The Business End of Cases
Herreid, Clyde Freeman, Journal of College Science Teaching
No, this isn't an article on how to make a fortune writing case studies. And it isn't a financial analysis of what would happen if you suddenly gave up lecturing in favor of the case study approach or wanted to be a poster child for active learning.
Nope. This is a retrospective look at how the folks in business schools look at the case method. After all, they have been at this business a long time and have produced beaucoup cases. We in the sciences are mere babes in the woods compared to the long-beards on the other side of campus.
I have just finished reading a trio of books on case study teaching in business by the writing team of James Erskine, Michiel Leenders, and Louise Mauffette-Leenders. The authors--who have over 30 years of case study experience combined--hail from the University of Western Ontario, the home of over 2,000 case studies in business. In the books Teaching with Cases, Writing Cases, and Learning with Cases, the reader learns lessons about case studies that the authors have shared with over 15,000 workshop participants worldwide. They and the European Case Clearing House, the Harvard Business School, and the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration are the major distribution centers of the world in their field.
According to the authors, the use of case studies in management is relatively new, being predated by the fields of law and medicine. The case-study approach in business started at the Harvard Business School in 1910, when Dr. Copeland was advised by Dean Gray to add student discussion to his classes. During the next decade, business executives visited Copeland's classes to present their problems and listen to student analyses and recommendations. Copeland wrote the first textbook of cases in 1921.
The legacy of cases in business may seem short in the eyes of our Canadian authors but it is positively ancient when compared to the use of cases in the basic sciences, which began to take hold in the 1990s. But surprisingly, in spite of its impeccable academic pedigree (or perhaps because of it) and its hoary longevity, there seems to be little literature on the success of the method; virtually no assessment data in business, law, or public policy teaching seems to exist. Amazing! Years ago when I was first getting interested in cases, I asked one case study wag about the evidence and he simply shrugged with a twinkle in his eye saying, "Well, Harvard uses it."
This lighthearted response would not suffice today for any granting agency that is being asked to pony up a couple of million dollars to introduce case studies into the science curriculum. Nor should it. In contrast, people using Problem Based Learning cases have been much more serious about assessment and now it is one of the best-studied teaching methods we have.
Returning to the business school approach, I would like to summarize the case method described by the Canadian authors because their books are the clearest and most unequivocal stand on case teaching and writing that I have seen. For starters, here is the way they define the case method:
The case method is a discussion-based learning methodology that enables participants, through the use of cases, to learn by doing and by teaching others.
Here is their definition of a case:
A case is a description of an actual situation, commonly involving a decision, a challenge, an opportunity, a problem or an issue faced by a person or persons in an organization. The case requires the reader to step figuratively into the position of a particular decision maker..... The repetitive opportunity to identify, analyze, and solve a number of cases in a variety of settings prepares learners to become truly professional in their field of work.
There are a number of points to highlight from the above definitions and other readings from the books:
1 A case study must be real. …