Case Studies

Case studies are a great way for your students to review material, practice authentic skills, and synthesize course content. A cleverly written (or ripped from the headlines) case study also provides a valuable active learning opportunity. You can use case studies to introduce a topic or to review material.

Depending on your format, content, and the complexity of the case study, students can work through case studies in a class discussion, a homework assignment, or group assignment. Case studies don’t have to take a lot of class time, although many instructors feel that some element of (class or group) discussion greatly enhances the case study learning experience.

Carefully structured student interaction ideally shifts student focus from racing to find the one right answer to instead reveling in the process of data analysis, applying context-specific knowledge, and weighing the relative importance of key factors. After all, these latter behaviors represent the transferable skills from this exercise. The case study solution is only a best outcome for one single scenario; the process of applying course content while in problem-solving mode is the gift your students will hopefully share with others down the road.

In planning for student interaction around a case study, this list of insights about the case study discussion process from a professor of strategic management at Harvard might be helpful. Likewise, this piece discusses how individuals might take on different roles in the decision-making process, a process that more closely mimics how many organizations make decisions. If you choose to employ the roles of leader, decision-maker, and advisers, a random assignment of roles is probably most efficient. My two favorite in-person ways to randomly assign roles are via playing cards (for example, the student who draws the ace is the leader, the student who draws the king is the decision-maker; and the rest of the students with numbered cards form the advisory panel) and picking numbers (student who has selected the highest number is the leader, the student with the next-highest number becomes the decision-maker, and all other students are advisers). For online courses, you might use a random number generator and post the results for your students to see.

In closing, I also love to throw a cognitive in wrench in things: once students have worked out what the best course of actions is for a scenario with x,y, and z; I then ask about w, x, and y (or a,b, and z). Does that change the outcome? If so, why? This wrap-up piece is great fodder for a class discussion or a written reflection on the activity.


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