By James M. Lang July 05, 2011

In the late 1990s, when Ray McCandless was asked to create a public-administration concentration in the M.B.A. program at the University of Findlay, he dreamed to include a memorable capstone practice. Instead of a standard academic thesis, he hoped to find an alternative that would still give the students a written project to mention in their graduate-school applications and interviews.

A longtime user of case studies—standard pedagogical fare in business-school courses—McCandless hit upon a unique solution: Instead of simply asking students to learn from a case investigate, he would ask students to write an original one of their own.

A dozen years later, McCandless is still having students write their own case studies, and still finds the exercise as productive and fascinating. He is now director of Findlay’s Center for Instructing Excellence, chair of the university’s department of justice sciences, and a professor of political science and public administration. I met him on a spring visit to the university and had the chance to learn how he developed the assignment, and what benefits and challenges it has provided both to him and to his students.

Case-study instructing has been around since the early part of the 20th-century, when faculty members at Harvard Business School responded to a lack of textbooks in the field by writing up descriptions of real business screenplays for their students to explore. Typically, case studies present students with real-life scripts that they might face in their chosen fields, and then ask them to use what they have learned in their coursework to analyze the problem and recommend solutions.

Case studies also now frequently show up in the curricula of law, medical, and education schools. With a little creative thinking, the treatment can be adapted to almost any discipline. I have used a modified case-study method in a postcolonial literature course: Students play the role of Western explorers who “detect” a prehistoric culture that condones infanticide of twins. The explorers have to determine whether to walk away or prevent the killing by using their more sophisticated weaponry to impose western standards of justice—or find some other alternative.

Having confronted a case like that, students come to their subsequent reading of texts like Heart of Darkness or Things Fall Apart better ready to understand the complexity of the themes.

McCandless said his interest in case studies comes from his conviction that, as future managers, students will be faced with unique problems every day. The capability to solve such problems depends not only on an awareness of the theories and practices of the field but also on creativity and innovative thinking. He felt he could best help develop those abilities by asking students very first to engage with established case studies and then to write up their own.

“I wished to tap into a different part of their thinking and skill set,” McCandless said. “I dreamed them to write a story. maybe wake up or reinvigorate those creative juices that may have been killed by too many research papers.”

Creating an original case explore is the culminating assignment in his course, which embarks by requiring students to do a project based on one of the case studies in their textbook (Public Administration: The Profession and the Practice, A Case Investigate Treatment by Gerald Garvey, St. Martin’s Press). The students have to write an analysis of a case from the text and suggest an in-class presentation.

Along the way, students assemble their original case studies chunk by chunk. McCandless requires them to post in an online discussion board and document their progress in presentations. For example, early in the process, students write a discussion-board post in response to this prompt: “Discuss two different public-administration principles that you may be interested in utilizing as the central and guiding concentrate for your original case examine. Explain why you have a special interest in each of these principles.”

McCandless, thus, has built in numerous opportunities to evaluate each student’s progress and discuss the assignment with the class as a entire.

In developing their original cases, students are able to draw upon real screenplays they have encountered in their work lives, or they can create entirely fictional situations. That plasticity in the assignment accommodates both traditional-age students, who may have little work practice, and those who might be returning for their degree after having spent many years in the field.

To guide them toward completing the assignment (for which McCandless requires a minimum of six to eight written pages), he provides them with a description of a “star-quality” case, as defined by Laurence E. Lynn Jr. in an overview of case-study instructing on The Electronic Hallway. According to Lynn, a star-quality case:

  • Poses a problem that has no demonstrable right reaction;
  • Identifies actor(s) who must solve the problem and make decisions;
  • Requires the reader to use the information in the case to address the problem;
  • Evaluates the problem or potential solutions and requires the reader to think critically and analytically; and
  • Has enough information for a good analysis.

All of the guidance McCandless offers, however, doesn’t prevent many students from experiencing anxiety about this unusual assignment. He finds the anxiety particularly acute in returning students who have not much done writing in latest years—and who may have never attempted the kind of creative writing that the assignment requires.

“Imagine the midcareer school-finance officer,” he said, “or Coast Guard officer, probation officer, assistant city manager, or state auditor being asked to undertake this type of endeavor.”

But for every student who finds the assignment horrifying, he has others who take to it with relish, especially “frustrated poets and fiction writers who indeed missed their general-education course practices, when they had the chance to engage in this type of writing.”

In the end, McCandless finds that almost all students are able to write a successful case explore.

“Very few students,” he said, “have trouble connecting the story/case-study script to a public-administration topic. Some of the stories are somewhat unsophisticated and plain, but the connection is made.” He attributes the success of the assignment to its scaffolded structure, “with the discussion-board assignments sequenced in a developmental treatment with rigorous time boundaries.”

I asked McCandless what advice he would give to faculty members interested in incorporating this assignment into one of their courses in the fall.

“Very first,” he said, “read many case studies with a critical eye. Don’t concentrate so much on the content, but attempt to discern how the story is organized. Consider issues such as plot lines and characters. Are there too many? Do you have to keep going back to past pages in the case probe to attempt to reminisce who certain characters are?”

“2nd and at the same time, read about writing case studies. I did not know that this helpful literature was out there! I have been a reader, student, and teacher of case studies since the early 1970s, but I had not thought much about how to effectively write case studies, even however I had written a few.”

Third, McCandless encourages faculty members to engage in what he calls “backward mapping.”

“Envision what you want your students to get out of this practice,” he said. “This type of assignment should not be done simply because it seems different or innovative. That is not good enough and there is too much effort involved in the assignment to have feeble reasons for engaging in the exercise.”

Eventually, McCandless added, don’t do it if you don’t think it will be joy. The extra time required to prepare the assignment, as well as the extra hand-holding that faculty members will have to do with anxious students, means that instructors need to find the exercise an interesting and pleasant one.

McCandless says he always looks forward to instructing the class, in large part for the creativity that it encourages.

“It is just truly cool and a welcome break to be able to instruct a skill,” he said, “and not have to lecture about the human-relations treatment, regulatory federalism, unfunded mandates, etc. Of course, that subject matter forms the major part of the course, but the context of writing a case investigate not only makes the entire practice and treatment a worthwhile challenge for students but also provides me with fresh insights into the discipline of public administration.

“After 30-plus years of training public-administration courses, it is superb to be able to see course content through a fresh, useful, student-generated lens.”

Note to readers: I would like to present a column later this summer which describes conferences and workshops in the upcoming academic year that are focused on instructing in higher education. If you know of a conference or workshop on that topic, especially ones that are multi- or interdisciplinary, please send the information to me at [email protected]

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of “On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your Very first Semester of College Instructing” (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about training in higher education, and his Web site is http://www.jamesmlang.com. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at [email protected]

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