Making the Case for Unfacilitated Case Discussion: How Students Make Meaning of Case Studies

Ask almost any case teacher, and they’ll tell you that guided discussion makes or breaks a case study experience. Well, anyone but Charlie Nesson.

Professor Nesson unveiled a new case discussion method in his residential and online courses on the American Jury (taught at Harvard Law School, Harvard Extension School, and HarvardX): participants read the case, receive a stimulus question, and convene in unfacilitated “jury” deliberation groups, with the task of reaching a unanimous verdict. There is no right answer, no right process. Only the urgency to make headway and break impasses—or the spontaneous leadership of a participant—will move the conversation forward. In some sense, it is the simplest of role plays: be yourself, as citizen.

In the traditional classroom case discussion scenario, the instructor asks open-ended yet targeted questions, steering participants toward realizations while encouraging debate and problem solving. Without facilitation, those takeaways might never be unearthed. But too much facilitation, and the peer-to-peer conversation never gets off the ground.

Unfacilitated case discussion removes the possibility of a heavy-handed facilitator, and values the lessons of trial and error. Participants must find a way of relating to the case, using what they have; for instance, one student considered how each issue at hand applied to her work at the Department of Homeland Security. The case studies are group-edited by the teaching team to correct for bias and leading information, so that the takeaways are not handed down from an authority figure.  Participants received an introductory note on The Art of Deliberation as well as post-deliberation surveys each week to reflect on the group dynamics and each student’s reaction to the case. These materials primed participants to be more self-aware and analytical.

Yes, groupthink, steamrollers, and impasses can prevail in these peer deliberations, but insights about democracy, the political process, and self-governance are gleaned. The popular verdict seems to most often render the correct verdict, just as the institution of American jury would have it.

About Elizabeth Moroney

Case Studies Editorial Assistant
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