Mixing Cases and Lectures

Posted: 22 Nov 1999

See all articles by Robert C. Higgins

Robert C. Higgins

University of Washington - Department of Finance and Business Economics


Pedagogical literature in business education often implies that case method instruction and lectures are incompatible polar opposites in which students and instructors play markedly different roles. The reality is that most business programs offer varying mixtures of cases and lectures. Such mixing occurs in at least three ways. First, many curriculums offer a case course or two in an otherwise lecture-driven curriculum. Second, individual instructors include cases as a change of pace in a lecture course. Third, many instructors imbed mini-lectures within a case discussion. (I omit classes in which the instructor allows students to look over his shoulder while he analyzes the case as disguised lecture courses.)

Each of these methods of mixing cases and lectures merits consideration. In the interest of space, however, I will confine my comments to the first. My purpose here is thus to offer several personal reflections on the unique challenges and opportunities arising when teaching a case course in a lecture-driven curriculum.

The Benefits and The Challenges

The occasional case course or two in a lecture intensive curriculum can be very valuable to students. Such students are often naive about the practical merits of the theories and perspectives learned in lecture courses, and they benefit greatly from the give and take of case instruction in which they are required to articulate and defend a point of view. In addition, practically minded students -- a group that I believe includes most professional students -- are inclined to forget seemingly abstract principles and theories soon after the exam unless they have hands-on practice in applying them in realistic settings.

At the same time, teaching such stand-alone case courses in a lecture curriculum presents particular challenges, most emanating from the habits and expectations students have developed in prior lecture courses. Despite a surface, intellectual understanding that case courses are different and that they have to talk in class, students nonetheless routinely expect a much higher level of guidance, direction, and often answers than most case method instructors deem appropriate. These students also chafe under a grading system that emphasizes such apparently subjective metrics as class participation and written analyses of cases for which "there aren't even any answers." How can the teacher say my answer isn't correct when she can't even tell me the right answer?

The conditioning of students by prior instructional experience became vividly apparent to me several years ago when I was a visiting professor at a pure case method institution. Student evaluations at my home institution, where I teach case courses in a lecture dominated program, routinely urge me to lecture more, to provide more direction on how to approach problems, and to use more objective grading criteria. At the case institution students thought I was too directive and shared too much of my own analysis with the class. What works clearly depends on what students have learned to expect.

A second, more insidious, problem with teaching a case course in a lecture-dominated curriculum is that students get the notion that case analysis is somehow opposed to theory, that theory is either irrelevant in case courses or that a leitmotif of the course is to belittle theory. In some settings, students see the case instructor a hero, offering a practical education instead of more boring theory. In others, the case instructor becomes the out-of-date practitioner who doesn't know enough theory to teach real courses. Both perspectives are, of course, incorrect and both undermine the valuable complementary nature of lecture and case instruction.

Setting the Ground Rules

How might an instructor address these challenges? I believe the key to a successful case course in a lecture-driven curriculum is to articulate and enforce clear ground rules for how the course will function. The dynamics of case instruction are often sufficiently foreign to lecture-savvy students that establishing effective ground rules can be a demanding task. In their absence, however, a case course can quickly degenerate into a hollow caricature of itself.

Here are some suggestions for establishing effective case course ground rules.

1. In the first class meeting describe in considerable detail how the class will operate, what you expect from the students and what they can expect of you. As part of this introduction explain the power of inductive learning, the complementary nature of lecture and case-based instruction, and the value students derive from developing and defending a point of view in an ill-structured business environment. Explain that the heart of an effective case course is the collective examination of student analyses, and that this requires thorough preparation on their part. You might note that you do not expect students to have ready answers to all possible questions, but that you do anticipate two to three hours of diligent preparation for each case.

2. Offer students a safety valve for those inevitable days when they are unable to fully prepare. Tell students that if they are not fully prepared -- if there has been a death in the family or loss of a limb -- to please notify you before class, and you will give them a free pass. Conversely, if they do not notify you, you anticipate they are adequately prepared. (I have never had students abuse this privilege.)

3. In the first few classes especially, reinforce the importance of thorough preparation by asking a student to begin the class by presenting his analysis in full, from problem identification through analysis and recommendations, a process that might take 20 minutes. This can be a painful exercise for all concerned as the novice case student flounders nervously looking for approval and seeking to get off the hot seat as soon as possible. Classmates are often anxious to help by asking questions or volunteering opinions. But do not be distracted. Keep the spotlight, politely, on the first student until he has presented his entire analysis before inviting comment from others.

4. If the student has made a good faith effort to prepare, use a light hand. If you judge the level of participation to be inadequate, encourage the class to reach for higher goals. If at any time you believe an inadequately prepared student is attempting to bluff his way through an analysis, make certain he understands in no uncertain terms that this is not acceptable behavior and remind him to inform you in advance when he is not adequately prepared. A public admonition is painful and embarrassing for all concerned, but nothing deflates a case class faster than the perception that the instructor doesn't really mean it when he asks for thorough preparation. Be tough when you need to.

5. Reinforce the importance of thorough preparation by assigning a significant fraction of the class grade, in the range of 30 to 60 percent, to class work. To dispel the common student notion that class work is little more than a talking contest, I have experimented recently with a new grading system. I assign 100 points to class work and give each student 70 points on the first day. If a student completes the course without ever opening her mouth, a highly unlikely occurrence, her class work score at the end of the term will 70. If she opens her mouth, her score will be somewhere between 100 and 60 depending on the quality of her work. A strategy to relieve anxiety about the subjectivity of class work grades is to distribute mid-term class work grades with the proviso that there is ample time for students to demonstrate they deserve a better grade.

6. As in all case courses, but especially in lecture-driven institutions, avoid answering direct questions, including your own. Deflect the question, pose it to the class as a whole, or on occasion ask a student to look into the matter and report back. If students are unable or unwilling to respond to your questions, wait, wait some more, rephrase the question, ask a simpler question, ask another student, tell a story, do anything but answer your own question.

7. Finally, recognize the reality that you will likely be unable to overcome fully the years of habit developed in lecture courses. Case method instruction is sufficiently robust and flexible that you can safely meet at least some of your students' expectations for answers without ruining a case course. Compared to the norms in a pure case method program, you might thus provide more extensive summaries of the classes' analysis, more specific critiques of alternative student perspectives, and at the end of the day share more of your views on the case and how best to approach it. Better sometimes the willow than the mighty oak.

Teaching case courses within a lecture-driven curriculum can be a valuable, rewarding experience. I hope you find these tips useful in addressing the unique challenges it presents.

Suggested Citation

Higgins, Robert C., Mixing Cases and Lectures. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=195648

Robert C. Higgins (Contact Author)

University of Washington - Department of Finance and Business Economics ( email )

Box 353200
306 Mackenzie Hall
Seattle, WA 98195
United States
206-543-4379 (Phone)
206-528-0340 (Fax)

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