only of “how” but “why.”
- Provides students the opportunity to “walk around the problem” and to see varied perspectives.
(Bruner, 2002, and Christensen, Garvin, and Sweet, 1991)
What is the value of the case method?
Bruner (1991) states that the case method:
- Is effective: It employs active learning, involves self-discovery where the teacher serves as facilitator.
- Builds the capacity for critical thinking: It uses questioning skills as modeled by the teacher and employs discussion and debates.
- Exercises an administrative point of view: Students must develop a framework for making decisions.
- Models a learning environment: It offers an exchange and flow of ideas from one person to another and achieves trust, respect, and risk-taking.
- Models the process of inductive learning-from-experience: It is valuable in promoting life-long learning. It also promotes more effective contextual learning and long-term retention.
- Mimics the real world: Decisions are sometimes based not on absolute values of right and wrong, but on relative values and uncertainty.
What are some ways to use the case method appropriately?
Choose an appropriate case
Cases can be any of the following (Indiana University Teaching Handbook, 2005):
- Finished cases based on facts; these are useful for purposes of analysis.
- Unfinished open-ended cases; where the results are not clear yet, so the student must predict, make suggestions, and conclusions.
- Fictional cases that the teacher writes; the difficulty is in writing these cases so they reflect a real-world situation.
- Original documents, such as the use of news articles, reports, data sets, ethnographies; an interesting case would be to provide two sides of a scenario.
Develop effective questions
Think about ways to start the discussion such as using a hypothetical example or employing the background knowledge of your students.
Get students prepared
To prepare for the next class ask students to think about the following questions:
- What is the problem or decision?
- Who is the key decision-maker?
- Who are the other people involved?
- What caused the problem?
- What are some underlying assumptions or objectives?
- What decision needs to be made?
- Are there alternative responses?
Set ground rules with your students
For effective class discussion suggest the following to your students:
- Carefully listen to the discussion, but do not wait too long to participate.
- Collaboration and respect should always be present.
- Provide value-added comments, suggestions, or questions. Strive to think of the class objective by keeping the discussion going toward constructive inquiry and solutions.
- Try to refrain from being the “sage on the stage” or a monopolizer. If you are, students are merely absorbing and not engaging with the material in the way that the case method allows.
- Make sure the students have finished presenting their perspective before interjecting. Wait and check their body language before adding or changing the discussion.
- Take note of the progress and the content in the discussion. One way is by using the board or computer to structure the comments. Another way, particularly useful where there is a conflict or multiple alternatives, is the two-column method. In this method, the teacher makes two columns: “For and Against” or “Alternative A and Alternative B.” All arguments/comments are listed in the respective column before discussions or evaluations occur. Don't forget to note supportive evidence.
- In addition to the discussion method, you can also try debates, role-plays, and simulations as ways to uncover the lesson from the case.
- If you decide to grade participation, make sure that your grading system is an accurate and defensible portrayal of the contributions.
In conclusion, cases are a valuable way for learning to occur. It takes a fair amount of preparation by both the teacher and the students, but don't forget these benefits (Bruner, 2002):
- The teacher is learning as well as the students. Because of the interactive nature of this method, the teacher constantly “encounters fresh perspective on old problems or tests classic solutions to new problems.”
- The students are having fun, are motivated and engaged. If done well, the students are working collaboratively to support each other.