September 1996

Root Page of Article: Teaching International Reporting Through the Internet , by Christopher Harper

The Case Method

Why We're Here

Special thanks to Dr. Maryann K. Cusimano, Department of Politics, Catholic University

A university should help teach its students to read, write, speak, and think. These are skills you will need to be good citizens in the real world beyond our campus. A course that does not help you to do these four things may be short-changing you in important ways. An education that does not accomplish these four tasks is lacking. The problem is that these four tasks are not always easy to do. People get bored reading, have trouble writing, are afraid to speak, and are not challenged to think nearly enough. Since these are difficult tasks, and given the nature of many contemporary universities, both students and professors sometimes enter a tacit bargain to avoid or ignore some of these things. Instead of tackling the reading material, students ask: "Will we have to know this on the exam?"

Instead of keeping up with recent developments in the field, professors may retread old lectures and syllabi time and time again. You aren't asked to think, and in turn, you don't ask faculty members to do so. Your university education becomes one of those strange economic goods that you pay for in full.

I don't like this. It cheats us both. You are robbed of an education, and I of a chance to teach. You emerge with a mediocre education without many of the skills you may need in the real world, and I become a mediocre educator. I will do my best not to succumb to this common, but destructive, pattern. I will offer a rigorous class that includes reading, writing, speaking, and thinking. I expect an honest effort from you in these various regards. We are both lucky to have this chance to learn together and from each other. Most of the humans on this planet are involved in the basic struggle to subsist and do not have the luxury of the opportunity to develop themselves in this way. We have the opportunity, but often take it for granted, and do not try to get the most out of it. Let's break the cycle of trying to get the least out of our educational investment.

Learning With Cases

A case is a narrative of an actual, or realistic, problem that typically portrays policy makers confronted with the need to make a decision. Teaching cases present information, but not analysis. Your task is to supply the latter as well as to advocate a solution. Moreover, unlike the assignments to which you are probably accustomed, and which tend to be relatively solitary exercises, we will use in-class discussion to develop a solution to the problem posed in the case. You should find case learning an enjoyable and active experience. But unless you have used cases in other courses, you may find that you need to learn some new skills. Studying cases may seem frustrating. Like the situations faced by real policy makers, information provided in the case may be ambiguous, complex, or incomplete. Generally a case has no single "correct" answer. There are only choices--some better, some worse, and all open for discussion and interpretation.

Second, class discussion of cases may appear intimidating to some of you and working together in a group to solve a problem may be unfamiliar to many of you. Learning with cases also involves your active participation. Unlike traditional lectures, where the material presented by the professor may find its way to your notebook with little conscious intervention on your part, case discussion demands your ideas and participation. Rather than being a passive "desk potato," just observing the knowledge transmission process, cases require you to learn by doing analysis and recommending action.

Case Discussion

At the heart of learning from cases is their discussion in class. This is a collective exercise. You might think of the class as a team of professional colleagues, perhaps a group of government ministers of a departmental working group, that has been asked to work together on a problem.
  1. Be prepared to present your ideas forcefully, and to support them with as much care and persuasion as you can. At the same time, be equally prepared to listen to the comments of your classmates and to treat others with respect. This is not shock radio. Name calling and other incivilities are not acceptable. Keep an open mind. Do not hesitate to incorporate the ideas of other students or to change your mind.
  2. Do not wait too long to be involved in the discussion. The longer you wait to participate, the harder it is to become involved. I may call on you at any time, or ask you to play the role of a particular actor in the case.
  3. If you want to raise an issue that is completely different from the one the class is discussing, consider waiting until the class is ready to move to another issue. Alternatively, if you think that you need to interject your point (particularly if you think the class is moving off on to a tangent) try to do so by linking your comments to those of others.
  4. Try to be alert to ways to keep the class discussion moving toward a solution to the case. Although this may take some practice, try to find opportunities to build on the comments of others.
  5. Do not hesitate to admit confusion, ask for clarification, or simply be wrong. Most of us do not like to do any of these, but bear in mind that by doing so, you may help the group stay focused on the problem.

Case Preparation

Preparing for in-class discussion of cases is likely to require significantly more effort than you might anticipate. One approach many students find helpful is working in small groups. While this method is recommended, bear in mind that all work must represent your work only The preparation work you do will significantly improve your ability to participate in class discussion.
  1. Try first to get a quick sense of the whole case.
  2. If this is a case requiring a decision, who is the key decision maker? What decision does she or he have to make? What are his or her objectives? What other actors are there in this case? What are their objectives?
  3. Try to identify the key problems on a piece of paper. Then go through the case again, sorting out the relevant information for each problem. What are the resources and constraints associated with each problem?
  4. What are the possible courses of action for the decision maker? Endeavor to identify and rank alternative policies. What are the likely short- and long-term consequences of the policies that you have identified?

Class Discussion

What is a "good" class discussion? Evidence of careful preparation, including knowledge of the factual details of the case and reading materials; logical consistency, appropriateness to the discussion, originality, and use of relevant evidence in the arguments made; comments that are clear, concise, enthusiastic, and civil; the extent to which your comments contribute to the process of the discussion, such as building on the ideas of others, providing constructive criticism, asking constructive questions, or indicating a careful listening to others.

I recognize that class discussion comes more easily for some people than for others. By temperament or habit, some are "talkers" while others are "listeners." Learning to be both is an important goal of this class and a necessary skill in life beyond this classroom. Comments that are not relevant to the ongoing discussion, that are off the point, that are disruptive to discussion, that are insensitive to others, or that attempt to dominate the discussion will not be rewarded! I would prefer that you volunteer to participate, but will call on you if necessary to bring you into the conversation. If you are uncomfortable speaking in class, please come by and talk with me. I can offer you some "tips" that may help to increase your comfort in speaking in class. ^

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