When It Comes To Teaching “Critical Skills,” the Case Study RULES!

Teaching the “Critical Skills” in an academic setting is challenging for an instructor but eminently effective in engaging students to communicate, analyze, and cooperate in a team approach toward reaching some sort of consensus.

The teacher does not stand up in front of the class and lecture – and students do not sit in rapt attention while taking notes to capture gems of knowledge about the subject matter for regurgitation later in some multiple choice assessment.

Instead, the students PARTICIPATE and address the problems contained in the case themselves.

In order for the case study method to work, the teacher must set a good classroom atmosphere that encourages student participation and emphasize that no one will be singled out for criticism for asking naïve questions or presenting irrelevant information.

The “Critical Skills” are practiced through:

  • Active and open oral discussion that encourages clarity, succinctness, and persuasiveness;
  • Logical thought processes that articulate “findings” based on facts and information in the case, drawing “conclusions” based on the “findings,” and suggesting “recommendations” based on those “conclusions.”

As preeminent case study teacher C. Roland Christensen points out in his analysis of case discussion, described in the Stanford University Newsletter on Teaching, “Student involvement develops on at least three distinct levels:”

  • “At the first level, students explore a problem by sorting out relevant facts, developing logical conclusions, and presenting them to fellow students and the instructor.
  • On the second level, students can be assigned roles in the case, and take on perspectives that require them to argue for specific actions from a character’s point of view, given their interests and knowledge.
  • Finally, on the third level, students will take the initiative to become fully involved, so that topics are no longer treated as abstract ideas, but become central to the student’s sense of self—of what they would choose to do in a specific real world situation.”

One of the case study assumptions is that all students are expected to have read the case and the discussion should not dwell in pointing out the obvious facts that anyone who has read the case should know beforehand. Instead, the students should focus on first discussing what issues need to be addressed, what the facts “mean” – what sort of “findings” arise from all of the facts in the case related to the issues, and what sort of “conclusions” can be drawn regarding the issues in the case so that solid recommendations can be made.

Good case study instructors must work toward keeping the discussion on track and aimed at addressing the issues rather than let the conversations wander from point to point with no meaningful connections.

At the end of a good case discussion – which, at the Harvard Business School lasts for approximately 80 minutes – the students may or may not have reached a consensus on all of the issues; but a good case study instructor will reserve a few minutes at the end of the discussion to provide a wrap-up of what the students have presented – but this rarely involves providing a simple “right answer” to the case itself. In some circumstances, however, the instructor might be able to relate to the students how the issues in the case were resolved in the real situation upon which the case study was based.

An excellent synopsis of the Case Study Teaching Method may be found in a posting on the Harvard Law School website.

In summary, good case study classes teach the following “Critical Skills””:

  • Communications – the students must actively participate in the discussion;
  • Production – the students must argue a point from the idea to reality;
  • Information – the students must focus on information that is relevant to the issues of the case;
  • Analysis – the students must collectively develop findings, draw conclusions, and suggest recommendations;
  • Interpersonal – the students must actively contribute to the discussion as a member of a collective case study team;
  • Time Management – the students (and instructor) must strive to address the issues in the case within the time limits of the class itself.


In short – for teaching the “Critical Skills,” the Case Study method RULES!



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