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Notes from the CFT Library: Teaching and the Case Method

This article was originally published in the Fall 1998 issue of the CFT’s newsletter, The Teaching Forum.

Teaching and the Case Method , 3rd ed., vols. 1 and 2, by Louis Barnes, C. Roland (Chris) Christensen, and Abby Hansen. Harvard Business School Press, 1994; 333 pp. (vol 1), 412 pp. (vol 2).

By Dave Jensen, Master Teaching Fellow

In the words of their authors, these two volumes celebrate “the joys of teaching and learning at their best” and emphasize “the reciprocal exchange of wisdom that teachers and students can experience.” Now in its third edition, this book has become a contemporary educational classic. It introduces readers to the “case method,” a technique pioneered by Christensen and others at the Harvard Business School, that has proven helpful in a wide variety of academic settings for effective discussion leading.

The case method encourages students to apply material they have learned in a course by presenting them with a problematic, real-life scenario. This scenario is called a “case” and is generally distributed prior to the actual discussion hour. Discussion thus centers on the problem(s) each case presents; students must rely on themselves, the classroom material, and each other in approaching the dilemma.

The first volume comprises more than thirty cases; while these cases center on educational issues, they offer models for the case method which may be applied to virtually any class. Teachers may use this volume as a model for their own casebased seminars or as a resource for implementing student-active discussions in more traditional classroom settings. For instance, a class studying ethical dilemmas involving racism might discuss the case “I Felt as If My World Had Just Collapsed!”, in which a professor is confronted with an apparently racist comment in the classroom.

The second volume, the Instructor’s Guide, offers potential issues within the cases presented in the first volume, which in turn can be discussed after classes have raised their own concerns. The volume also presents teaching notes that incorporate researchers’ perspectives on the case method.

See the CFT Module on Case Studies for more information.