A teaching note is the instruction manual of the teaching case that it accompanies, and therefore meets the likely needs of the faculty who intend to use case studies in their classes.
The quality of the teaching note is closely linked to the actual teaching of the case in the classroom, since it offers meaningful step-by-step guidance for fellow instructors, without any additional research. The objective of this valuable tool is to show them how they could deal with the information contained in the case, how to analyse it and use it in the classroom discussion in order to achieve the learning goals.
But what we notice is that many case authors don’t fancy the stage of drafting a teaching note, and sometimes experience it as a constraint.
Are there any tips that could help offset the negative perception of this step, and even make it enjoyable?
I - How is a good teaching note structured?
There are no single teaching note standards, but the more information you put in the teaching note, the more comprehensive and useful it will be. The following components are not all mandatory but strongly recommended:
This part being the first contact with the case, the author should give a general view of the case. It also highlights the company’s situation and specificity, and what makes them interesting to study. For published teaching cases, the synopsis is the part that appears in catalogues, so it has to be brief and appealing, in order to attract faculty who are in search of case studies for their courses.
The author has to explain the immediate issue, which concerns what the students need to do as they are in the decision makers’ shoes. Considering that the basic issue is the concept emphasized in the case and which motivated the instructor to choose and use the case in the first place.
When many basic issues are explored, the author has to thoroughly list and clarify each of the involved concepts and techniques.
This is a list of what the student should be able to do after having discussed the case. This part has to be as detailed and precise as possible. The number of objectives may vary according to the scope of the issue. It’s also useful to explain why these objectives are relevant, and consistent with the teaching plan.
Target audiences and prerequisites:
Here, the author explains which public(s) the case study addresses (undergraduate/graduate students, MBA students, Executive MBA students, etc.). This part includes the prerequisites that should be mastered prior to discussing the case, and in which course(s) the case can be used.
In this part, the case author explains the potential roadmaps for classroom discussion, by giving explanations mainly about the teaching phases, the work teams, the assignments (presentations, role-plays…), the timetable of the session as a whole and the detailed timing for each phase. This teaching strategy also clarifies the questions in the case study, and gives a brief description of the case discussion, which is clearly linked to reinforcing the learning objectives. Moreover, it lists a number of questions that the fellow instructors can use during the session: questions to prepare the students prior to the discussion, launching questions, stimulation questions (advancing the discussion), consensual questions (optimal solution adoption) and concepts verification questions.
When the case includes various targets with different levels, the questions should be explained for each target, and should specify the level of difficulty.
Placement of the case in the course:
The author suggests possibilities of placing the case in the course, according to the learning objectives, the prerequisites, the audience and the case type. For example, a case with multiple issues can be used in different sessions during the same course. Some cases serve as applications for concepts and techniques, and so must be used at the end of the instructional sequence. Some other cases invite students to discover the concepts through the given situation, and they must consequently be used at the beginning of the sequence.
This is the key part of the teaching note. Here, to each of the questions given in the case, the author maps out all possible answers, sorts them according to their relevance, and indicates which is the optimal one. Since a case study issue rarely has a unique correct solution, it’s advisable to explain the diversity of points of view and approaches, with the pros and cons of each alternative. When analysing the answers, the author must send back to references of theories and models, as well as remind of the case’s facts and data.
Sometimes, the questions are not given in the case itself. In this situation, the author has to insert the questions in the teaching note, and balance between oriented questions, open questions and controversial ones. Naturally, the author must pay attention to the level of difficulty of the questions, so as the answers are not too easy, nor too difficult to find by the students.
Here, the author lists and provides all the material that could help faculty to use the case: videos, presentations, Websites, worksheets, advertising material, product samples, annual reports…
Teaching experiences feed-back:
This part is written after the first classroom tests, which mainly aim to verify the following aspects:
- The case meets the announced learning objectives,
- The teaching plan is realistic,
- The students are able to deal with the case situation,
- The students are able to indicate the missing information, as well as organize, classify and combine available data,
- The students understand the usefulness of the case study,
- The placement of the case in the course is relevant.
Listing these elements helps the instructors to gain knowledge about how to manage discussion sessions, and get feedback about previous discussions of the same case (errors, traps, misunderstandings, lack of information, typical mistakes made by the students, etc.)
The author suggests some readings for the students to do prior to the case discussion, in order to prepare it correctly. This part may also include additional resources for the faculty use. A variety of references may be suggested: book chapters, journals, Internet, etc.
There is no ideal length for the teaching note, but it is linked with the length of the case study itself. For example, it’s recognized that a case discussed during a 3-hour session requires a minimum of a 10 pages-length teaching note. The main objective is to give comprehensive and useful information, without being too long either.
It’s important to underline that the teaching note is meant as guidance for the instructors, who can freely use it in order to meet their specific needs.
II - What is the best drafting process for the teaching note?
- It’s advisable to draft an outline of the teaching note before writing the case itself, especially the 4 first parts (synopsis, issues, learning objectives and audience/prerequisites).
- Starting with the teaching note also helps the author to structure the case and data collection.
- Once this phase is over, the drafting of the case is done along with its teaching note.
- The teaching note is finalized only after one or two tests, preferably with different audiences. This stage provides feedback from the instructor as well as from the students, about possible errors or improvements.
III- What are the frequent mistakes when producing a teaching note?
- The teaching note and the case are mismatched, especially when the teaching objectives are not achievable.
- The answers given in the teaching note are either impossible, or too easy for the students to find.
- The teaching note has too little information to allow faculty other than the case author, to teach the case.
- The teaching note includes too few different solutions to the case questions, which prevents faculty from using the case optimally.
- The case is not tested in classroom, which doesn’t make for a good quality teaching note, since it would lack precious feedback about learning objectives, teaching plan, analysis, level of difficulty, etc.
- The author omits to highlight some details considered as obvious.
- The teaching note is too short (not explicit enough) or too long (not concise enough).
IV- What makes a teaching note stick out?
- Thoroughly explaining all teaching note’s components (listed above).
- Adding an epilogue: updating of what actually happened, the decisions eventually made by the company.
- Giving information about how the data were collected, and whether they are disguised.
- Pointing out other lessons learned from the case.
- When the case is likely to be used with different audiences, all teaching plan possibilities are listed and the difficulty levels of the questions are clarified in the teaching note.
- When the case is also meant for exam use, the teaching note includes the assessment objectives and the grading scale, as well as specific questions for the examination.
- Testing the case study by instructors different from the author, which allows a better quality control of the teaching note for the purpose of a potential adjustment.
A teaching note is a key tool for you as a case author at the stage of case writing, since it provides structure and guidelines for your data collection. Besides, most case studies centres and competitions nowadays ask authors to submit cases with comprehensive teaching notes, because they are considered as the real added value of the case study.
Writing a good teaching note may take you time, but it helps you transmit the learning objectives you aim to reach, the solutions suggested for the situation, the best way to discuss it, etc. Eventually, it leads to the consecration of your vision through classroom dynamics, which is an outstanding outcome for your efforts.
Imane EL Ghazali is the Head of the Business Case Institute at ESCA Ecole de Management and Rihab Abba is a Member of the Reading Advisory Committee of the Business Case Institute at ESCA Ecole de Management