Cases have a long tradition in business education, with a robust body of scholarship supporting their use. They've been used for years as part of medical education’s problem-based learning approaches and more recently in undergraduate science education. The National Center for Case Study Use in Science has a website full of resources, including many actual cases. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a discipline where cases couldn’t be used.
In part, cases’ viability derives from their variability. A full-blown case can be several pages in length; at the other extreme, a scenario might have only two or three pithy sentences. But regardless of length, cases do not reveal quick, easy, or obvious solutions. Sometimes there is a right answer, sometimes one solution is better than others, and other times there’s a wide range of possible answers. And cases are versatile. They can be discussed synchronously or asynchronously via discussion boards, worked on in groups, or written up by individual students.
Dealing with a case benefits students in several ways. Most notably, the issues in a complex problem give students the chance to apply course content. What do they know that’s relevant to the problem and its solution? When students try to use what they’ve been learning, that experience frequently gives them feedback on their understanding of the material. There’s also the felt benefit they derive from facing situations like those that professionals deal with, and that effectively engages students. Finally, cases encourage students to think—to explore the nature of the problem, consider possible solutions, select one, and then make the case for it.
Even though these benefits have been written about extensively and are widely taken for granted, there have, in fact, been few empirical explorations that measure the effects of case analysis on learning. That’s the justification Passyn and Billups (2019) gave for their research, and a follow-up article by Bacon (2019) supports it. Passyn and Billups were interested in several aspects of case-based work. They wondered whether a one-page, semi-structured written case analysis might generate better grades than the traditional, unstructured version. They opted for individually written case analyses because in groups and whole-class discussions students can repeat what they hear others saying and fail to engage with the case. The researchers also wondered whether having to write the case analysis before discussing it in class improved the discussion and the opposite: whether discussing a sample case in a group improved students’ individual write-ups. Finally, there were some concerns about faculty and the grading that’s involved when cases analyses are lengthy. Perhaps more faculty would use cases if they required less grading time.
Two experiments reported in the research revealed mostly positive results: “Findings confirm the effectiveness of the one-page case study for improving case analysis grades and reducing the time spent grading” (p. 223). The findings also showed that a short lecture, “Cracking the Case,” and an initial small group practice case further improved students’ individual grades over unstructured case analyses.
Material appended to the article includes instructions for writing the one-page case, a sample one-page analysis, and a summary of the main points shared in the short lecture. The one-page write-up requires students to identify the problem laid out in the case; analyze the situation using a SWOT analysis of strengths, weakness, opportunities, and threats; propose alternatives; and conclude with a recommendation that solves the problem. The researchers point out that the specific instructions and tight format force students to carefully think through the case and then write about it succinctly. When assigned a less structured analysis, students tend to write their way around the problem. Several students reported spending more time writing the one-page analysis than the much lengthier unstructured response.
This is a particularly well-designed study, as Bacon pointed out. His piece clearly explains a number of research issues associated with measuring actual learning effects as opposed to students’ reports of their learning. Research issues like these are relevant to faculty, not so much as connoisseurs of research but in terms of their individual assessments of the effects of particular approaches on student learning. This research on a way of using cases supports their various benefits with evidence at the same time as it showcases the kind of thoughtful analysis that should undergird all our instructional practices.
Bacon, D. R. (2019). Moving forward with research on case-based learning: A commentary on “How to improve written case analysis and reduce grading time: The one-page, two-case method.” Journal of Marketing Education, 41(3), 230–233. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475319875281
Passyn, K. A., & Billups, M. J. (2019). How to improve written case analysis and reduce grading time: The one-page, two-case method. Journal of Marketing Education, 41(3), 215–229. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475319826621
To sign up for weekly email updates from The Teaching Professor, visit this link.