In framing learning activities for you, your teacher has access
to an extensive menu of tools and approaches such as problem-based
learning, project-based learning, role-play, field placements and
the case method (which is discussed here). The common thread running
through each of these approaches is that they are student-centred,
with students taking (or being allocated) greater responsibility
for their learning.
What is a case?
A case has been described as “an account of events that
seem to include enough intriguing decision points and provocative
undercurrents to make a discussion group want to think and argue
about them” (Barnes, et al., 1994). Cases may/may
not be literal accounts of actual incidents. But the characters,
situations and dilemmas described must ring true and represent experiences
so as to prompt meaningful discussion. Complex and information-rich
cases depict incidents
that are open to interpretation—raising questions rather than
answering them, encouraging problem solving, calling forth collective
intelligence and varied perspectives (Hutchings, 1993).
When does a teacher adopt this method?
When your teacher employs the case-method, s/he often intends
to take a ‘back-seat’ and allow learning to take place
through discussion-based and experiential learning arising from
an exchange of ideas. This is unlike situations where the teacher
lays emphasis on mastery of facts and technical processes, or formal
logic of models and concepts. Hence, case-based learning may be
more frequently used in the Humanities and Social Sciences than
in the ‘hard’ Sciences.
Presentation/format of the case
The substance of the case study may come in various forms: text
only, text and figures, text and maps, text and pictures, or even
illustrations only; however, generally these are anchored on real-life
situations and contain the ingredients described above. Your teacher
may exploit newspaper articles as they have a currency that you
can relate to. It is even possible to use just pictures or cartoons;
students will then have to glean from the picture which facts are
material to the discussion at hand.
How can I prepare for case-based learning?
In preparing a case for discussion, your teacher would primarily
wish to assess your grasp of a particular topic/area. S/he would
provide you with the material facts, issues and calculations (if
any). There may be some deliberate gaps in the information provided
as the teacher may expect you to make assumptions when you proceed
to deal with the issues. Beware: there may be some ‘red herrings’.
But be assured that your teacher will structure some, if not most,
of the questions so as to focus your discussion. The questions
posed may also have no ‘correct’ answer so that there
is more scope for discussion and the possibility of various perspectives.
For the case method to succeed, it is imperative that students
do their part as well. They should do the background reading and
attempt the questions the teacher has structured. For this purpose,
your teacher may have assigned parts of the questions to different
students. This requires students to engage in sub-group discussions
in preparation for the tutorial/seminar.
Here is a list of matters you may wish to wish to consider during
- What is the decision to be made?
- What are the key issues to consider in order to reach a decision?
- Are there specific constraints the actors may face within the
environment in which the decision is to be reached?
- Are there alternative actions the decision maker may take?
- What would I do? Why?
Your teacher’s role
During the case-study discussion, your teacher’s role is
not so much to tell the students what the answer is, but
to steer the discussion so as to encourage learning. The
teacher will consciously step aside to facilitate the process of
joint inquiry by shaping, moulding, questioning, suggesting, highlighting,
refuting and approving. This approach may be contradictory to what
you have been accustomed to in your earlier years of education—where
a teacher’s role was to provide answers—and
thus, may take some getting used to.
How do I know if the case method works for me?
Indicators of a successful case discussion are a high level of
student-to-student/student-to-teacher discussion and involvement
(which presupposes preparation), and instructor direction, not domination.
The emphasis is therefore on the process, although the knowledge
acquired must not be undervalued. Your learning will be enhanced
as the relationship between knowledge and practice become clearer
to you (remember, the case study information is generally anchored
on real-life situations).