• October 26, 2014

Teaching Students to Write a Case Study

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

In the late 1990s, when Ray McCandless was asked to create a public-administration concentration in the M.B.A. program at the University of Findlay, he wanted to include a memorable capstone experience. Instead of a standard academic thesis, he hoped to find an alternative that would still give the students a written project to mention in their graduate-school applications and interviews.

A longtime user of case studies—standard pedagogical fare in business-school courses—McCandless hit upon a unique solution: Instead of simply asking students to learn from a case study, he would ask students to write an original one of their own.

A dozen years later, McCandless is still having students write their own case studies, and still finds the exercise as productive and fascinating. He is now director of Findlay's Center for Teaching Excellence, chair of the university's department of justice sciences, and a professor of political science and public administration. I met him on a spring visit to the university and had the chance to learn how he developed the assignment, and what benefits and challenges it has provided both to him and to his students.

Case-study teaching has been around since the early part of the 20th-century, when faculty members at Harvard Business School responded to a lack of textbooks in the field by writing up descriptions of real business scenarios for their students to explore. Typically, case studies present students with real-life scenarios that they might face in their chosen fields, and then ask them to use what they have learned in their coursework to analyze the problem and recommend solutions.

Case studies also now frequently appear in the curricula of law, medical, and education schools. With a little creative thinking, the approach can be adapted to almost any discipline. I have used a modified case-study method in a postcolonial literature course: Students play the role of Western explorers who "discover" a prehistoric culture that condones infanticide of twins. The explorers have to decide whether to walk away or prevent the killing by using their more sophisticated weaponry to impose western standards of justice—or find some other alternative.

Having confronted a case like that, students come to their subsequent reading of texts like Heart of Darkness or Things Fall Apart better prepared to understand the complexity of the themes.

McCandless said his interest in case studies comes from his conviction that, as future managers, students will be faced with unique problems every day. The ability to solve such problems depends not only on an awareness of the theories and practices of the field but also on creativity and innovative thinking. He felt he could best help develop those skills by asking students first to engage with established case studies and then to write up their own.

"I wanted to tap into a different part of their thinking and skill set," McCandless said. "I wanted them to write a story ... maybe wake up or reinvigorate those creative juices that may have been killed by too many research papers."

Creating an original case study is the culminating assignment in his course, which begins by requiring students to do a project based on one of the case studies in their textbook (Public Administration: The Profession and the Practice, A Case Study Approach by Gerald Garvey, St. Martin's Press). The students have to write an analysis of a case from the text and offer an in-class presentation.

Along the way, students assemble their original case studies piece by piece. McCandless requires them to post in an online discussion board and document their progress in presentations. For example, early in the process, students write a discussion-board post in response to this prompt: "Discuss two different public-administration principles that you may be interested in utilizing as the central and guiding focus for your original case study. Explain why you have a special interest in each of these principles."

McCandless, thus, has built in numerous opportunities to evaluate each student's progress and discuss the assignment with the class as a whole.

In developing their original cases, students are able to draw upon real scenarios they have encountered in their work lives, or they can create entirely fictional situations. That flexibility in the assignment accommodates both traditional-age students, who may have little work experience, and those who might be returning for their degree after having spent many years in the field.

To guide them toward completing the assignment (for which McCandless requires a minimum of six to eight written pages), he provides them with a description of a "star-quality" case, as defined by Laurence E. Lynn Jr. in an overview of case-study teaching on The Electronic Hallway. According to Lynn, a star-quality case:

  • Poses a problem that has no obvious right answer;
  • Identifies actor(s) who must solve the problem and make decisions;
  • Requires the reader to use the information in the case to address the problem;
  • Evaluates the problem or potential solutions and requires the reader to think critically and analytically; and
  • Has enough information for a good analysis.

All of the guidance McCandless offers, however, doesn't prevent many students from experiencing anxiety about this unusual assignment. He finds the anxiety particularly acute in returning students who have not much done writing in recent years—and who may have never attempted the kind of creative writing that the assignment requires.

"Imagine the midcareer school-finance officer," he said, "or Coast Guard officer, probation officer, assistant city manager, or state auditor being asked to undertake this type of endeavor."

But for every student who finds the assignment terrifying, he has others who take to it with relish, especially "frustrated poets and fiction writers who really missed their general-education course experiences, when they had the opportunity to engage in this type of writing."

In the end, McCandless finds that almost all students are able to write a successful case study.

"Very few students," he said, "have trouble connecting the story/case-study scenario to a public-administration topic. Some of the stories are somewhat unsophisticated and simple, but the connection is made." He attributes the success of the assignment to its scaffolded structure, "with the discussion-board assignments sequenced in a developmental approach with strict time limits."

I asked McCandless what advice he would give to faculty members interested in incorporating this assignment into one of their courses in the fall.

"First," he said, "read many case studies with a critical eye. Don't focus so much on the content, but attempt to discern how the story is organized. Consider issues such as plot lines and characters. Are there too many? Do you have to keep going back to past pages in the case study to try to remember who certain characters are?"

"Second and simultaneously, read about writing case studies. I did not know that this helpful literature was out there! I have been a reader, student, and teacher of case studies since the early 1970s, but I had not thought much about how to effectively write case studies, even though I had written a few."

Third, McCandless encourages faculty members to engage in what he calls "backward mapping."

"Envision what you want your students to get out of this experience," he said. "This type of assignment should not be done simply because it seems different or innovative. That is not good enough and there is too much effort involved in the assignment to have weak reasons for engaging in the exercise."

Finally, McCandless added, don't do it if you don't think it will be fun. The extra time required to prepare the assignment, as well as the additional hand-holding that faculty members will have to do with anxious students, means that instructors need to find the exercise an interesting and enjoyable one.

McCandless says he always looks forward to teaching the class, in large part for the creativity that it encourages.

"It is just really cool and a welcome break to be able to teach a skill," he said, "and not have to lecture about the human-relations approach, regulatory federalism, unfunded mandates, etc. Of course, that subject matter forms the major part of the course, but the context of writing a case study not only makes the whole experience and approach a worthwhile challenge for students but also provides me with new insights into the discipline of public administration.

"After 30-plus years of teaching public-administration courses, it is great to be able to see course content through a new, useful, student-generated lens."

Note to readers: I would like to present a column later this summer which describes conferences and workshops in the upcoming academic year that are focused on teaching in higher education. If you know of a conference or workshop on that topic, especially ones that are multi- or interdisciplinary, please send the information to me at lang@assumption.edu.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is http://www.jamesmlang.com. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.

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