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The Case Study Teaching Method

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. Case studies provide readers with an overview of the main 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. Cases 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. 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 teaching method engages readers in active learning by putting them squarely in the shoes of real people wrestling with real dilemmas. Students read the case studies and accompanying articles and come to class prepared to argue and defend their advice for the protagonist. As students read a case, prepare assignments, and actively participate in class discussions and exercises, they learn how best to approach and solve the problems described in the case.

Instructors may assign questions prior to class to focus students on the particular issues they plan to address in the class session. A class session can include student-led presentations, exercises, role plays, debates, guest speakers, and summarizing lectures. One of the hallmarks of a case discussion is the dynamic interaction between students, who engage in presentations, lively debate and ad hoc role plays. Instructors identify students who hold opposing views and ask questions designed to stimulate debate, or they can assign them to various stakeholder groups with different points of view of the problem or situation at hand. Instructors encourage input from 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.

The case study teaching method is appropriate for undergraduate, graduate, continuing legal training, executive education, and professional development courses, workshops, and seminars. Case studies are typically 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.