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.
- 1 Use of the Case Method in Professional Schools
- 2 Comparison with the Casebook Method of Teaching Law
- 3 Decision-Forcing Cases
- 4 Role Play
- 5 Historical Solution
- 6 Complex Cases
- 7 Sandwich Metaphors
- 8 Case Materials
- 9 Published Case Materials
- 10 The Narrative Fallacy
- 11 The Purpose of the Case Method
- 12 Incompatible Objectives
- 13 Disclaimers
- 14 See also
- 15 References
Use of the Case Method in Professional Schools
The case method is used in a variety of professional schools. These include the:
- Harvard Business School
- Richard Ivey School of Business
- John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University
- Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia
- Columbia School of Journalism
- Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University
- School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University
- Yale School of Management
- Marine Corps University
Comparison with the Casebook Method of Teaching Law
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, a decision-forcing case puts students in a role of person faced with a problem (often called the "protagonist") and asks them to devise, defend, discuss, and refine solutions to that problem. However, 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 a retrospective case study which provides a complete description of the events in question, a decision-forcing case is based upon an "interrupted narrative." This is an account that stops just before the time when the protagonist made the decision at the heart of the case. In other words, while retrospective case studies ask students to analyze past decisions with the aid of hindsight, decision-forcing cases ask students to engage problems prospectively.
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 some degree of 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 you do if you were the protagonist of the case."
After discussing student solutions to the problem at the heart of a decision-forcing case, a case teacher will often provide a description of the historical solution, that is, the decision made by the protagonist of the case. Also known as "the rest of the story", "the epilogue", or (particularly at Harvard University) "the 'B' case", the description of the historical solution can take the form of a printed article, a video, a slide presentation, a short lecture, or even an appearance by the protagonist.
Whatever the form of the description of the historical solution, the case teacher must take care to avoid giving the impression that the historical solution is the "right answer." Rather, he should point out that the historical solution to the problem serves primarily to provide students with a baseline to which they can compare their own solutions.
Some case teachers will refrain from providing the historical solution to students. One reason for not providing the historical solution is to encourage students to do their own research about the outcome of the case. Another is to encourage students to think about the decision after the end of the class discussion. "Analytic and problem-solving learning," writes Kirsten Lundgren of Columbia University, "can be all the more powerful when the 'what happened' is left unanswered.
A classic decision-forcing case asks students to solve a single problem faced by a single protagonist at a particular time. There are, however, decision-forcing cases in which students play the role of a single protagonist who is faced with a series of problems, two or more protagonists dealing with the same problem, or two or more protagonists dealing with two or more related problems.
Complex cases are sometimes described with a system of metaphors that compares them to various types of sandwiches. In this system, pieces of bread serve as a metaphor for narrative elements (i.e. the start, continuation, or end of an account) and filling of the sandwich serves as a metaphor for a problem that students are asked to solve.
A decision-forcing case in which one protagonist is faced with two problems is thus a "triple-decker case." (The bottom piece of bread is the background to the first problem, the second piece of bread is both the historical solution to the first problem and the background to the second problem, and the third piece of bread is the historical solution to the second problem.) Similarly, a decision-forcing case for which the historical solution is not provided (and is thus a case with but one narrative element) is an"open-face" or "smørrebrød" 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:
- Ivey Publishing Case Place
- the European Case Clearing House
- Globalens at the University of Michigan
- the Harvard Business School
- Columbia CaseWorks, IESE
- the Darden School at the University of Virginia
- the Asian Institute of Management
- the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad
- the Asian Case Research Centre at the University of Hong Kong
- the Middle East & North Africa Regional Case Initiative at the American University of Beirut
The Narrative Fallacy
The presentation of a decision-forcing case 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, complicates the telling of the story. This, in turn, can create a situation in which, rather than engaging the problem at the heart of the case, students "parse the case materials." That is, they make decisions on the basis of the literary structure of the case materials rather than the underlying reality.
Techniques for avoiding the narrative fallacy include the avoidance of standard formats; awareness of tropes and clichés; the use of case materials originally created for purposes other than case teaching; and the inclusion of information that is either contradictory or irrelevant.
The Purpose of the Case Method
The case method gives students the ability to quickly make sense of a complex problem, rapidly arrive at a reasonable solution, and communicate that solution to others in a succinct and effective manner. In the course of doing this, the case method also accomplishes a number of other things, each of which is valuable in its own right. By exciting the interest of students, the case method fosters interest in professional matters. By placing such things in a lively context, the case method facilitates the learning of facts, nomenclature, conventions, techniques, and procedures. By providing both a forum for discussion and concrete topics to discuss, the case method encourages professional dialogue. By providing challenging practice in the art of decision-making, the case method refines professional judgement. By asking difficult questions, the case method empowers students to reflect upon the peculiar demands of their profession.
The case system, properly used, initiates students into the ways of independent thought and responsible judgement. 
Charles I. Gragg
While the case method can be used to accomplish a wide variety of goals, certain objectives are at odds with its nature as an exercise in professional judgement. These incompatible objectives include attempts to use decision-forcing cases to:
- provide an example to be emulated
- paint a particular person as a hero or a villain
- encourage (or discourage) a particularly type of behavior
- illustrate a pre-existing theory
"Cases are not meant to illustrate either the effective or the ineffective handling of administrative, operational, logistic, ethical, or other problems, and the characters in cases should not be portrayed either as paragons of virtue or as archvillains. The instructor/casewriter must be careful not to tell the students what to think—they are not empty vessels waiting to be filled with wisdom. With this method of teaching, a major share of the responsibility for thinking critically about the issues under discussion is shifted to the students, where it belongs."
Thomas W. Shreeve
Case materials are often emblazoned with a disclaimer than warns both teachers and students to avoid the didactic, hortatory, and "best practices" fallacies. An example of such a disclaimer is:
- 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).
- Lundgren, Kirsten (2012), The Case Method: Art and Skill.
- 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.