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The Case Method Classroom

Editors Note: In conjunction with the transition of Case Consortium @ Columbia management from the Columbia Journalism School to CCNMTL, we are publishing below an adapted version of the introduction to Our Digital Future: Boardrooms and Newsrooms. Available for purchase at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Teaching cases are intended as vehicles for classroom discussion using a pedagogical approach known as the Case Method. The Case Method of instruction is an interactive, discussion-based method of learning. It differs from lectures, seminars, problem sets and other modes of teaching. It has been used for in the classrooms of professional schools across the disciplines—notably business, law, medicine, public policy and education. While long used to teach ethics, the Case Method also allows students to develop leadership and management skills.

Case Method, besides introducing new content, teaches behaviors critical to success in the work world—negotiation, persuasion, team thinking, and public speaking. It develops students' judgment, an essential ability in any field. Students deserve to enter their field as fully prepared to lead as their counterparts in other industries.

Cases help students understand that the world is not black-and-white, but gray; and that most decisions are taken in a crisis situation, without sufficient information or resources—of time, money or people. Students learn that history is not inevitable, but an agglomeration of small decisions taken by people like us doing the best they can under the circumstances.

The Case Method Classroom

In the Case Method classroom, students are put in the shoes of a protagonist facing a decision to which there is no single correct answer AND reasonable people can differ on what should be done next. Students are expected to analyze the situation, identify the problem and who "owns" it, prescribe a solution, defend their views, persuade their colleagues and/or amend their own position in the face of new information or persuasive arguments from others. The vicarious real-world experience students gain in the case classroom will stand them in good stead when they become industry leaders and managers in their own right.

The case classroom provides students with a non-threatening environment in which to practice newly forming habits of analysis, leadership and management.The case classroom provides students with a non-threatening environment in which to practice newly forming habits of analysis, leadership and management. They will develop critical thinking and judgment skills. While an instructor will ensure a culture of respect for others, students will learn to probe, question and examine assumptions. Students are encouraged to bring their own experiences to bear as they debate, among themselves and with the instructor, how best to approach the dilemma at hand.

The Case Study

The heart of the Case Method is the “teaching” case study, so-called because it is used as a vehicle for classroom discussion. Our teaching cases are “decision forcing”—that is, the narrative stops at a critical turning point or decision point.

The protagonist of a journalism case, for example, can be a reporter, editor, broadcast executive or publisher. Most often the protagonist is an individual, although a case can also profile a publication or news organization (or in other disciplines, an agency, a business or a government). The protagonist in a teaching case faces a difficult decision with no “right” answer. It is the job of the students to think hard about what they would do in the given situation.

While most of our cases include an epilogue, it is not necessary to distribute the epilogue to students. Analytic learning and problem-solving skill development can be all the more powerful when the “what happened” is left unanswered.

Case Method for Teachers

Instructor’s role. Case studies describe a real situation in which a decision must be made by a professional. Unlike in a lecture class, a case instructor’s role is not to offer arguments, evidence and solutions, but rather to facilitate student discussion and create an environment for them to contribute and learn from one another. With real-world stories, students are able to grapple with the kind of complex problems they will face later in their careers.

Case classroom instructors guide students to see probable solutions and frame their decisionmaking in ways they had not previously considered. an effective case teacher speaks only 15 percent of the time, leaving the balance to students...By some yardsticks, an effective case teacher speaks only 15 percent of the time, leaving the balance to students. A fundamental principle of the Case Method is that the most enduring lessons are those which students teach themselves. Faculty are not to tell students what they believe is the correct outcome, but instead guide students to their own conclusions.

Preparation. The foundation of any good case discussion is preparation, the students’ as well as the instructor's. An instructor should prepare a class plan, identifying which two or three of the many issues raised by the case s/he would like students to delve into in depth. It is advisable to go deep on a few subjects rather than try to cover them all. A good class plan will allot estimated time for each discussion topic, including time for transition among them. A good case instructor will use the class plan flexibly, depending on where the discussion leads.

To help students prepare, teachers often assign a study question (in our Teaching Notes, we provide an example for each case) to guide students’ reading of the case and encourage preliminary conversation among classmates. Answers to the study question (you might want to cap them at 250 words) can be posted to an online forum to allow everyone to read them. Answering the question ensures students have read the case, have started to think about it, and gives instructors a starting point for discussion. Case teachers may also organize small student study groups that meet outside of class and help promote active engagement in discussions.

In class. The case classroom should be a place where students can test ideas as they analyze problems presented in the narrative. Case instructors usually start class discussion with a provocative but judgment-free question, and call on individual students to contribute and support their ideas. At points during class, the instructor may summarize the debate, recap the issues, and ask the class to consider other aspects of the problem. The instructor may play devil’s advocate, or question the assumptions behind a line of argument. Many instructors use the end of class to review the key issues raised, or pose follow-up questions.

Instructors often choose to assign students other readings in conjunction with the case in order to give them better perspective, provide them with analytical tools, or to present a theory for which the case will provide a practical example.

Sometimes students leave a case discussion frustrated because there seems to be no right answer to the problem presented in the case. Students can be reminded that cases are drawn from the real world; that reality is gray, not black-and-white; that decision making is rarely simple or straightforward; and that there are almost always numerous potential solutions to any given problem.