This post is part of GBSN's Case Method Month efforts to bring you expertise and perspectives from around the globe.
We’ve all had this
experience when teaching with cases: As
the instructor, you prepare heavily for an exciting discussion, you design a
creative teaching method, you review your notes before class, and you are ready
to go. The students arrive, take their
normal seats, greet each other and you, and class begins. You ask your ice-breaker questions, the ones
"guaranteed” to get students talking, and wait for hands to shoot up or
students to speak out. Nothing
happens. It’s dead quiet in the room,
and the students wait expectantly for your next move.
You wonder what they are
waiting for. Are they all
unprepared? That seems unlikely. Was
your initial question unclear? Possible,
but also not likely. Are there basic
language understanding issues? Perhaps,
but surely not with all the students. So, what’s wrong? Why are the students not engaging with you?
The problem may lie
somewhere in the nexus between mutual expectations and culturally-based
conventions. Students and instructors alike are subtly (and not so subtly)
constrained by their upbringing and social conventions. For example, students from some Asian and
African countries have been raised to show formal respect for their teachers
and, as a result, are unlikely to feel comfortable disagreeing with an
instructor’s opinion or even contributing aloud in class. This is in sharp contrast to American
students who have learned that their instructors’ expectations involve verbal
engagement, controversy, and mutual disagreement.
In the same way, instructors
from certain cultures may be uncomfortable having students address them
directly or question their conclusions.
This sort of professorial behavior is anathema to American academics,
who welcome the give-and-take of the engaged classroom.
Because case learning is
social learning, both parties to the learning process must stretch their
comfort levels with traditional roles and join forces to create a new classroom
model, one that succeeds in engaging students’ hearts and emotions as well as
their intellects. This model must be
acceptable (not offensive) to the instructor and, at the same time, not
intimidate students. This is not as daunting a task as it may seem if all involved
agree to temporarily suspend their
normal modes of communication.
The leader in this
suspension must be the instructor,
because the instructor normally sets the tone for the learning
environment. Some of the following
suggestions for instructors may help change the classroom culture for the sake
of improved case learning:
- Create a "safe”
environment for learning—one in which students are encouraged to express an
opinion. Learn to use phrases like,
"That’s interesting. Who else has
another idea on this subject,” instead of, "That’s incorrect. Who knows the
- Present your
questions as open-ended, following student answers with, "Why?” or "Why not?”
to generate discussion.
- Divide the class
into teams and assign positions for the teams to take on opposite sides of a
- Keep yourself
(as instructor) out of the conversation, just nudging it gently to keep it on
track. Require that students talk to each other, rather than using you as a
- Take a lot of
care not to express your own
opinion, as this discourages alternative perspectives.
There are many other methods
of engaging the reluctant student participant—please share your successes (and
failures) with this blog. We can have an interesting and fruitful discussion
Gina Vega is a professor at Salem
State University and is visiting academic to ecch under the Fulbright Scholarship