Dr George Rosier, Adjunct Faculty – SP Jain School of Global Management
The big question facing teachers at all levels is: “How do I make teaching effective?” This question can be asked in many ways. How should I motivate students to learn? How can I make the lessons interesting? How can I make it easy for students to learn? Of course, the answers depend on the context – the subject, the educational level, the background of the students and many other factors.
Bringing learning alive
One apparently effective approach has been used in postgraduate business courses for over a hundred years. It is the case method, sometimes called case method teaching, pioneered by the Harvard Business School in the early twentieth century. Surprisingly, it has been largely ignored by the wider education community, in spite of its potential in a variety of other disciplines and educational levels. However, the few times it has been used in other disciplines all seem to confirm the value of the case method. For example, it has been used to bring ancient history alive, with one teacher presenting the dilemma faced by the people of Melos, during the Peloponnesian war – should they surrender and join Athens in the war against Sparta, or should they assert their right to independence, defy the Athenian army and face possible annihilation? Facing and debating such decisions is exciting and engaging, a stark contrast to the boring routine of memorising events and dates.
How it is done
One major problem is that most educators do not really understand what constitutes the case method. The classic or Harvard, case method is a three stage process. Students are given a description of a business situation, usually involving a dilemma faced by a manager. It can be anything from a single page to twenty pages or more, with detailed descriptions of the organisation. Typically, the case describes an actual situation, with companies and individuals named (with permission). Long cases are valuable, but many of the most memorable lessons come from cases of only one or two pages.
In stage one, students are required to analyse the case individually and arrive at recommendations for management action. In stage two students meet in small groups and compare their analyses and conclusions. In these meetings, students are often surprised by the approaches taken by their peers. They reconsider their own analyses and debate the options facing the manager in the case. The final stage consists of an all-of-class discussion of the case, facilitated by the teacher. The classes are usually between 20 and 80 students, seated in a tiered, U-shaped discussion theatre. The role of the teacher is to question and challenge students and to lead the discussion to explore the most interesting aspects of the case.
Case method teaching is NOT the simple use of a case study as an example of good or bad practice, or the use of a case to illustrate theory. The aim is to actively involve students in the analysis of real (or at least realistic) problems. It is NOT the use of a case to explain how a business works. It is a challenge; it is a way for students to practise making difficult decisions, present their analyses, consider the views of others and debate options for management action. Of course, the best way to appreciate the power of case method teaching is to experience a case method class, or at least to watch a video of a class. Two good examples can be found at:
Cases should present a dilemma; the analysis should require consideration of multiple perspectives and the class discussion should be challenging. The best case classes include surprises, counter-intuitive outcomes and “ah-ha” moments. A good case method course is a simulation of several years management experience.
Why it works
While a lot has been written about the case method in business education, there has been little research on case method teaching, in educational terms. However, a recent study, at the SP Jain School of Global Management, has evaluated the effect of the case method on students’ approaches to learning. In a traditional, lecturing approach, students often try to memorise subject content for reproduction in exams. Understanding is optional. The study found that the case method encourages students to focus on understanding the material, rather than simply memorising. Obviously, students who understand the material are better equipped to use their knowledge in real life situations. This was confirmed in a previous study in the USA, where graduates of case method business courses secured better paid positions than graduates of lecture-based courses.
Application in other disciplines
Cases are used in a variety of disciplines, but these are generally simply examples of good or bad practice. The full power of the case method is yet to be realised. A lawyer who has argued complex cases in class is better equipped than one who has merely memorised legislation. A psychologist who has wrestled with case studies of complex counselling situations is better equipped for professional practice than one who has memorised psychological theory. An engineer who has faced complex challenges in class is better prepared than one who has memorised formulas. Obviously, the case method would have to be adapted carefully for different disciplines and educational levels, but the potential is there.
Now it is up to the teachers and the institutions to harness the case method and challenge students to face the realities of the world.