Teaching cases the Harvard way…. Part 2 – case demonstration

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.

harvard Part Two

Having set up how the cases will work within a course, the first stage of executing a case is also called the setup or situation analysis and description of the case, i.e., the key facts which are relevant to rely on for delivering the later learnings, what assumptions are in the case or are we going to have to make about the case and do we have any hypotheses about what is happening? Cases typically, but not always, go through the following stages.

The demonstration, or any way to make the case more real and relatable, including the use of video, real products and physical role plays. One thing to give particular thought to is the set questions you will ask because cases have multiple ways of being interpreted and the questions you ask can also be a set of instructions to guide student thinking. For example, ‘What’s the problem here?’ gives no instruction to student, but ‘What’s the marketing problem for John?’ frames and focuses their thinking and the subsequent discussion. ‘What’s the marketing problem for John, but let’s not consider the budgeting decisions’ can also help them in what not to look at. To engage students more, asking a student specific to pretend to be John and then asking the question, intensifies the debate. Questions tend to be open ended towards the beginning of a case and closed towards the end, but you can reverse it by asking a closed ended question to get students to take a position initially, like ‘who would launch now as opposed to delay’ and then use the two polarised groups to unpick their stances and discuss the underlying reasons for their choice.

Another case teacher skill is listening and there is a lot of that to do while managing who you listen to, and for how long for, to allow many people to participate by subtly closing down students who are long winded, over frequent contributors or have little of substance to say. The third skill of responding requires unlearning the habit that every comment requires the lecturer to give a wordy response, sometime, a gesture, acknowledgement, asking the class to comment, restating the comment for clarification or to push the idea to an extreme or simply saying nothing, can all to be used instead of giving your opinion.

The analysis, which initially sees the students grappling with an un-informed way deriving solutions, is crucial to the case method since they are forced to practice problem solving time and time again. Although an essential element, students can become frustrated and even confused with the analysis. However, this confusion is the glue on which, when the theory or framework solution is poured later, the theory will stick. The less the frustration and working the problem, the less impact the framework, theory or solution will have. At this stage, it’s not a bad technique to go sometimes into ‘meta comment’ mode and explore what’s happening in the learning process in the class room to help students understand and stay with the case journey.

Next is ‘the pivot’ whereby you introduce either addition information in terms of B or C case material or another way of looking at the problem or a theory or framework which might help in their analysis. This can often lead to a final stage called ‘the reversal’ where their initial thoughts on how the world works are now revised and true experiential learning takes place. Discussion of the key learnings or generalisable principles occurs at the stage, but our instructor warned against always give a ‘learnings or takeaways’ slide each week as students come to expect it and their motivation for self discovery and coming up with the learnings themselves is diminished.


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