Participants to the "teaching with cases seminar"

Teaching with cases: learning by doing at its best

How can we, through case studies, ignite in-class participation?

By Dorothée Sidokpohou – Professor of Management Practice, Marketing Department at ESSEC Business School. After 15 years of marketing experience in the corporate world, Dorothée favors teaching interactive methods, such as case studies and project groups, in partnership with companies.

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take a two-day course offered by Harvard Business Publishing (HBP), the “Teaching with Cases Seminar”, led by Bill Schiano, professor of Computing Information Systems at Bentley University, Massachusetts (USA). This seminar, organized on the Audencia campus in Paris, gathered a large crowd of professors of diverse nationalities and departments, working in French business schools. 

Bill Schiano delivered a smooth demonstration of how to teach with cases using a mise en abyme, as we all had to read cases in advance, exactly the same way students would do, and learnt from each other through the in-class discussion of the various cases. This participant-centered learning is very consistent with the learning by doing approach promoted at ESSEC, and more relevant than ever in a context where knowledge is available everywhere, from MOOC and Coursera to Youtube tutorials, and where classrooms are more a space for discussion than for lectures.

In this post, I will share a few insights that I have learnt from this training, which mostly boils down to engaging students in various ways to ignite discussion and participation

Preparing carefully

Finding the right case, that will ignite fruitful discussions, can be a difficult task, even using the Course Explorer section of the HBP website. But the most important task is to prepare the discussion beforehand, by answering these three key questions carefully: “How should I open the discussion?”, “what first question will I ask the students?” and “how can the discussion evolve from there?”. The whole teaching plan should flow naturally from these, keeping in mind that it is usually easier to start with the case and then go through the lecture, building on comments, rather than the other way around.

Involve students from the get-go

The key to involve students is to include them in the logistics of the course, by asking the class to help set up rules from day one (e.g. how many hours of prep work is required every week), or assigning specific tasks during each session (one helps monitoring online comments, another provides take-aways at the end of the session). Students can also self-evaluate their participation at the end of the semester and highlight their best comment. 

It sometimes seems daunting and unfair to grade participation in a crowded (potentially masked-up) multicultural room. It obviously starts with trying hard to learn names and faces, with the help of name cards or tokens distributed to active participants, and taking notes immediately after each class. Watching for blind spots is critical to prevent only favoring a few outspoken students that can intimidate others. This can be avoided by preparing a list of mute students to cold call for next session, while keeping in mind that some cultures are not keen to share in front of the full class. Creating eye contact and connecting with those students during the break can go a long way. Finally, if students feel judged or dismissed, they will stop participating altogether. Therefore, it is sometimes preferable to ask for clarification, use pointed questions, or make sure other students can comment, rather than directly correct students, and give a false impression of contempt. 

Surprises and gamification

The more predictable we are, the more students are going to zone out eventually. Thus, it is critical to bring some elements of surprise in the classroom, be it by avoiding to always follow the same structure of discussion or by refusing to give all the answers: letting students struggle with frustration or ambiguity can be useful to ensure an optimal performance in the classroom, as demonstrated by the Yerkees Dodson law (1908).

Figure 2. Yerkes-Dodson Law: Inverted U-relationship between... | Oxford  Research Encyclopedia of Global Public Health

Gamification can also raise the level of interest in the classroom. As a reminder, starting the session with an icebreaker, or with a simple poll using tools such as Beekast, Kahoot or Wooclap, helps catch the attention of the group. Bringing products to the classroom can also make the session more immersive, thanks to playing with the five senses. A role play could even be organized, be it to replay a dialog included in the case or to stage a discussion involving the CEO, an auditor, or even a candidate applying for a job in the company.

In the end, these concrete, action-oriented key learnings I have taken away from this training seem in line with what we expect from teaching with case studies : that students learn by doing.

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