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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.

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Posted January 13, 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 Rex C. Mitchell.

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