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Using Cases in Higher Education: A Guide for Faculty and Administrators

By James P. Honan and Cheryl Sternman Rule
112 pages
ISBN: 0-7879-5391-1
$20.00 (paper)

Reviewed by

Vicki L. Golich

Department of Political Science
CSU San Marcos


James P. Honan and Cheryl Sternman Rule use cases in their own teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They have written cases and even edited a collection of case studies published in two volumes--one with the cases themselves, the other with teaching notes for those cases. Thus, when they promise a guide "designed to help faculty and administrators use case studies to illuminate and explore the many complex dilemmas facing higher education leaders" (p. xi.), it makes sense that we should sit up and take notice.

I have used case teaching extensively since 1992, when I was selected to be one of 20 Pew Faculty Fellows in International Affairs. We participated in an intensive two-week workshop at the John F. Kennedy School of Government taught by several of Harvard's top practitioners of the art. After 20-plus years of teaching via lecture, I became a disciple of case teaching. I have run workshops on case-method teaching since 1994 across the nation and around the world. I am always eager to hear about and learn from other case-teaching practitioners. Although Honan and Rule offer some key points of advice to relatively new case teachers, I was disappointed overall in the presentation of their material.

They organize the guide into four chapters. The first places case teaching in context as one of a panoply of active-learning strategies available to faculty. Here they quote several experts in the field, aptly noting that case teaching can help students "sharpen their analytic skills" (John S. Hammond, as quoted on p. 2), challenge students "to add each new life experience to their developing cognitive frameworks and deepening understandings" (Selma Wasserman, as quoted on p. 7), and compel students to become genuine partners in their learning since case teachers no longer "bring the material to [students], but rather help them find their own ways to it" (C. Roland Christensen, as quoted on p. 9). Indeed, faculty using the case method, as with other active learning pedagogies, embrace the role of "guide on the side" while rejecting the "sage on the stage" approach to teaching.

Unfortunately, Honan and Rule, when discussing the changed role of teachers using active learning strategies, fall into a common trap many case-teaching novices fear: They argue that a case classroom is characterized by "minimal reliance on the instructor" (p. 2) because "instructors relegate control to students" (p. 9). In fact, the role of the instructor in case teaching is, if anything, more important than ever. Rather than controlling the flow of information in the classroom via lecture, however, faculty in a case class take on the responsibility of ensuring that students work through a comprehensive analysis of the material. Thus, faculty must be acutely aware of what they want students to learn from a case and be able to guide the students to achieve those outcomes. This requires faculty to be both careful listeners--so they know when students are moving away from core learning objectives or when they have reached a critical segue point--and skillful questioners--so they can elicit the analysis they want from the students.

In other words, rather than relinquishing control, faculty using cases exercise a different--and very important--kind of control in the classroom. They forge an alliance with students, helping them find their own ways to learn the material: As C. Roland Christensen notes in his discussion of case teaching, the "subject matter defines the boundaries of our intellectual territory, but the students' unique intellects, personalities, learning styles, fears, and aspirations shape the paths they will take" (1991, p. 28). The faculty member manages the encounters between the students and the material throughout a case discussion (Boehrer, 1996).

Chapter Two explores some first steps in using cases to teach: why they can be such effective learning tools, how to pick cases to meet your teaching needs, and how to pair cases with other class readings. Here, Honan and Rule capably articulate the "elements of an effective case study," including the need for drama to compel the reader to want to understand--via careful analysis--why events evolved this way and how the situation might be satisfactorily resolved (p. 13). Good cases present participants "with an interesting and challenging puzzle" that engages students with the material they have been working with in class.

When selecting cases, Honan and Rule recommend focusing primarily on the purpose and pedagogical goals of the course and on the audience in the class. These two essential factors determine the level of sophistication and complexity you might want in a case; they also inform the narratives that will interest you. They wisely suggest that faculty select cases--and the stories they tell--with an eye to other class readings; this is relevant to the question of integrating cases with other reading assignments. For example, faculty need to decide if they want to use cases to reveal theoretical perspectives or to demonstrate theories students have read about elsewhere.

I disagree with Honan and Rule's recommendation that "instructors who are inexperienced with case studies should start small," incorporating "only one or two cases" in the beginning (p. 18). I strongly urge faculty to take the plunge: I recommend using a minimum of three to five cases. Here's why: Not only do you have to adjust to a new teaching strategy, but students also have to learn how to be participants. If they know they only have to "experiment" with cases twice in an entire semester, then they will feel less driven to figure out how to do it. If, on the other hand, they know they will have to participate in a minimum of four cases during the semester, and that a substantial portion of their grades depends on their involvement in the case, they are much more likely to take the exercise seriously. Both you--the faculty member--and the students gain experience and comfort in the process over the course of the semester.

In Chapter Three, Honan and Rule offer a variety of useful tips for planning and executing a case discussion. Here again they offer reasonable advice with respect to preparing a case class, emphasizing the need to plan, plan, and plan some more. The importance of planning ahead can hardly be exaggerated. I would change the order of their planning process--for example, I would begin by developing instructional goals, whereas they begin by developing a teaching plan but otherwise their suggestions are right on target. Based on the headings they use throughout the chapter, they appear to suggest the following sequence of steps for planning and implementing a case discussion:

  1. Develop a teaching plan, complete with an introduction of the case, discussion themes, questions, teaching tips, suggested activities for working through the case material, and conclusions or debriefings.
  2. Create an effective classroom setting, including the use of name cards, chalkboards, and flipchart strategies--most case teachers like lots of room to take notes during a discussion.
  3. Develop a set of questions and anticipate likely responses.
  4. Identify instructional goals and desired learning outcomes.
  5. Know your audience: undergraduates in an introductory course or executive MBA students.

On pages 39-48, Honan and Rule do a very nice job of describing a variety of case discussion techniques, applications, and strategies, including role-playing and simulations, protagonist visits, and working with small groups. They also suggest some helpful strategies for monitoring and encouraging participation in case discussions, including tools to draw shy folks into the discussion and discourage dominant players from overwhelming the discussion. Finally, they offer some helpful hints about how to draw lessons learned from discussion by bringing "big picture" awareness from the case analysis.

In addition to the specific problems noted above, my overall complaint with this text stems from Honan and Rule trying, perhaps, to do too much. They appear to want to provide a guide for using cases no matter what the situation. Cases can be used in a number of venues, each of which will benefit from different approaches. Using a case in a four-hour workshop on how to lead a case discussion is a different animal from using a case in a two-hour class session of a 15-week semester. Some elements of effective case teaching remain the same, of course. But not all. It would be helpful if they differentiated between strategies that are more successful in one kind of venue from another.

Finally, I was surprised at the case they chose to showcase in this text. Most teaching cases are considered long when they reach about 10-15 pages; their case is 28-pages long! One could never use such a case in a short workshop because only a few folks will come prepared having read the case ahead of time. Thus, this could only work for a course or a one- to two-week workshop; here it certainly is meaty enough to provide grist for wonderful discussions.

In sum, while Honan and Rule offer some good points, the overall effect of this "guide" is disappointing. If I were new to case teaching, I would feel almost as lost after reading this book as before.

References and Recommended Reading

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

Boehrer, J. (1995). How to teach a case (No. 1285). Boston: The Case Program of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Golich, V. L. , Boyer, M., Franko, P., and Lamy, S. (2000). The ABCs of case teaching. Pew Case Studies in International Affairs. Washington, DC: Georgetown University, Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Available from http://data.georgetown.edu/sfs/ecase/resources/abcs.cfm

Posted September 25, 2003
Modified September 29, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2003 by Vicki L. Golich.

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