Why Case Study Teaching is Worth it
Case Study Teaching
Preparing the Case
Creating the Right Environment
The notes that follow are largely drawn from the works of two authorities in the case study method: Robert Bruner, Distinguished Professor of Business Administration, Darden Graduate School of Business, University of Virginia, and C. Roland Christensen, Robert Walmsley University Professor, Harvard University.
Why Case Study Teaching is Worth it
The case study method of teaching is quite different from the traditional lecture or class discussion. It requires substantial work before and during class by both the professors and the students. But the effectiveness of this method in other fields suggests the work is worthwhile.
Prof. Bruner offers seven reasons for using this method. Though written for those in business education, the reasons ring true for journalism as well:1
The case method is effective. People learn best the lessons they teach themselves. Thus, learning is best when there is a process of self-discovery, as opposed to passive absorption of what others say. John Pringle notes that students "own" the case discussion; Steve Foerster says that the teacher is a facilitator or discussion leader. Rocky Higgins calls the case method "active learning." I believe that student ownership and active engagement with the case problem are the keys to the effectiveness of this method.
The case method builds the capacity for critical thinking. Instructors model skills of questioning. Discussions exercise skills of debate and challenge. Peter Tufano notes that "cases often expose the limits of academic thinking and also the shortcomings of 'conventional' practice," a sentiment echoed by Nik Varaiya. Students should engage actively in this process of exposure. We want managers who are capable of thinking critically.
The case method exercises the administrative point of view. If the goal of business education is to enhance the effectiveness of practicing managers, then helping students weigh the practical implications of their analyses is important. The best way to do this is to demand that recommendations always accompany analyses. Peter Tufano notes that the case method is "well-suited to help students appreciate the need to make timely decisions given incomplete theory and data." Nik Varaiya finds that through cases, students develop a framework for making decisions in practice. John Pringle says that cases are useful for addressing the process issues in finance. And Gabriel Noussan argues that case teaching "deals not with how a man may be trained to know, but how a man may be trained to act."
The case classroom models a learning environment. Through this, the student can learn how to achieve trust, respect, risk-taking, high quality of debate, and toughmindedness in other professional settings. While much has been said about the "learning organization" in recent years, companies continue to grope slowly toward that goal. Whatever it is, a culture of high-quality discussion is probably at its core. The lecture-hall is a model of one-way information flow from the Master to the novice, and is not an example of the kind of give-and-take that one observes in the most agile, competitive, and value-creating firms. John McArthur, Emeritus Dean of Harvard Business School, has said, "How we teach is what we teach."
The case method models the process of inductive learning-from-experience that managers will employ during their careers. Thus, the method prepares the student for life-long learning, and for being a useful participant in a learning organization. As Walter Wriston said, "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." George Hettenhouse notes, "A case permits me to demonstrate that the problem actually exists in the world; my style is to move, layer by layer, from the specific to the general, ending up with the principle or theory of interest. For me this is more valuable than constantly asserting that various theories are useful in practice in order to hold student attention." John Pringle and Peter Tufano echo the importance of exercising skills of inductive learning.
The teacher learns too. Because of the interactivity of this method, the teacher can encounter fresh perspectives on old problems, or test classic solutions to new problems. As Charles I. Gragg wrote years ago, "Not all the teaching should be done by the teacher. Not all the learning should be done by the student." Rocky Higgins writes that "cases are a way to cover well-trodden ground in fresh ways."
The case method is fun. The case method motivates students. Direct debate over practical problems stimulates student effort. Gabriel Noussan calls this a "breakthrough learning experience." Rocky Higgins says that "the class should make students want to learn what is in the textbook... convince students...generate enthusiasm...encourage their progress...provide a testing ground, and an appreciation for the limitations....I find case method instruction an excellent vehicle for pursuing these goals." Mark Weinstein notes that it is especially suited for the "ham" and the person who likes to bring in "stuff from a lot of different places." Gabriel Noussan describes case teaching as "most fruitful and enjoyable." Steve Foerster says, "You can really 'feel' the learning. There is nothing like the experience of walking out of a great case class!"
Case Study Teaching
In Education for Judgment: The Artistry of Discussion Leadership, edited by C. Roland Christensen, David A. Garvin and Ann Sweet (Harvard Business School, 1991), Christiansen writes about teaching case studies. This method requires more work from both the professor and the students than the traditional lecture format. But the rewards make it worthwhile.
Professors need to spend more time preparing and putting more energy into in classroom discussion. During class the professor must simultaneously pay attention "to process (the flow of activities that make up a discussion) and content (the material discussed) and this requires emotional as well as intellectual engagement." (p. 16)
Teaching a case study discussion is not like a lecture class in which the professor hands down information to the students. Instead, a discussion is "a partnership" between students and teacher.
The professor must refrain from starting the class with a set outline or agenda and from fully controlling the line of discussion. Instead, he or she must accept uncertainty and trust the students to "find the answers." The professor is not there to inform students of the right answers or what these reporters did wrong; He or she is there to manage the content and the flow of the discussion so that the students will come to decisions themselves. Students need to be encouraged to take risks in the discussion.
Students, for their part, need to "become profoundly and actively involved in their own learning, to discover for themselves...[to] explore the intellectual terrain without maps." (p. 17) Students can't be forced to become involved in this way. They must be convinced that the professor does want and need their partnership.
Preparing the Case
Christensen suggests preparing on two levels:
1) The material itself, including the students' ability to work together on it, and
2) The teaching strategy to promote "effective collaboration."
Before this preparation can begin, the professor needs to know the case backwards and forwards. What is the central issue at hand? What are the other issues we will grapple with along the way? Professors like Richard Roth find it useful to make a list of the central players in the case. Know each of them like a cast in a play.
Once a full grasp of the case is reached, Christensen begins the process of preparation. It includes:
Current class knowledge: What do the students know about this issue already? What have they already covered along these lines?
The class as a learning group: How well are its members likely to work together on this issue?
Each student's background: This includes academic strengths and weaknesses as well as abilities to contribute to the discussion process. Who might learn most from the upcoming discussion? Will the case be of special interest to students with particular backgrounds or career interests? Will it offer quiet students a useful entry point into the class discussion?
My own mood: How do I feel about this material? Where might my personal biases and prejudices affect my leadership of the discussion?
The mode, pace and flow I want to establish: What pace do I need to establish to get through the material at hand? Should the flow involve a "competitive series of argument and rebuttals presented by individual students" or a single construct of the issues? Would role-play be effective?
Develop a rough plan for the discussion: How should class time be divided? How should the chalkboard be used? How active a role do I want to play—should I intervene often or only when changes in direction seem necessary?
Possible openings and endings for the class: Should I open with a narrowly focused question or a broad one? Whom should I invite to speak? What might the student's response be, and how might the whole group, in turn, react? Similar questions should be asked for the conclusion of the discussion. (pp. 31-33)
Class background: In addition to these steps, knowing the backgrounds of the students can help the professor effectively lead the discussion. Is there someone who grew up in the Twin Cities where this basketball scandal occurred? Or maybe there is someone on the school's basketball team. Or someone who has worked on the sports beat. Knowing the backgrounds can also help prevent a professor from embarrassing students or putting them in a role they might be uncomfortable with. Journalism Professor Jim Carey of Columbia University has developed his own cases to teach his students:
"My own method for teaching such cases is Socratic. I normally would start with the major principle and ask (for instance) the following: Was the newspaper acting to advance or retard the public's right to know?...
"Once I get a show of hands, I proceed by questioning students who have taken alternative sides. I normally would do it by playing a role myself....I would force the student to justify what he had done by asking questions and making accusations....If I were playing the main subject of an investigation, I might ask: 'Why didn't you call me at the outset and tell me you had gotten wind of the story? Why did you assume I knew the details when I didn't? Why did you withhold information?'
"I would then similarly lay out a series of questions for the student who takes the other side trying to force him or her to clarify and justify the moral/professional ground of his or opinion.
"I would lay out in advance a protocol that took me from the major questions to the minor ones, forcing the students to argue with me on each point and to cite evidence and principle behind their decision. I would carefully disguise my own opinions on the case and refuse to answer the question what would I do—at least until the very end. I would ask factual questions as well as moral ones. For example, Where did you get this "watch dog" notion of the press? Who said it? In what Supreme Court decision? What kind of case? Does the role apply here? Is there a moral arrogance implied in the judgment that the press should withhold information until it thinks the public is ready to hear it? Do any of the criticisms of the public have moral force or compelling evidence? Etc.
"Some of the questions throughout are rather artless and occasionally a bit off the point. In any event, I would not pursue many different questions with each case but, as I said, try to handle only the most central and controversial ones. And I would try to find ways to always allow the voice of the citizenry speak and to have some credibility."
Creating the Right Environment
Even before the class begins, some professors suggest that it is important to set the right environment—one receptive to the give and take of case study discussion.
To create this environment, Christensen says, "The instructor must take concrete steps to promote collaboration and comradeship. He or she needs to develop strategies that will reflect the values that enable a group of individuals to work together productively." (p. 20)
One strategy he suggests is listening "seriously" to students' remarks and responding to them "constructively."
Herman Leonard, another proponent of case study teaching, has found, "Good listening—focused, critical, comprehensive, and strategic—requires discipline....A true discussion is not a question-and-answer session but a connected series of spoken ideas. Listening is the glue that holds together the whole process of questions, answers, and comments." (pp. 140,145)
Leonard advises professors to establish the importance of listening in the first couple of classes. "Talk with the class about how hard it is to listen, and how important it is." (p. 148) Professors can then "exercise" students' listening by asking them to rephrase a question before answering it. Or ask them to rephrase the last speaker's main point before making their own.
A professor's response is equally important. In teaching one case, Richard Roth was astounded to hear a student suggest that the journalist had no responsibility to seek comment from individuals she was accusing of wrong doing in the news story. But rather than raise an eyebrow or explain the ethical responsibility there, Roth simply turned to the rest of the class and said, "Other thoughts?" After a few minutes of open discussion, the student revised her thinking.
In addition to close listening and response, Christensen suggests that, even though time is limited, be sure the student has finished his or her line of thinking. Christensen suggests, "After a student has finished talking, watch her eyes. Do they indicate that her thought is now complete? If you feel unsure, wait a few seconds on recheck. A five-second pause often produces a contributor's most insightful thought." (p. 23)
From all this the professor should conclude that teaching by case studies relies on focused listening, thinking and risk taking from everyone in the room. It is up to you as the professor to foster this environment and help the students down the path toward the truth. 1 All excerpts from Professor Bruner are taken from his web site, http://faculty.darden.edu/brunerb/.