Pedagogical Synergies between Austrian Economics and the Case Method

By Evans, Anthony J. | Journal of Private Enterprise, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Pedagogical Synergies between Austrian Economics and the Case Method


Evans, Anthony J., Journal of Private Enterprise


I. Introduction

It is widely acknowledged that the university system incentivi2es departments and faculty toward research at the cost of teaching quality. In addition to this, students' expectations are increasing, and the desire for relevant and practical classes is high. Especially with regard to business education, junior faculty members are often torn between the institutional pressure to focus on publishing academic articles and both a lack of training (and experience) in pedagogical techniques and a lack of understanding of the practical relevance of their material.1 In short, there are both demand-side and supply-side forces that suggest there is room for improvement. This paper discusses one particular form of participant-centered learning, the "case method," and recounts the author's own attempts to introduce it into the classroom. In addition, a link is made between the pedagogy and the actual content of the discipline. The argument being made is not only that the case method is an effective way to generate positive learning experiences but that it is especially conducive to teaching economics courses that are grounded in the Austrian school. The article will proceed as follows. Section II defines the case method, appraises some of its strengths and weaknesses, and argues that they are conducive to the methodological position of the Austrian school. Section III introduces three "cases" that the author uses in his own classes, discusses their economic insights, and provides a rough teaching plan. Section IV offers reflections on the author's efforts to introduce more case method teaching, including an honest appraisal of mistakes made. Section V concludes.

II. Austrian Elements of the Case Method

There are a number of alternative forms of participant-centered learning, such as reading groups, open-ended seminars (Finckel, 2000), role-play, experiments, simulations, deliberative practice (Deslauriers, Schelew and Wieman, 2011), and action inquiry (Foster & Carboni, 2009). The case method should be seen as one of many options, and in practice the same classroom activity might possess characteristics of different methods. But the case method is a unique pedagogical tool (Christensen, Garvin and Sweet, 1991; Eilet, 2007; Garvin, 2007; Christensen and Carlile, 2009). The case method originated at Harvard Law School, where students were already used to reading and considering real and historic "cases." The role of the case method instructor is twofold. The first role is the selection of a case for students to read prior to class. According to Eilet (2007, p. 3), "a business case imitates a real situation. Cases are verbal representations of reality that put the reader in the role of a participant in the situation." A case can be viewed as a type of parable, in the sense that there are three crucial aspects to it (see Finkel, 2000, p. 12). First, it is a concrete situation offering a rich descriptive account (although not necessarily a real one). Second, it is profound, in the sense that it signals that it contains a learning opportunity. And third, it is opaque - the lesson is not obvious at first glance. The second role is to lead a class discussion: "The art of a case method instructor is to ask the right question at the right time, provide feedback on answers, and sustain a discussion that opens up the meaning of the case" (Eilet, 2007, p. 1). Thus, students prepare for class by reading a relatively open-ended "case," typically 5-15 pages long, including lots of exhibits and data, threaded together with a historical narrative. The instructor then leads an 80-minute class discussion with the deliberate aim of encouraging dialogue and representing views from different positions. Typically the context will be a pressing business problem, and there is no clear "solution."

The case method is not without criticism. Shugan (2006) argues that although it might be appropriate for law school (where the issues of precedent necessitate a historical survey of important cases), when imported into business schools it severs links between research and teaching. …

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