Case Based Teaching

Overview: Advantages of the Case Based Approach

The case method of instruction, broadly conceived, is at least as ancient as the parable or Socratic dialogue. Although cases designed for medical teaching resemble stories, they constitute a unique genre unto themselves, something of a cross between journalism and pedagogical writing. They aim to depict real events in professional life in a written format that students can analyze productively, usually in discussion groups with instructors, in a process that blends empathetic identification with collaborative thinking, priority setting, problem-solving, criticism, and consensus. As C. R. Christensen put it, case method teaching is an “active, discussion-oriented learning mode, disciplined by case problems drawn from the complexity of real life.” This pedagogy aims to train women and men for professional practice by “linking knowledge and application . . . .”1


In the early decades of the twentieth century the Harvard Business School (HBS) borrowed and adapted the case method from the Harvard Law School. The large-group discussion version of the case method became associated with the HBS name, although it continued to flourish in many other settings and institutions around the globe. Business cases came to assume a reasonably standard format, although their content captures a multitude of situations in a wide variety of disciplines. Cases in public policy, government, social work, law enforcement, education, engineering, and others that have long since embraced the method have taken their own forms, but the fundamental structures greatly resemble one another. Cases capture real life situations in which a professional (representing the students who are training to adopt similar professions) confronts a dilemma common to the discipline. The case presents the dilemma, with all parties’ names and the setting disguised for confidentiality, and depicts
as many of the pertinent facts as possible, without divulging the nature of the problem, the fundamental knowledge needed to assess and address it, or the resolution to the real situation.

As a rule, cases are discussed by students in groups ranging from as few as five or six to a hundred or more. (With teleconferencing gaining in popularity, it is now even possible for several large groups of participants to hold a discussion across continents.) There is usually an instructor, or facilitator, who guides the discussion by asking the opening question and encouraging students to continue the process by asking questions of one another. When the energy falters, the instructor asks more questions and tries to involve as many students as possible in the intellectual exploration of the dilemma presented in the case. The students prepare for class by reading the case (unless it is extremely brief and they can then read it in class). The instructor prepares for the discussion with
the aid of a teaching guide that presents the case writer’s analysis of the situation, the major and minor educational objectives, sample questions to help spark discussion and ensure coverage of major topics, and suggestions for closing remarks. A good case discussion also ties the day’s discussion to what has been learned in previous classes and lays the groundwork for coming lessons.

The great advantage of the case method is that it brings real life into the classroom in concentrated form (a sort of virtual apprenticeship) and gives students the opportunity to participate actively in their own learning. The teacher’s questions not only generate dialogue, they encourage students to build on each other’s comments, probe each other’s assumptions and hypotheses, communicate with one another (horizontal learning), and reach consensus on recommendations for action.

Case content can be literally anything. The method is almost infinitely
adaptable—be the subject matter police procedure, pastoral counseling, investment banking, or the diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome during an emergency room encounter. Because the vast majority of cases are drawn from real episodes in the lives of professional practitioners (episodes that called for analysis, judgment, priority-setting, and action), they can present messy dilemmas with no clear-cut solutions. This is one of the great strengths of the case method. It forces students to develop judgment skills, and to learn teamwork as they share the tasks of analysis with fellow students whose talents, backgrounds, and expertise differ from, and complement, their own. Often, cases intentionally portray characters’ contradictory opinions. This is another strength, requiring students to evaluate and judge, rather than take what they read at face value. This helps develop the skill of critical reading.

Classic teaching cases are divided into segments that present the
initial dilemma, but not the resolution. Subsequent portions of the case reveal what the protagonists decided and did, and what outcomes ensued. This aspect of the method adds energy to the process; students tend to enjoy comparing their predictions with real outcomes, and zest is no small part of the learning experience. Furthermore, the learning that case method study generates is highly transferable. It is quite common for students who study with cases to comment later in their careers that they actually encountered several of the situations that they first met in the case module form because these cases are drawn from real experiences. Most “case banks” are updated regularly, to keep abreast of professional developments.

As Barr and Tagg argue, a major paradigm shift is taking place in higher education. Institutions are changing their mission from providing instruction to producing learning.2 This shift is reflected
in the tendency to reduce the number of lectures and increase discussion group teaching. In large lectures, instructors dispense facts. The goal of the exercise is to transfer knowledge from the instructor to the students. The students play the role of passive recipients, and instructor plays the active role of purveyor of knowledge. This style of instruction encourages memorization, but not active learning. Case method instructors, in contrast to lecturers, are trained to guide their groups with targeted questions and allow them to explore the occasional intellectual dead end in the hope that the frustration of the experience will, in itself, prove educational. Case method teachers are strongly urged, by trainers or by teaching notes (or both), to refrain from “giving” students the answers and turning a group exploration into a lecture.

The educational philosopher John Dewey argued for the sort of holistic approach to education that case method study provides: “ .
. .skill obtained apart from thinking is not connected with any sense of the purposes for which it is to be used. . . . information severed from thoughtful action is dead, a mind-crushing load [that] simulates knowledge and thereby develops the poison of conceit. . [and is] a most powerful obstacle to further growth in the grace of intelligence.” He further asserted that the “the sole direct path to enduring improvement in the method of instruction and learning consists in centering upon the conditions which exact, promote, and test thinking [which] is the method of intelligent learning.”3 The case method comes closer than almost any other educational modality to achieving Dewey’s goals.

The case discussion process, which requires students to take public stands, listen carefully to others’ responses (pro or con) and respond thoughtfully, builds habits of respectful attention, intellectual flexibility, and cooperation. A case about building a watch factory
in Ireland may look very different from a case about immunizing a rural population in a developing nation, but their fundamental purpose is the same: to promote deep and enduring learning for professionals by bringing a real situation into the classroom. In so doing, case modules enable both student groups and their instructors or facilitators to learn in context, not abstractly, by rote. In addition, and by no means least important, they give students many opportunities to hone the skills of collaboration and teamwork. The case method combines the advantages of promoting active learning, empathy (with case characters and fellow students), communication, and collaboration. It also offers opportunities for virtually infinite variety in subject matter. Any human endeavor that can be described, and that will repay students’ time by helping them learn facts, concepts, skills, and helpful attitudes, can become material for a teaching case. In case method teaching, the case writer, students, and instructor
all learn, and learn actively. This is perhaps the greatest advantage of the method.

Elizabeth Armstrong, Ph.D.

1. Christensen CR. Teaching with Cases at the Harvard Business School. In: Barnes L, Christensen CR, and Hansen A, editors. Teaching and the Case Method, Third edition. Boston: Harvard Business School Press; 1994. p. 34.
2. Barr R and Tagg J. From Teaching to Learning–A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education. Change Nov-Dec 1995;13-23.
3. Dewey J. Thinking in Education. In: Barnes L, Christensen CR, and Hansen A, editors. Teaching and the Case Method, Third edition. Boston: Harvard Business School Press; 1994. p. 9-15.




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