Tips for Writing Case Studies


Ed. note – This post is drawn from two articles that originally appeared at SAGE Connection.

Noah Barsky
Noah Barsky
Textbook examples certify learning. Cases educate.

Textbook learning is often a re-packaging of objective facts or approaches set forth in a preceding chapter. A great case can call upon resources of many types across numerous disciplines. Great cases are not about what facts students can recite, but rather what students and faculty can do with the fact pattern. The subject matter of a case should be real or, at very least, realistic. Popular cases can be realistic situations, adapted circumstances, or a lesson from a publicly known business example.

Have a purpose
A clearly defined abstract is critical to maximizing the number of faculty who will consider the case and ultimately adopt it. The abstract should be clear, concise, compelling, and credible. Write it first to organize your thoughts. Re-write it last to ensure that it reflects the case. The abstract should briefly overview the case and why its subject matter is important and relevant. Provide an overview of what the students will do and what they will learn. Most importantly, make it appealing; you are asking a faculty member to continue reading and eventually invest scarce class preparation and delivery time in your idea.

Craft meaningful objectives
Document five to seven meaningful outcomes that students will take away from the case. Start each learning objective with a unique and actionable verb (e.g., analyze, evaluate, determine). The learning objectives are important as they will frame the context around which students will learn and further specify why the topic is important. After all, motivated and curious learners are more apt to fully explore a topic and analyze the case.

First, introduce the topic or scenario with background information, but craft each sentence deliberately and wisely. This information should be limited to those facts that are relevant later. Next, the case should build intrigue, highlighting a business decision or issue that may not have a clear-cut or agreed-upon answer. Ultimately, the “crescendo” of the case accomplishes two objectives: it raises a topic that merits debate and represents a useful example for future reference in students’ studies and professional careers.

Close with clearly defined discussion questions and references
Lifelong learning depends on the ability to think, and to do so with great critical ability and healthy skepticism. The discussion questions should require that students deliberate case facts, apply detail in supporting tables, or access databases, articles, or websites that further enrich the conversation. High quality discussion questions will stimulate meaningful classroom conversation and hopefully challenge students to push the bounds of their thinking and understanding. Conversely, discussion questions that result in simple objective outcomes (e.g., calculations, lists, facts) lack discussion and often do little to justify the time investment required for a case over a traditional textbook homework problem. Even worse, such materials reduce the professor’s role to one of certifier, rather than educator.

Invest considerable time in the teaching notes
Faculty would widely agree that the perceived quality of a case depends directly on the nature of the teaching notes. The teaching note is the author(s)’ guidance on how to deliver the case effectively. Often, writers expend their energy on the case itself and reserve little for the teaching notes. Exceptional teaching notes include an overview that is richer than the abstract. It should serve as an executive summary of the case and reinforce key learning objectives. If a faculty member only reads this overview, he or she should be able to grasp the concepts of the case and envision how it might fit into their curriculum.

Following the overview, state the teaching objectives, which should incorporate the student learning objectives without mimicking them exactly. Next, define the target audience. Indicate which academic level would best understand and benefit from the case (e.g., early undergraduate, MBA, specialized Master’s programs), and suggest types of courses or subject matter that the case would complement. When determining a target audience, carefully consider the base knowledge and any prerequisite coursework that is needed to fully comprehend and appreciate the case. The teaching strategy is the author’s opportunity to advise faculty on how to present the case to students and structure the assignment. Suggest if you think the case should be introduced in one class and discussed in another, or if it can be covered in one session. Is it well suited to individual reflection or a group effort? Emphasize any supplementary articles or videos that may help students with the assignment, especially those that contain additional background information on the subject or industry.

Finally, compile solutions for the discussion questions. This section will help prepare faculty to guide class discussions by illustrating some of the conclusions that students should or could derive from the case. Solutions are not meant to be comprehensive but should adequately prepare faculty for student responses and offer enough insight and knowledge to ask follow-up questions and facilitate discussion. If the case requires students to conduct any quantitative analysis, be sure to include those calculations and an explanation of their significance to the case, along with any possible variations that may be relevant.

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Here, Noah Barsky asks a few questions about using cases with his former MBA student Lidya Tkacs. Tkacs is currently a business consultant.

Noah BarskyWhat are the attributes of great cases that made the most lasting impression on your learning?

Lidya Tkacs: I think the ability to identify and leverage trends to extrapolate future events or prescribe a corrective course of action is invaluable, and the more chances you have to exercise it in business school, the better. One of my professors asked each student to read about mega-trends in the tech sector; at that time, it was probably about the rise of mobile technology and cloud computing. In class, we discussed how these mega-trends would impact our own companies’ strategies. I worked for a hospital then, so I considered both the business and clinical perspective. On the clinical side, data analyzed from cloud-based electronic medical records and clinical trials could influence and customize treatment plans for patients. On the business side, if consumers were demanding more access to their shopping and financial accounts through mobile devices, why wouldn’t they expect the same from their medical providers? The class discussion was very animated, and other students’ comments gave me added perspective on my own industry. No industry is isolated, and being able to recognize broader economic trends and bring them closer to home can be invaluable in a career.I learned the most from cases that were based on real, recent corporate issues.

NBWhat type of pre-work or other guidance beyond reading the case proved to be most worthwhile?

LT: I think it is more realistic to give less information than more, but I appreciate documents that provide background on the industry or business issue. I worked primarily in healthcare before my MBA, so if I have to do a case on Sunoco, it would be helpful to have access to a current analyst or consulting firm’s report on the energy industry. Otherwise, you’re relegated to Google searches for free content, which yield less robust outputs and inconsistent discussions in class. Similarly, it’s important to provide background that is needed to get the full value of the case. If a case is discussing the financial impact of counterfeiting in the apparel industry, students need a very basic understanding of how an apparel company, like Nike or Ray Ban, invests in product and production.

NBWhat are some do’s and don’ts of structuring the actual assignment? What facilitates learning without being cumbersome to complete?

LT: I actually love the idea of only doing a presentation that outlines root problems of the case’s issue, recommended courses of action, and potential impacts to competitors or the future of the industry. Delivering the presentation in class is optional, and supporting evidence can go in an appendix, but I like PowerPoint as a deliverable. I’ve been on both sides of the consulting fence, and I never had to do an eight-page write up for anyone. I had to make slides that told a compelling story to drive decision-making and action. Regardless of the deliverable’s format, encourage students to demonstrate understanding and level set on a few key assumptions, and then move quickly to analysis and recommendations. Try to avoid having them write lengthy summaries of background information that was given to the whole class.

NBDid you complete cases that involved significant data analysis or other quantitative analysis? And was it more or less helpful than qualitative cases?

LT: Quantitative analysis is always tougher and more tedious, but I think those types of cases are underutilized. Data analysis is a professional weakness of mine (and many other students) and I wish I had been pushed to do more of it. Data is so readily available, and I can’t think of an industry that isn’t seeking to make more data-driven decisions. The professor can provide an Excel file of data or reports, and then ask students to analyze it, extract meaningful insights, and make recommendations to remedy any underlying problems.


Noah Barsky

Noah P. Barsky is a professor at the Villanova University School of Business. He has also taught as a visiting professor in the Executive MBA program at Washington University in St. Louis and the INSEAD MBA program in Europe. His research and teaching focus on performance measurement, business planning, risk assessment, and contemporary financial reporting issues. Barsky is a member of the SAGE Business and Management Advisory Board.

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