Teaching case studies
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The case method is a teaching approach that uses decision-forcing cases to put students in the role of people who were faced with difficult decisions at some point in the past. The case method evolved from the casebook method, a mode of teaching based on Socratic principles pioneered at Harvard Law School by Christopher C. A decision-forcing case is also a kind of case study. That is, it is an examination of an incident that took place at some time in the past. However, in contrast to a retrospective case study, which provides a complete description of the events in question, a decision-forcing case is based upon an «interrupted narrative. This is an account that stops whenever the protagonist finds himself faced with an important decision.
In recent years, following corporate scandals and the global financial crisis, the case method has been criticized for contributing to a narrow, instrumental, amoral, managerial perspective on business where making decisions which maximise profit is all that matters, ignoring the social responsibilities of organisations. Every decision-forcing case has a protagonist, the historical person who was faced with the problem or problem that students are asked to solve. Thus, in engaging these problems, students necessarily engage in some degree of role play. Some case teachers, such as those of the Marine Corps University, place a great deal of emphasis on role play, to the point of addressing each studies with the name and titles of the protagonist of the case. A student playing the role of a king, for example, is asked «Your Majesty, what are your orders? Teaching case teachers, such as those at the Harvard Business School, place less emphasis on role play, asking students «what would you do if you were the protagonist of the case.
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After discussing student solutions to the problem at the heart of a decision-forcing case, a case teacher will often provide a description of the historical solution, that is, the decision made by the protagonist of the case. Whatever the form of the description of the historical solution, the case teacher must take care to avoid giving the impression that the historical solution is the «right answer. Rather, he should point out that the historical solution to the problem serves primarily to provide students with a baseline to which they can compare their own solutions. Some case teachers will refrain from providing the historical solution to students. One reason for not providing the historical solution is to encourage students to do their own research about the outcome of the case.
Another is to encourage students to think about the decision after the end of the class discussion. Analytic and problem-solving learning,» writes Kirsten Lundgren of Columbia University, «can be all the more powerful when the ‘what happened’ is left unanswered. A classic decision-forcing case asks students to solve a single problem faced by a single protagonist at a particular time. There are, however, decision-forcing cases in which students play the role of a single protagonist who is faced with a series of problems, two or more protagonists dealing with the same problem, or two or more protagonists dealing with two or more related problems. A decision-forcing case conducted in the place where the historical decisions at the heart of the case were made is called a «decision-forcing staff ride. To avoid confusion between «decision-forcing staff rides» and staff rides of other sorts, the Case Method Project at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia, has adopted the term «Russell Ride» to describe the decision-forcing staff rides that it conducts.
Decision-forcing cases are sometimes described with a system of metaphors that compares them to various types of sandwiches. A decision-forcing case in which one protagonist is faced with two problems is thus a «triple-decker case. The bottom piece of bread is the background to the first problem, the second piece of bread is both the historical solution to the first problem and the background to the second problem, and the third piece of bread is the historical solution to the second problem. A decision-forcing case in which students are asked to play the role of a decision-maker who is faced with a series of decisions is sometimes called a «White Castle» or «slider» case. Case materials are any materials that are used to inform the decisions made by students in the course of a decision-forcing case.
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