Lisa Rohrer will tell you that she’s “drunk the case studies Kool-Aid.” She has been writing and teaching case studies for years, and as the newly appointed executive director of the Case Development Initiative, she’ll be overseeing the biggest source of case studies at Harvard Law School. We sat down with Lisa to hear more about her experiences in the classroom:
How do you prepare for teaching a case study?
LR: It’s so helpful to talk to others who have taught case studies. If I don’t know a case or have no other experience with it, I often reach out to colleagues or read teaching notes, both to get ideas as well as a sense of how students typically react to the various issues presented in the case. This is a big reason why we’d like to write more teaching notes for CDI cases—they can help instructors get up to speed quickly on how to maximize the teaching value of the case. The exciting thing about cases is that you never know how it’s going to go, so it’s really helpful to have the benefit of those who have come before.
Teaching with case studies is very different from giving a lecture or leading a discussion. You need to simultaneously engage students in the story and strategically manage the classroom time so that certain teaching goals emerge from the session. I always think about what people walk away with, so they don’t leave saying, “That was interesting but I have no idea what to do with that information. What did I actually learn?”
What other concerns do you have about teaching with case studies?
LR: One of the things you run into danger with, particularly if you don’t have MBA students immersed in the culture of case study learning, is student preparation. If students aren’t prepared for class, the case study is going to fall flat. You might say: “Why is Catherine feeling so troubled in this case?” And there’s just silence, and everyone is looking at each other, looking at their laptops. It’s a really basic question, but that happened to me last week. You always have to be ready for that to be an issue.
In my JD course, I make participation 25% of the student’s grade to give students an extra nudge to engage in the process. As much as I can, I also get them to work in small groups and then report out. It helps in several ways. First, if they have not spent a lot of time with the case, it gives them a chance to get up to speed. Second, if they are nervous about contributing to the discussion, it gives them a chance to test drive their reactions to the case in a safe environment. I find it facilitates discussion.
How do you save a case study when no one has read it?
LR: I posed this question to a professor once. He said, “That’s only ever happened to me once. I told them, ‘I’m going to leave the room. You have twenty minutes to read this case.’” And he said it never happened again.
Sometimes, particularly again, if students are not 100% comfortable with the case discussion format, it’s a question of getting them warmed up. I’ve often found that if I just wait long enough, students start to jump in. When I was met with blank stares at the beginning of the case discussion last week, as the students started to speak after a long silence, I realized that they did have a better grasp on it than I first thought. Sometimes you have to let everyone get nice and uncomfortable with the silence in the room. Once some people start to talk, others will too.
You can also cold call early in the semester, early in the class. The first session is where you set the expectations. If you cold call that first question, it really gets people’s attention. I haven’t needed to do that, but I know people that do, and it works.
Tell us more about your participation policy.
LR: To some professors, the quantity of participation is all that matters; to others, quality—a student only needs a few amazing comments to ace the participation grade. When you’re working with students who are not accustomed to the case method, I think you need to tread carefully here. I don’t particularly care if the students have brilliant insights, I just want them speaking and engaged. I want them to take risks and state their opinion, but I don’t want them to be worried about what’s right or wrong. I am not out there to fail somebody because they don’t understand a case we’re discussing in class. I want to create a safe environment to play with these ideas. This goes to written assignments, too. I ask them to take the concepts and apply them to another situation in real life. I’m looking for an honest attempt more than brilliant organizational analysis.
Do you have any advice for teaching with case studies?
LR: Using cases is a somewhat riskier way of teaching. When I put together a course, I try and frontload with some case studies I know well and am reasonably confident will be successful. If the first few classes go really well, students will give you more latitude when trying new cases later on. The first few times you teach a case, it’s sometimes hard to keep the discussion going for a really long time. A big part of case teaching is knowing where you are in your time schedule. If you’re teaching it for the first time, you’re not as good at following lines of argument down to the end. You have questions you want to ask the class, and you can get through them kind of quickly. For these reasons, it’s a good idea to have some backup ideas for how to emphasize the concepts you are covering and make it real to the students.
Energy level is also really important. Because you rely so much on discussion, you can’t really teach a case by sitting in a chair in front of the class. The best case teachers are moving around, keeping the students’ eyes, ears, and brains busy while facilitating discussion. That means pushing back on students, getting them to clarify their thinking, provoking, getting people to point and counterpoint, pointing out when people have different views and asking them to engage with each other.
I also bring in video clips to mix things up and make the case come alive. Another tactic is to try and connect the case to the student’s experience. “Have you ever seen anybody like this? Have you been in an organization like this?” Suddenly people see that it isn’t just something they’re reading on paper. Getting them to start sharing and talking about real-world implications raises the energy level.
…before we go, can I talk about why I use case studies?
LR: I’ve thought about this a lot. I did my training in the business school where case teaching is the norm, but it’s much more unusual in law schools so being in law schools has forced me to really think about the value of this approach. In academia, we have a tendency to break everything out into disciplines, and the learning experience can become siloed. You go from one to the next—corporations, torts, estates. But the world is multidisciplinary. Cases enable you to get into the nuance and force students to grapple with all of these other issues in real situations. You can pull out what you want to for teaching purposes, but cases also enable instructors to demonstrate how various areas of expertise can interact with each other. In life, there’s very little that happens in one discipline. Cases reflect the messiness of the real world by telling stories about real people making judgment calls in real organizations. This makes them both uniquely instructive—and a lot of fun.