Exchanges:The Online Journal of Teaching and Learning in the CSU

The Complementary Benefits of Cases and Simulations

Rex C. Mitchell

Department of Management
California State University, Northridge


The relative pedagogical effectiveness of cases and computerized simulations have been debated for several decades. However, many of the views within this debate are based on anecdotal material or inadequate research (Keys & Wolfe, 1990; Lundeberg, et al., 1999). The research on the relative effectiveness of the use of cases and computer simulations in teaching is limited and conflicting. Keys and Wolfe, in their 1990 review, cite several studies that conclude that students learned more from simulations than from case studies, but they also cite studies in which the use of cases was found to be the more effective approach. Examples of more recent articles dealing with the effectiveness of cases or simulations are Faria & Nulsen (1996) and Prensky (2000), advocating the use of simulations, and Levin (1999) and Lynn (1999), advocating the use of cases.

Cases and/or simulations are used in a broad range of university courses, including teacher education, business fields, public administration, various biological and physical science fields, history, military science, political science, negotiation, psychology, health care, medicine, and law. Cases have been used in university training since the nineteenth century (Kimball, 1995; Merseth, 1999). During the last part of the twentieth century, the use of cases of various types has grown and spread to a wide range of subjects (Wasserman, 1994). Simulations also have been used since the 1950s in a variety of courses ranging from simple two-person exercises to complex computer-based simulations of multiple-dimensional real-world situations with uncertainty and unpredictability. This essay deals with the latter type.

The primary nexus where the use of both cases and complex, computer-based simulations has been extensive is in business-related courses, primarily management, marketing, and finance; consequently, much of the research and writing about these two pedagogical techniques has been related to courses in these areas. However, this literature has relevance to faculty in a range of disciplines.

Knotts & Keys (1997) conclude that, although much of strategic management can be taught with either cases or games, it is preferable to use both cases and a simulation, for a variety of reasons. They conclude that simulations elicit greater responses from students than do case studies and are better in enhancing self-efficacy, while case studies are better at providing exposure to multiple industries and building written communication skills. Fripp (1993), although an advocate of simulations, concludes that combining them with other learning methods produces the best results. A study of self-reports from individuals three to five years after graduation concluded that both computer simulations and cases had helped teach skills important in the indviduals' current jobs, with some differentiation in the skills best taught by each method (Teach, 1993). Li & Baillie (1993) conclude from analysis of their data that cases and complex games play similar roles, and they advocate integrating both learning methods.

Listed below are some advantages that seem to be shared by both methods. The list was developed from the references cited and also contains my inferences about attributes that are characteristic of both methods. This is followed by two lists of possibly distinct advantages characteristic of each method.

Common advantages for cases and simulations:

Both methods

  • Integrate various courses and topics into an interdisciplinary framework, allowing better application in the future (Walter, et al., 1997)
  • Encourage critical thinking and require thoughtful reasoning and analysis (Ejigiri, 1994; Li & Baillie, 1993; Lundeberg, 1999; Lynn, 1999; Merseth, 1999; Wasserman, 1994)
  • Improve decision-making skills (Fripp, 1993; Teach, 1993; Wasserman, 1994)
  • Present complexity and ambiguity, similar to real-life situations, in which there is seldom a single "correct" answer (Einsiedel, 1995; Friedman, 1995; Fripp, 1993; Grupe & Jay, 2000)
  • Build skills in selecting strategies (Knotts & Keys, 1997)
  • Enhance interpersonal and teamwork skills (Dukes, 1997
  • )
  • Involve active/experiential learning (Barnes, et al., 1994; Christensen, et al., 1991; Desiraju, 2001; Grupe & Jay, 2000; Niemeyer, 1995)
  • Facilitate the transfer of skills to work settings by supplying contexts built on existing knowledge, by reconnecting students with the problem, and by reflecting real-world experiences (Ejigiri, 1994; Li & Baillie, 1993; Niemeyer 1995)
  • Require involvement as a participant rather than a somewhat neutral observer (Grupe & Jay, 2000)
  • Promote individual discovery from the learner's own perspective (Dukes, 1997)
  • Improve writing with appropriate assignments (Lundeberg, 1999; Teach, 1993)

Differential advantages cited for cases:


  • Encourage higher-order cognitive thinking (Ejigiri, 1994)
  • Introduce theoretical principles and techniques (Einsiedel, 1995; Fripp, 1993) and develop theoretical and applied knowledge (Whiteley & Faria, 1989; Wolfe & Guth, 1975
  • )
  • Enable students to discover and develop their own unique framework for approaching, understanding, and dealing with problems (Barnes, et al., 1994; Williams, 1996) and with unstructured problems in particular (Teach, 1993)
  • Provide opportunities for issue analysis, problem definition, evaluation, and comparison of possible solutions (Einsiedel, 1995)
  • Help students learn from experience, including examples provided by case studies (Einsiedel, 1995)
  • Teach about industries and situations that may be encountered in the future (Niemeyer, 1995)
  • Can reflect the human side of a company (Keys, 1987; Li & Baillie, 1993)
  • Encourage participation, debate, substantive discussions, and the development of support for one's conclusions, and allow immediate feedback on one's conclusions and reasoning (Fripp, 1993; Grupe & Jay, 2000; Levin, 1999; Niemeyer, 1995)
  • Allow students to learn from the different conclusions and logic of others (Grupe & Jay, 2000)
  • Provide direct interaction among students and with the professor (Li & Baillie, 1993)
  • Focus equally on content, process, and the learning climate (Christensen, et al., 1991)
  • Avoid the time loss and distraction typical for students learning computer programs (Fripp, 1993; Li & Baillie, 1993)

Differential advantages cited for simulations:


  • Help develop some intuitive skills (Knotts & Keys, 1997)
  • Facilitate the affective aspect of learning (Dukes, 1997)
  • Give students practice in developing alternative choices and in modifying implementation (Knotts & Keys, 1997)
  • Allow students to experience interdependencies among various functional areas and decisions (Fripp, 1993; Smith & Golden, 1994; Tompson & Dass, 2000)
  • Allow students to act in the role of managers with responsibility for results (Li & Baillie, 1993)
  • Permit students to test and see the consequences of their decisions, rather than recommend a course of action without ever knowing the results (Grupe & Jay, 2000; Knotts & Keys, 1997; Li & Baillie, 1993
  • )
  • Require students to adapt to changes and new situations (Teach, 1993)
  • Focus on current rather than past events (Fripp, 1993)
  • Provide more realistic experience by requiring students to make multiple, successive decisions and allowing them to see the results, and by providing concrete feedback (Fripp, 1993; Thiagarajan, 2001; Tompson & Dass, 2000; Zappia, 1986)
  • Provide feedback (results) with internal validity and credibility (Gold & Pray, 1989; Tompson & Dass, 2000)
  • Avoid the possibility of author biases embedded in cases (Grupe & Jay, 2000)
  • Provide more realism, emotional arousal, excitement, and motivation (Dukes, 1997; Fripp, 1993; Li & Baillie, 1993; Prensky, 2000; Tompson & Dass, 2000; Tompson & Tompson 1995; Wolfe & Guth, 1975)

Implications for University Teaching and Learning

I urge an eclectic approach that makes use of both cases and simulations, in appropriate ways, to support the learning objectives of each particular course.

I arrived at this conclusion from both the literature and a research study conducted with six sections of a senior seminar in strategic management using two different course designs, each with the same mainstream learning objectives. One design used traditional case discussions exclusively; the other replaced half of the case-work with a computer-based simulation of companies competing in a global industry. This Viewpoint commentary is not designed to discuss that research in detail, but the outcomes, if you will take them on faith, are pertinent to my recommendation. There were no significant differences between the two design conditions on any of the 11 outcome measures, which included both self-report and objective measures of student performance. (Contact the author for more detailed information on the study.)

I conclude that:

  • Both cases and complex, computer-based simulations are valuable to use.
  • Neither is a panacea or generally superior.
  • A professor has considerable flexibility to choose the relative emphasis given to each.
  • "The problem, therefore, is not to discover the one right method, but to use the most appropriate methods to enhance the type and level of learning we want students to achieve" (Paget, 1988).

Recommendations about Appropriate Use

Extensive use of case discussions is appropriate when course learning objectives and conditions such as the following are paramount:

  • Learning about major concepts and models in the field
  • Maintaining close connection with student ideas and responses
  • Providing substantial interaction and immediate feedback between students and the professor about analysis, ideas, conclusions, and recommendations concerning typical real-world situations
  • Emphasizing individual student performance
  • Introducing students to several types of organizations and situations that they might encounter in their careers

In contrast, complex computer-based simulations have advantages when course objectives include:

  • Allowing students to experience more realistically the roles and responsibilities of a top decision-maker who is trying to position an organization in a tough, competitive environment
  • Allowing students to experience the uncertainties and surprises produced by the unpredictable actions of competitors
  • Facilitating affective aspects of learning
  • Promoting student emotional arousal and involvement.

An instructor's specific learning objectives--which should be in alignment with department, college, and university objectives--are the cornerstone for course design. It seems clear that there are many combinations of cases and simulations that could effectively support learning objectives for various courses. It is time to replace debate about which technique is superior with further research and dialogue about how to use both in effective combinations by better linking of course design decisions to specific learning objectives.

Selected References

Barnes, L. B., Christensen, C. R., & Hansen, A. J. (1994). Teaching and the case method (3rd ed.). Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Christensen, C. R., Garvin, David A., & Sweet, A. (Eds.) (1991). Education for judgment: The artistry of discussion leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Desiraju, R., & Gopinath, C. (2001). Encouraging participation in case discussions: A comparison of the MICA and the Harvard case methods. Journal of Management Education, 25, 394-408.

Einsiedel, A. A., Jr. (1995). Case studies: Indispensable tools for trainers. Training & Development, 49(8), 50-54.

Ejigiri, D. & Tarver, L. (1994). In support of the case method of teaching for excellence and training in the public sector. Education, 115(1), 46-51.

Faria, A. J., & Nulsen, R. (1996). Business simulation games: Current usage levels: A ten-year update. In A. L. Patz & J. K. Butler (Eds.), Developments in business simulation and experiential exercises (pp. 22-28). Madison, WI: Omnipress.

Friedman, W. H. (1995). A new model for case analysis: Iterative triadic thinking. Journal of Education for Business, 70(4), 228-232.

Fripp, John (1993). Learning through simulations: A guide to the design and use of simulations in business and education. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gold, S., & Pray, F. (1989). The production frontier: Modeling production in computerized business simulations. Simulation & Gaming, 20, 300-318.

Grupe, F. H., & Jay, J. K. (2000). Incremental cases. College Teaching, 48(4), 123-128.

Keys, J. B. (1987). Total enterprise business games. Simulation & Gaming, 18, 225-241.

Keys, J. B. (1997). Strategic management games: A review. Simulation & Gaming, 28, 395-422.

Keys, J. B., & Wolfe, J. (1990). The role of management games and simulations in education and research. Journal of Management, 16, 307-336.

Kimball, B. A. (1995, April). The emergence of case method teaching, 1970s-1990s: A search for legitimate pedagogy. The Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions, Indiana University.

Knotts Jr., U. S., & Keys, J. B. (1997). Teaching strategic management with a business game. Simulation & Gaming, 28, 377-394.

Levin, Barbara B. (1999). The role of discussion in case pedagogy: Who learns what? and how? In M. A. Lundeberg, B. B. Levin, & H. L. Harrington (Eds.), Who learns what from cases and how? The research base for teaching and learning with cases (pp.139-157). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Li, E. Y., & Baillie, A. S. (1993). Mixing case method with business games: Student evaluations. Simulation & Gaming, 24, 336-355.

Lundeberg, M. A., Levin, B. B., & Harrington, H. L. (Eds.) (1999). Who learns what from cases and how? The research base for teaching and learning with cases. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lynn, L. E., Jr. (1999). Teaching and learning with cases. New York: Chatham House Publishers.

Merseth, K. K. (1999). The case for cases in teacher education. Washington, DC: American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education.

Niemyer, E. S. (1995). The case for case studies. Training & Development, 49(1), 50-3.

Paget, N. (1988). Using case methods effectively. Journal of Education for Business, 63(4), 175-179.

Prensky, Marc (2000). Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Smith, J., & Golden, P. (1994). Corporation! Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Teach, R. (1993). What do we teach when we use games? In F. Percival, S. Lodge, & D. Saunders (Eds.), The simulation and gaming yearbook 1993 (pp.112-121). London: Kogan Page.

Thiagarajan, S. (2001). Thiangi Game Letter. Downloaded December 17, 2001 from

Tompson, G. H., & Dass, P. (2000). Improving students' self-efficacy in strategic management: The relative impact of cases and simulations. Simulation & Gaming, 31, 22-41.

Tompson, G. H., & Tompson, H. B. (1995). Using computer simulations for group projects in business school education. Journal of Education for Business, 71, 97-101.

Walter, B., Coalter, T., & Rasheed, A. (1997). Simulation games in business policy courses: Is there value for students? Journal of Education for Business, 72, 170-174.

Wasserman, Selma (1994). Introduction to case method teaching: A guide to the galaxy. New York: Teachers College Press.

Whiteley, T. R., & Faria, A. J. (1989). A study of the relationship between student final exam performance and simulation game participation. Simulation & Gaming, 20, 44-64.

Williams, M M. (1996). Using the case method in a foundations of education course. In J. A. Colbert, P. Desberg, & K. Trimble (Eds.), The case for education: Contemporary approaches for using case methods (pp. 187-195). Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Wolfe, J., & Guth, G. R. (1975). The case approach versus gaming in the teaching of business policy: An experimental evaluation. The Journal of Business, 48, 349-364.

Zappia, G. F. (1986). The case method and computer simulation: Observation, comments, and justification. Journal of Education for Business, 61, 330-331


Posted January 13, 2003

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©2003 by Rex C. Mitchell.

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