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Case Teaching and the Unexpected

Posted By Christopher Williams, Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Chris Williams

This post is part of GBSN's Case Method Month efforts to bring you expertise and perspectives from around the globe.

Anyone who has taught business studies with cases knows what it feels like to have the unexpected happen…..At some point during the class a grand piano crashes through the ceiling and lands right in front of you. Not literally of course.

Case sessions are social, discussion-based learning experiences. You never quite know who is going to say what, and when. Classes can and should be prepared and planned in detail to ensure an interesting and purposeful experience for the students. Cases should be selected with care so they fit into the wider course. But the unexpected can happen.

I am not referring to disturbances such as fire alarms, broken air conditioning systems, power outages and the like. Those can be dealt with. I am talking about unexpected perspectives, points of view, and new relevant information that a student may bring to the class discussion that may fundamentally alter the teaching plan for the class. Debates among students may arise with new angles and perspectives that didn’t exist in the teaching note, or were not considered last time you used the case. A student may be more knowledgeable about the industry, the country or the company being discussed than you are. A student may argue that certain facts in the case are wrong! This is difficult to pre-empt.

What are the consequences of this and how can the instructor deal with it?

One problem is that the unexpected will put pressure on the class timing. The end point, the summing up, and the time you had planned for reinforcing the learning points of the class may end up being rushed, or not reached at all! Another issue is that the unexpected may contradict or undermine the specific learning points you are trying to get across in the session.

If you fail to deal with the unexpected, students may get frustrated with you or their peers. They may lose interest in the subject.

One way of dealing with the unexpected is to build in slack. First, you can build slack into the case session itself. I don’t mean a fixed amount of time where you allocate space for wildly alternative (non-relevant) inputs to come into the discussion. I mean a more organic approach: a flexibility and willingness to alter the flow of the discussion in a meaningful way should these inputs occur. This requires you to be able to think on your feet…fast. Does the new information and insight add to the purpose of the class? Can I use this unexpected event for the benefit of the session and to reinforce students’ learning of this subject? In other words….can I use this to our advantage? If the answer to these questions is "yes”, then you might consider changing the teaching plan on the fly - in your head - in order to allow a broader debate. Tell the students you had not anticipated this but want to spend some time to discuss it. When you come to wrap the session up you don’t necessarily need to drop your intended learning points. But you can constructively build on the new insight to provide additional learning points.

Second, you can build slack into the broader course. Provide a space in the final class, or interim classes where you do some wrapping-up and integration of themes. This is a perfect opportunity to talk about the unexpected and how we (the class) have learnt from these new events and insights during the course.

You should also be prepared to alter the case and teaching note (if the case is one of your own), or inform the case writer(s). Your own experience from an unexpected event in a class may change the way you teach the case in the future and your experience may alter the way others use the case.

A final thought: it’s not at all a bad thing that the unexpected arises in case classes. It happens all the time in the business world and dealing with it in class in a purposeful way will serve to develop students’ ability to manage effectively in turbulent environments.


Christopher Williams is Assistant Professor of International Business at the Richard Ivey School of Business in Canada. He has lived and worked in the UK, Germany and The Netherlands and spent two decades in industry before entering academia. His research interests include entrepreneurship in international firms, knowledge creation and transfer, offshore outsourcing, and national systems of innovation. Professor Williams’ studies have been published in various academic journals and he has also published a number of teaching cases on international firms with Ivey Publishing.

Tags:  Case Method  case studies 

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