University of California, Santa Barbara
Case Method Website: Student Guideline
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John Foran, Department of Sociology, UC Santa Barbara


  Introduction Case Preparation Case Discussion

Introduction -- Student Guidelines for Case Discussion1

This course will introduce you to the case-study approach to learning.  Our goals include the development of critical thinking skills, acquiring the ability to work collaboratively, and honing the art of applying theoretical concepts to actual historical and contemporary situations.

A case is a narrative of an actual, or realistic, problem that typically (but not always) portrays actors – sometimes historical or living, other times “fictional” or composites of actual people -- confronted with the need to make a decision.  Cases for teaching present information, but not analysis;  the goal of group discussion is to supply the latter, as well as to advocate solutions or courses of action.  Case discussion is also seen as an exercise in building analytic bridges between theory and data.

You should find case learning an enjoyable experience.  But unless you have used cases in other courses, you are likely to find you will need to develop some new skills.  First, preparing the cases may seem frustrating.  Like the situation faced by real actors and policy makers, the information supplied in the case is frequently partial and, at times, even misleading.  Alternatively, you may find yourself overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information.  To further complicate matters, the problems presented are both ambiguous and complex.  Generally a case has no single “correct” answer;  there are only choices, and the reasons behind them -- some better, some worse, than others.

Second, class discussion of cases may seem intimidating to some of you, and working together in a group to solve a problem may be unfamiliar to many of you.  Learning with cases also involves your active participation.  Unlike lectures, case discussion demands your ideas and participation.  Just as few people can be told how to ride a bicycle, so it is that few can simply be told how to make good analyses.  Cases put you in the position of doing analysis and deciding on courses of action.

Third, some students have discomforts of various kinds, particularly with role playing and decision-making.2  These range from shyness and reluctance to be an “actor/tress”, to ethical or philosophical reservations about “making decisions” in someone else’s place (for them), to the complexities of portraying individuals from cultures other than one’s own (and the potential for ethnocentric, racist, sexist, classist, or heterosexist views to be voiced).  My hope is that you will overcome the first of these discomforts, be sensitive to the last (and supportive of each other), and suspend your reservations about the second.

A final issue is that you may be asked to represent views with which you disagree, sometimes passionately.  This can be hard, but it can also be extremely valuable, both for understanding your own position (and the reasons which support it) better and for actually shifting your views, whether on their own terms or simply acquiring a deeper appreciation for those held by others.  If you can manage all these layers, you will be surprised at what you might learn.

The following are several suggestions you may find useful in preparing cases, and for discussing them in class.  Try some or all to determine which are most useful to you.

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A. Case Preparation

Preparing for in-class discussion of cases is likely to require significantly more effort than you might anticipate. Be assured, however, that your effort preparing cases will significantly improve your ability to participate in class discussions. One approach that many students find useful is to work in small groups.

  1. Try first to get a quick sense of the whole case. What can you learn from the title, headings, and outline? What do the introduction and conclusion (if present) reveal about the problem?

  2. If this is a case requiring a decision, who is the key decision maker? What decision does s/he have to make? What are the objectives of the decision maker? What other actors are there in the case? What are their objectives?

  3. At this point, it might be helpful to reread the case carefully, underlining or highlighting key facts.

  4. Try to identify the key problems on a piece of paper. Then go through the case again, sorting out the relevant information for each problem. What are the resources and constraints associated with each problem?

  5. What are the possible courses of action for the decision maker? Endeavor to identify and rank alternative policies. What are the likely short and long term consequences of the policies that you have identified?

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B. Case Discussion

At the heart of learning from cases is their discussion in class. This is a collective exercise. You might think of the class as a team of community members or colleagues, perhaps a team of government ministers or a departmental working group, that has been asked to work together on a problem.

  1. Be prepared to present your ideas with conviction, and to support them with as much care and persuasion as you can. At the same time, be equally prepared to listen to the comments of your classmates. Keep an open mind, and do not hesitate to incorporate ideas of other students when you find them persuasive.

  2. Do not wait too long to get involved in the discussion (although we all realize how hard it is for some to speak in public — that includes your teachers!). The longer you wait to participate, the harder it may seem to become involved.

  3. If you want to raise an issue that is completely different from the one the class is discussing, consider waiting until the class is ready to move to another issue. Alternatively, if you feel the need to interject your point (particularly if you feel the class is moving off onto a tangent) try to do so by linking your comments to those of others.

  4. Try to be alert to keep the class discussion moving toward constructive solutions to the case. Although this may take some practice, try to find opportunities to build on the comments of others. Be mindful too, of who has spoken, and not yet spoken, and try to give space to those who have not yet contributed as much to the conversation as you have.

  5. Do not hesitate to admit confusion, ask for clarification, or simply be wrong. Most of us do not like to do any of these, but bear in mind that by doing so, you may help the group stay focused on the problem.

1Adapted from professors Louis L. Ortmayer of Davidson College and Brian Mandell of the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, who in turn adapted it from David Schodt of Saint Olaf College. Thanks are also due to John Boehrer, former director of the Pew Faculty Fellowship in International Affairs, Kennedy School, Harvard.

2 I want to thank my students at Smith College, especially those in my seminar on globalization and its alternatives in the fall of 2001, for raising these issues with me.

This site is maintained by John Foran
Last update: June 2002.

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