The case method is a teaching approach that uses decision-forcing cases to put students in the role of people who were faced with difficult decisions at sometime in the past. In sharp contrast to many other teaching methods, the case method requires that instructors refrain from providing their own opinions about the decisions in question. Rather, the chief task of instructors who use the case method is asking students to devise and defend solutions to the problems at the heart of each case.
The case method is used in a variety of professional schools. These include the Harvard Business School, the Richard Ivey School of Business, the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the Columbia School of Journalism, the Yale School of Management, and the Marine Corps University.
The case method described in this article should not be confused with the casebook method used in law schools. While the case method calls upon students to take on the role of an actual person faced with difficult problem, the casebook method asks students to dissect a completed case-at-law. In other words, where the case method asks students to engage in acts of prospective synthesis, the casebook method requires them to engage in an exercise in retrospective analysis.
A decision-forcing case is a kind of decision game. Like other kinds of decision games it puts students in a role of person faced with a problem and asks them to devise, defend, discuss, and refine solutions to that problem. In sharp contrast to decision games that contain fictional elements, decision-forcing cases are based entirely upon reliable descriptions of a real event.
A decision-forcing case is also a kind of case study. That is, it is an examination of a real event.. However, in contrast to other kinds of case studies, which are based upon complete descriptions of the events in question, a decision-forcing case is based upon a narrative that stops at the point at which the historical problem-solver was faced with a decision. In other words, while other kinds of case studies ask students to analyze past decisions retrospectively, decision-forcing cases ask students to engage problems in a prospective manner, making decisions as if they were actually faced with them.
Every decision-forcing case has a protagonist, the historical person who was faced with the problem or problem that students are asked to solve. Thus, in engaging these problems, students necessarily engage in role play.
Some case teachers, such as those of the Marine Corps University, place a great deal of emphasis on role play, to the point of addressing each student with the name and titles of the protagonist of the case. (A student playing the role of a king, for example, is asked "Your Majesty, what are your orders?") Other case teachers, such as those at the Harvard Business School, place less emphasis on role play, asking students "what would they do if you were the protagonist of the case."
Case materials are any materials that are used to inform the decisions made by students in the course of a decision-forcing case. Commonly used case materials include articles that were composed for the explicit purpose of informing case discussion, secondary works initially produced for other purposes, historical documents, artifacts, video programs, and audio programs.
Case materials are made available to students at a variety times in the course of a decision-forcing case. Materials that provide background are distributed at, or before, the beginning of the class meeting. Materials that describe the solution arrived at by the protagonist and the results of that solution are passed out at, or after, the end of the class meeting. Materials that provide information that became available to the protagonist in the course of solving the problem are given to students in the course of a class meeting.
Case materials may be either "refined" or "raw." Refined case materials are secondary works that were composed expressly for use as part of decision-forcing cases. (Most of the case materials that are available from case clearing houses and academic publishers are of the refined variety.) Raw case materials are those that were initially produced for reasons other than the informing of a case discussion. These include newspaper articles, video and audio news reports, historical documents, memoirs, interviews, and artifacts.
Published Case Materials
A number of organizations, to include case clearing houses, academic publishers, and professional schools, publish case materials. These organizations include:
Globalens at the University of Michigan
the Asian Case Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong
The Narrative Fallacy
The presentation of a decision-forcing case, whether by case materials or by the instructor, necessarily takes the form of a story in which the protagonist is faced with a difficult problem. This can lead to "the narrative fallacy", a mistake that leads both case teachers and case developers to ignore information that, while important to the decision at the heart of a case, does not fit easily into the narrative.
Techniques for avoiding the narrative fallacy include the avoidance of standard formats, tropes, and clichés; the use of case materials that include primary sources, exhibits, and data sets; the provision of contradictory and irrelevant information; and the use of materials originally created for purposes other than case teaching.
The Didactic Fallacy
Like other types of case studies, a decision-forcing case study is an anecdote. As such, it incapable of providing proof for any general statement about the nature of reality. Thus, any attempt to use a decision-forcing case to prove a particular theory, buttress a particular doctrine, or teach a particular lesson is necessarily an error.
Case materials are often emblazoned with a disclaimer than warns both teachers and students to avoid the didactic fallacy. An example of such a disclaimer is provided below.
The Hortatory Fallacy
A close cousin of the didactic fallacy, the hortatory fallacy is the attempt to use a decision-forcing case to encourage particular forms of behavior.
- Business schools
- Case competition
- Case study
- Casebook method (used by law schools)
- European Case Clearing House
- Experiential learning
- Harvard Business Publishing
- Teaching method
- Corey, Raymond (1998), Case Method Teaching, Harvard Business School 9-581-058, Rev. November 6, 1998.
- Gudmundsson, Bruce Ivar (2014), Decision-Forcing Cases, Marine Corps University, Quantico, VA.
- Hammond, J.S. (2002), Learning by the case method, HBS Publishing Division, Harvard Business School, Boston, MA
- Herreid, Clyde Freeman (2005), Because Wisdom Can't Be Told: Using Case Studies to Teach Science, Peer Review (Winter 2005).
- McNair, Malcolm P., ed. (1954), The Case Method at the Harvard Business School: Papers by Present and Past Members of the Faculty and Staff, New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Siddiqui, Zehra (2013), How to write a case study, William Davidson Institute, University of Michigan, Ann-Arbor, MI.