The instructor’s role in case method teaching: more jazz than classical music
Vibhuti Gour from the Case Centre on Public Leadership shares insights from the recent Case Centre workshop
The case method is a discussion-based style of teaching where students put themselves in the shoes of a protagonist who must make a difficult decision. The case allows students to apply academic theories to real-world contexts and develop their own leadership skills. While historically used in law and business schools, the case method is becoming increasingly popular in schools of government, leadership, and public policy to train students’ practical problem-solving and judgement skills.
What is the role of an instructor in facilitating a case study discussion? The case method pedagogy is known for turning firmly away from the ‘sage on the stage’ approach to teaching and instead places the students at the centre of learning by inviting them to take ownership of the class discussion. While such a pedagogy can intuitively sound compelling, it is often less clear how it might be applied in a classroom. What should first-time instructors keep in mind about case method teaching? How can instructors help students shift from passive learning to ensuring that they actively prepare, listen, and participate in problem-solving? And what should instructors do if they find themselves teaching cases on topics that extend beyond their expertise?
At the Blavatnik School of Government’s annual two-day workshop, hosted by the Case Centre on Public Leadership earlier this year, Professors Karthik Ramanna and Emily Jones provided their thoughts on the role an instructor plays in the classroom during a case discussion. Three key insights stood out.
Teaching a case is more like playing jazz than classical music. The instructor must be ready to improvise.
Traditional teaching methods such as lectures often require an instructor to lead a somewhat scripted, one-way discourse, like the conductor of an orchestra. In a case discussion, improvisation, spontaneity, and collaboration reign supreme, much like in a jazz performance. A case discussion is not a completely free-flowing conversation: the instructor sets the path of discussion through a certain conceptual approach. But it’s the students' contributions that create the melody, by bringing their own diverse perspectives to the classroom, just as each jazz musician contributes their own creative talent and unique interpretation. This makes for a vibrant and dynamic interplay, ensuring that each classroom discussion is uniquely shaped by its participants.
When I first started teaching about 20 years ago, I used to overprepare, coming to class with a binder filled with pages of notes. With experience, I learned that what’s more important is to come prepared with questions, not answers, and to guide a discussion among students where they can uncover and explore the case’s learning objectives.”
– Karthik Ramanna
Once the instructor has key questions and transitions in mind to guide the overarching direction of the discussion, the rest – as with a jazz ensemble on stage – is driven by the students based on their preparation, lived experiences, and spontaneous responses to each other’s contributions.
Instructors and students must both come prepared to class. Don’t hesitate to clarify facts when required.
While aspects of the case discussion may feel improvised, it’s vital that both the students and the instructor enter the session with clarity on the details of the case at hand. The decision point can often hinge on a few key facts in the case, and the class can easily get derailed if someone misremembers details. At the beginning of a session, the instructor can ensure that everyone in class is clear on the case’s key facts by prompting students to summarise the protagonist’s role, main issues, and decision point.
Along the same vein, it is important for the instructor to course-correct if a student misunderstands some factual aspect of the case. According to Karthik, “If someone gets a crucial case fact wrong, it’s important to correct the record. You don’t want to trip up the person for getting it wrong, but you don’t want to waste the class’s time either.”
To encourage students to take preparation seriously, the instructor can also use methods like the famous ‘cold call’, for instance by singling out a student to respond to a question rather than waiting for volunteers, or the ‘warm call’, where the instructor may give a specific student a heads-up and some time to think about the question before calling on them. To help draw in quieter students without putting them on the spot, an instructor can also speak to one or more students before the class or during a break to prepare them to start off a discussion.
Similarly, providing students with affirmation when they get something right is equally important. According to Emily, “You also want to acknowledge when the student has put in extra effort, and reward that. Validating people when they have done their homework can create a virtuous cycle.”
Instructors need not be experts on every topic
While there are class sessions where the instructor truly is an expert on a given topic, this is not necessarily always the case. Case instructors often find themselves teaching a case that aligns well with the curriculum or required learning outcomes, but is set in a context unfamiliar to the instructor. While the instructor needs an excellent understanding of any theories or concepts they want students to use, and be very familiar with the case study itself, they need not be an expert on the specific context. As Emily reminded us at the workshop, “Your job is not to know everything; it is to create a learning experience. In case teaching, your primary role is to facilitate, not to be the expert.”
Cases are meant to help students learn to grapple with the ambiguities and challenges that come with exercising judgement. If, for example, particular data is not given in the case already, students may sometimes look to the instructor for additional information that might make the decision point clearer for them. However, such hints may not be required: cases often intentionally include or exclude certain information so that students work within prescribed limitations, choose a course of action, and in doing so exercise good judgment. As Karthik put it, “The case method is reflective of the kinds of problems that come to you as a public leader – you rarely have all the information you would like, and sometimes you don’t even know what the problem is. The case method helps to develop that instinct, so you can identify who you need to call when you are faced with a problem.”
In a case discussion, students’ different perspectives should come together in a melody of learning. While the instructor helps guide discussion, it is the students’ contributions that bring a case – its careful considerations, trade-offs, and potential outcomes – to life. And while it is important for instructors to be confident of the case’s details, they do not need to come in knowing every facet of the wider subject being discussed. Going into a case session and proposing solutions with limited information is a key part of the learning opportunity that cases present. Discussing ideas with students may even go beyond the instructors’ expectations. For an instructor exploring a new avenue of research, the students’ responses can sometimes act as a feedback mechanism or provide food for thought. Just as the improvisation of individual musicians in a jazz band may give a new twist to the overall performance, case discussions may inspire research towards new directions.
For a deep dive into developing the skills of case-method teaching, join the Case Centre team at their annual case method workshop.