Teaching cases the Harvard way….part 3 – four personal observations

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This is a guest post from Vince Mitchell who is Professor of Consumer Marketing at Cass Business School at City and teaches the marketing course on the Executive MBA.

In this 3-part post, Vince share’s some of his learning and observations from attending a recent seminar on case teaching by Harvard Business School.

VincePICPart Three

In reality, the perfect case execution, as described in a parts 1 and 2 of my posts, doesn’t always happen because cases aren’t written like that, or the students don’t have the experience or motivation to think hard and come up with comments, or the instructor doesn’t have the experience. There are other objections too for the case teaching method. Here we look at these and offer some solutions at to how they can be overcome.

First, some consider that they are a theoretical. In good case executions, Theory is taught inductively, i.e., students, together with your guidance in the closure of the case, derive generalisable principles from the specific details. However, the case method can sometimes fall down because not all cases produce generalisable principles which is why the instructor might have to add frameworks or theory to the case to beef up the learnings during the case sum up. Alternatively, a short theory/framework lecture could be given after the case discussion covering the relevant ideas which could be used to help come up with and justify suggested solutions for the case. Of course, even without this, the students have had experience of working through problems with the aid of group discussion and an experienced facilitator.

Second, at least from a student perspective, is the frustration that there isn’t one answer, there are many right ones. This puts more emphasis on the way of arriving at solutions and what are the characteristics of good solutions are such as that they use evidence and reason well and consider all the important factors. What can also be helpful here, is to at least identify some wrong solutions during the discussion and explain why.

Third, is out of date cases as perceived by students. Here you can rightly insist the learnings are still relevant, rather than defensively defending the use of a 1980s case, the suggestion is to find a really old case from 50, 100 or even 200 years ago and show how is can be useful in teaching us lessons. Then the criticism of irrelevance diminishes and relatively speaking, your 1980’s case is really quite new. This together with some very recent cases, should address most students’ concerns.

Finally, as the case method is highly didactic, it exposes the relationship between lecturer and the class like few other teaching techniques. To keep this on track, Harvard advocate some quick feedback during the course. One quick, simple and effective mid-course feedback technique is to ask for students to anonymously write down in 3 minutes one thing you should QUIT doing, START doing and KEEP doing. Another easy one which is more about the course, rather than about you, is 1 thing you like, 1 thing to improve and 1 thing you’d like to know. Since students, like many of us, often think that their opinion is generally shared and therefore more important, one way of dealing with conflicting student feedback is to show the dilemma, e.g., 20% class said cases were too hard, and 25% said they were too easy, so what should I do? This not only shows students that their opinion isn’t generally shared, but also shows why you can’t do much about it without upsetting part of the class.

So as the sunny Madrid day draws to a close, the style may be have been IE and Harvard, but the substance is definitely coming from the collective knowledge of the professors in the room and it’s increasingly clear that to make cases work in your context, you need a lot more than just a course from HBS, but it’s not a bad building block to start with.


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