Teaching Tips for Case Assignments

This Page: Student Difficulties | Course Planning Tips | Discussion Tips | Problem Solving Tips | References and Links

Despite the benefits of using case assignments, students and instructors can find them frustrating, mostly because they are a type of assignment students may not be used to. Here are some tips.

Why is it hard for students to learn with cases?

  1. Students may be uncomfortable with open-ended assignments. Many students view education as a collection of well-defined facts that reach a common understanding and assignments as always having a single solution.
  2. Students often lack experience with an open-ended problem-solving format in the classroom.
  3. If the case assignment is too complex, the material may frustrate students and shut down the very critical thinking skills the assignment may be trying to foster.
  4. If the case assignment is a team assignment, students may need to understand team dynamics in order successfully complete the tasks.
  5. A very controversial case could lead to extreme emotional reactions. A firm statement of the facts and rules of etiquette can help reduce tensions.

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Course Planning Tips

  1. Start with a simple case first. Some experts recommend using multiple cases throughout a course, so that students become more comfortable with case assignments over time. However, if only one case is possible, it is best that it not be too complex, especially in lower-level courses.
  2. Discuss the purpose and suggested methods for doing a case assignment with your students. Students may want models of what an "A" assignment would be like. Some models may be taken from similar case assignments.
  3. If cases are done in a team, introduce students to resources for team dynamics such as the TLT Building Blocks for Teams Web site. The team element element alone can cause quite a but of frustration for students accustomed to individual assignments.
  4. Another team tip is to allow sufficient class time for students to meet with their teams so they can do the case without necessarily having to schedule a long out-of-class meeting. Some experts even recommend restricting team meetings to the class period only.
  5. TECH TIP - If the case requires students to discuss issues extensively, then an online message board or threaded discussion area may be beneficial. This can allow students to have time to reflect on case issues before providing an answer. This can also allow the instructor to easily monitor multiple discussions.

    The Web site Creative Uses of Online Discussion Areas provides some tips and strategies for using a threaded discussion area.
  6. It may be worthwhile to establish some discussion etiquette guidelines, especially for controversial cases.
  7. Take sufficient time to introduce the narrative and the establish the case facts.
  8. If students express frustration or impatience with the case method, you may want to reassure them that this "messiness" is normal for the type of assignment, and that they be making progress even if it is not readily apparent at the moment.
  9. If doing a case assignment for the first time or piloting a new case, make sure you give students an opportunity to provide their reactions and feedback. Student feedback is often invaluable for diagnosing where an assignment may go wrong.

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Discussion Tips

If you are conducting a case in which a class discussion or debate is important, then these discussion tips can be beneficial.

  1. Make sure the first question is simple, but open-ended. This helps set the expectation of open-ended answers. However, some questions later on may be used to help students clarify details.
  2. Limit yourself to a few well-chosen questions, so that students have time to explore each question.
  3. Use some questions to have students explore or challenge their underlying assumptions about how they view case issues.
  4. Make sure all students participate. This can be done by directing questions to quiet students in a class, requiring students to contribute to an online discussion or some other technique.
  5. If students wander off track, by all means, redirect them, but the discussion format should be flexible enough to allow some latitude.
  6. If possible, change seating arrangements so that students can form a discussion circle or be grouped with their teams. If seating is fixed, students can still move to be together, and some may be able to meet in the hall.

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Encouraging Problem Solving

  1. Instead of answering questions directly, ask questions of your students so they enter into a dialogue about the problem.
  2. Encourage students to clearly define the problem first. Listing all the facts (or "knowns") and "unknowns" can help students define the exact nature of the problem.
  3. Ask students what a viable solution would "look like". This may help them brainstorm ideas.
  4. Encourage students to take a quick break if they are really stuck. Walking or doing something else may "loosen" their thinking.
  5. Remind students to develop an action plan once a "solution" is found. There may be other roadblocks ahead for the plan.

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References and Links

See also the Links page for sites on problem solving and teamwork.

Queensland Univerity Problem Based Learning for Students
Gives guidelines for working in a PBL assignment or course

Boehrer, John (1994) "On Teaching Cases" International Studies Notes, Vol. 19 No. 2
http://csf.colorado.edu/isa/isn/19-2/Boehrer.htm (No Longer Available)

Herreid, Clyde Freeman (????) "What Not to Do When Teaching Cases" Journal of College Science Teaching, Vol. 5: 292-294.

Kardos, Geza (1979) "Engineering Cases in the Classroom" Proceedings of the National Conference On Engineering Case Studies, March 1979.

Nickols, Fred. (2000) "Solution Engineering: Ten Tips for Beefing up your Problem Solving Toolbox"


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