"Very real world."
"[The case study method] provided an excellent preview of different types of work product, problems & environments we'll encounter as practicing attorneys."
"A fun and refreshing change from other [law school] classes."
"Teach every class with the case study method!"
Case studies are educational tools that engage readers in active learning by putting them squarely in the shoes of real people wrestling with real dilemmas. As students read a case study, prepare assignments, and actively participate in class discussions and exercises, they learn multiple ways to approach the problems described in the case. Cases are used to illustrate a particular set of learning objectives, and (as in real life) rarely are there exact answers to the dilemma at hand. The case study will provide readers with an overview of the issue, background on the setting (typically the individual, company/institution, industry, and larger environment), the people involved, and the events that led to the problem or decision at hand. Case studies can be written entirely from the point of view of a single actor or protagonist and based on interviews with the people involved, while others can be developed from public sources. Still other case studies can be disguised versions of actual events or composites based on the faculty authors’ experience and knowledge of the subject.
Case studies are used in undergraduate, graduate, continuing legal training and education, executive education, and professional development courses, workshops, and seminars. Instructors may assign questions prior to class to focus participants on the particular issues they plan to address in the class session. A class session can include exercises, role plays, debates, and summarizing lectures. One of the hallmarks of a case discussion is the dynamic interaction between students, who engage in lively debate and ad hoc role plays. Instructors identify students who hold opposing views and ask questions designed to stimulate debate; they encourage input from others on both sides of the issue until the students uncover most or all of the learning points identified in advance by the instructor. Instructors will lead students to experience an “aha” moment during which conventional wisdom is trumped by deeper, more seasoned insights.
It is easy to get confused between the Case Study method and the Case Method, particularly as it applies to legal education. The Case Method in legal education was invented by Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School from 1870-1895. Langdell conceived of a way to systemitize and simplify legal education by focusing on previous case law that furthered the principles or doctrines of subsets of the law. To that end, Langdell wrote the first case book, entitled A Selection of Cases on the Law of Contracts, a collection of settled case law that met his threshold of shedding light on the current state of contract law. Students read the cases and came prepared to analyze them during Socratic question-and-answer sessions in class.
The Harvard Business School Case Study approach grew out of the Langdellian method. But instead of established case law, business professors used real life examples from the business world to highlight and analyse business principles. A typical HBS-style case study is a short narrative (less then 25 pages), most often told from the point of view of a manager or business leader embroiled in a dilemma. Students in business classes read the case studies and accompanying articles and come to class prepared to argue and defend their advice for the protagonist.
"[In 2004], Harvard Law School embarked on a major curricular review aimed at determining what changes might help us to prepare our students even more effectively for the complex global challenges of this new millenium." -- Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, former dean of HLS (2007).
One of the insights from this study, according to Dean Martha Minow and Professor Todd Rakoff, was that the accepted way of teaching law, the Langdellian Case Method, which focused on "a retrospective view of facts," was falling short in teaching critical problem-solving skills. They wanted to find a new way to stimulate "legal imagination". Minow and Rakoff wrote, "What [students] most crucially lack ... is the ability to generate the multiple characterizations, multiple versions, multiple pathways, and multiple solutions, to which they could apply their very well honed analytic skills." (Rakoff and Minow, 2007) To that end, Harvard Law School instituted the Problem Solving Workshop, a first year required course that teaches problem solving skills through case studies, and encourages the use of case studies throughout the HLS curriculum.
There are several faculty initiatives that produce case studies at HLS: The Case Development Initiative, led by Professor Ashish Nanda, creates cases for use in HLS degree courses and Executive Education; Professor Robert Bordone, director of the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program, and several faculty affiliated with the Program on Negotiation at HLS develop case studies, discussion exercises, and role plays; and the Problem Solving Workshop teaching group, led by Professors Todd Rakoff and Joseph Singer, has developed case study materials for the Workshop. More information on each group follows.
Many case studies are accompanied by teaching manuals or notes, which outline the basic premise of the case study, how it can be used within a course, learning objectives, assignment questions, a typical class discussion flow, and key takeaways. Teaching notes will often provide board plans, informational slides, exercises, and updates or epilogues to the case study. Faculty authors may also provide supplemental materials, such as “what happened next” cases, role play instructions and exercises, videos, or suggested readings.
A case study discussion typically requires at least one class session to fully implement. Some multi-part cases or multi-player role plays will require more time.