Top Challenges for Case Study Programs

What gets in the way of case study adoption? The Case Studies Affinity Group, a consortium of Harvard-affiliated case programs, took up this question during its quarterly meeting on May 12. The Affinity Group welcomed as panelists Carolyn Wood, Assistant Academic Dean & Director of SLATE and the Case Program, Harvard Kennedy School; Lisa Rohrer, Executive Director of the Case Development Initiative at Harvard Law School; and Susan Madden, Associate Director, Case-Based Teaching and Learning Center, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Together, the panelists identified key challenges facing case study programs at Harvard and beyond:

  • Poor visibility. A searchable index of all available case materials is a fundamental resource, but surprisingly challenging to achieve when instructors write case studies for their own courses. This index must be featured prominently in faculty onboarding or resource pages; ideally, faculty would receive formal pedagogical training or advising on available curricular resources. According to Wood, the Kennedy School of Government circulates an e-update three times per year to 80+ HKS faculty to highlight new cases and share high-level statistics and FAQs on case teaching and case usage. HKS also reaches out to instructors directly, suggesting a few new case studies specifically tailored to their course(s).
  • Few role models and mentors. The prevalence of poorly-facilitated case discussions can undermine support for case method teaching, but a skilled, energizing case teacher can transform student learning and inspire fellow faculty. Case study programs need respected opinion leaders on the faculty to act as champions; if such role models also direct or supervise case programs, the programs themselves can develop from this galvanizing leadership.
  • Incentive structure. Faculty members are typically promoted based primarily on research and scholarship, while teaching is thought to be weighted less. We need career incentives for faculty to stay on the cutting edge of pedagogy. In the interim, we can make the case development effort worthwhile for faculty by dovetailing case topics with faculty research interests, so that there is a greater return on investment for case research.
  • Lack of testing environments. Instructors need spaces to test new teaching styles outside of the classroom. Workshops where instructors test-teach short cases and see peer approaches would increase success, confidence, and ease for new case teachers.
  • The challenge of case teaching. Case teaching has been the dominant means of instruction in business schools across the globe for decades.  It can seem intimidating for instructors in fields outside of business to adopt case method teaching when they lack a stock of tested cases in their field, robust training, and the pervasive culture of case teaching that is so prevalent in business schools. Public policy faculty often practice case teaching in a more heterogeneous manner than their business school colleagues. Wood muses, “Even the most skilled case teachers at HKS are often reluctant to call themselves case teachers, perhaps because they’re uncertain they meet the HBS definition of a true ‘case teacher.’ But in our context, there’s room for variation in how case method teaching is practiced so long as it’s done in a manner that advances active learning.  It’s all about using authentic problems to push students to practice higher-order thinking skills (analysis, decision-making, advocacy) in a group context in class.”  Susan Madden notes that Emory University addresses this barrierby hosting a global health case study competition, encouraging multidisciplinary teams.
  • Benefits of traditional materials. According to Wood, some HKS faculty report that students read less carefully in the digital age; it is hard for students to skim case studies and still contribute deeply to the discussion. Furthermore, in legal education casebooks and lectures provide a broad abundance of information; it is hard for instructors to cut a lot of material and replace it with one deep scenario. However, instructors have successfully paired traditional legal cases with case studies, so that students may extrapolate to other scenarios. To achieve breadth with a single case study, instructors can mine the text for lessons comparable to those in legal casebooks, and lead students to articulate enduring, transferable takeaways.

Nonetheless, case study adoption should be slow. Wood explains that it is better to have a small number of instructors who teach cases well than many who teach ineffectively. Relationships between case writers and faculty take time to build; quality cases take time to research and write. With a foundation of quality, case study programs can address their challenges without undercutting the main objective: more engaged, thoughtful teaching and learning.

About Elizabeth Moroney

Case Studies Editorial Assistant
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