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Teaching with Cases

There are many ways of structuring in-class time, but, as an instructor, I know how easy it is to fall back on just a couple. I’m almost always short on prep time, and the stakes of trying something new feel high, so I often dust off an old slide deck, find an outline, and start lecturing, even though there’s a decent amount of evidence that this isn’t the most effective learning strategy for my students.

In an effort to implement more active learning in my classroom, I’ve been experimenting this semester and last with the case method, a discussion-based learning strategy that allows students to process and synthesize complex conceptual materials and collaborate — with me and one another — to help make sense of the messy realities that come with applying the material we cover in class to real world scenarios.

What is The Case Method?

The Case Method unfolds in three steps. First, students are asked to prepare for a particular lesson by reading, analyzing, and working through a case study. In my class, they are encouraged to work in groups, and required to take notes on their preparations. The second step occurs in class, where students are prompted to summarize key features of the case, and presented with a series of questions that set up a broader, more open-ended class discussion. Throughout this time, the instructor guides and directs conversation, making sure to clear up confusions that arise, and hitting key points from that day’s lesson. Finally, students are asked to debrief in some way, usually by journaling about the activity for a short time and sharing their understanding of the case post-discussion.

The method can be implemented more or less formally, and more or less frequently. For example:

Amanda is teaching a business class in which students are supposed to learn principles of retail loss prevention, and how to write policies that balance a concern to minimize theft with broader concerns regarding social justice. She gives her students a 10-page case study to prepare before class, along with 5-7 discussion prompts. In class, she has a student give an overview of the case, and then starts a class discussion based on the prompts she provided.

Paul is teaching a class on applied ethics, and wants students to think about what the rational response is to persistent disagreement of different kinds. After lecturing for 20 minutes, he has students break up into small groups and gives them a handout with three, short cases. Each group is assigned a case and asked to read and discuss it amongst themselves. For the last 30 minutes of class, each group leads a 10 minute discussion on the case they were assigned.

These examples help illustrate how the case method is implemented, as well as its flexibility: it’s a learning strategy that can be modified to fit almost any discipline and learning environment.

Why Should I Try the “Case Method”?

One reason, referenced above, is because it is an example of a more active learning strategy. Research suggests that students internalize and retain information better when they are engaging it actively, as they are in the case method. In the case method, the role of instructor shifts from guru to guide: instructors ask probing questions and guide discussion, but spend less overall time talking. Likewise, the role of student shifts from scribe to collaborator: students are asked to take more initiative and responsibility, and collaborate with the instructor and each other to make sense of the day’s lesson.

There are more practical reasons for adopting this method, too. Because the case method requires students to apply course concepts in situations more closely resembling situations in which they’d actually use them, this method can increase their practical comprehension and help them build skills that are transferable outside of the classroom. It’s also, if done well, a fairly efficient way of maximizing the impact of your lessons. Because students are presenting and analyzing much of the content you’d otherwise be presenting and working through, you can free yourself up to teach higher-level concepts and skills.

 

Implementing the case method is a bit of a commitment, and it certainly will take some getting used to. But if the description and benefits detailed in this blog post resonate with you, I encourage you to give it a shot; it can be an excellent, and high impact, way of engaging students for deeper learning.

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