KEY ELEMENTS FOR EXCELLENCE
IN CLASSROOM CASES & TEACHING NOTES 
This document concerns itself with defining the common elements that characterize excellence in two closely linked pedagogical documents: (1) excellent classroom cases that foster meaningful learning and the creation of knowledge in the management of organizations and (2) excellent teaching notes that enable those other than the creator of the case to achieve powerful classroom learning with the material. It is intended for use by anyone preparing such materials as well as those mentoring others in doing so.
Cases take many forms. They represent efforts to organize teaching and learning by any means other than the traditional lecture. They are intended to foster participant-centered learning. With the development of new technologies and media, they no longer are confined to paper and the written word. Regardless of form, there is a set of elements, some more important than others depending on the form of the case, that characterize excellent cases.
A case is incomplete without a teaching note. The creation and use of both is an interactive and iterative process. A teaching note makes the effective classroom use of a case accessible to those other than the case creator. Teaching notes, regardless of the form a case might take, contain a common set of elements that help define excellence.
Our concern here is with those key elements in cases and teaching notes. We do not focus on the case writing or teaching note development processes, although criteria for defining excellence does create important end targets and may suggest pathways for achieving excellence. As an appendix to of this document we will provide a brief overview and reference the work of others who have written extensively and well on this important and closely related topic of case development.
Rather than rely solely on our own decades of work with cases and teaching notes, we first polled a group of Harvard Business School (HBS) colleagues from different disciplines and areas of expertise and asked them to define "a few key characteristics that separate an excellent case from an ordinary one." All of those polled had long experience in developing widely used and long-lived cases. We found a convergence in their responses and with the literature reviewed which we then refined and integrated as a set of concepts and criteria. We next tested the criteria against a sample of cases and teaching notes dealing with a wide range of business topics.
To test the relevance of these elements, we reviewed individually and independently of one another a set of cases recommended by “unit heads” of each of the eight subject areas at HBS as being highly regarded by their respective faculties. We then formulated and compared our respective judgments of how well each case and teaching note under examination met our criteria of excellence. That provided the basis for understanding differences and modifying the elements of excellence.
The cases selected for review included some that were also best-sellers at HBS Publishing. Thus, we were testing the elements of excellence on cases deemed by the internal (HBS) and external marketplaces as high quality. Because of the diversity of the case subjects, we were able to judge the general applicability across the main areas of management study of our elements of excellence. To further test the discriminatory power of the elements, some cases that were not best sellers were also reviewed. Lastly, the refined elements of excellence and a version of this document were reviewed by a larger group of emeriti and senior faculty at HBS. This feedback was used to make the final revisions in this document.
This note sets forth four core findings from our research: the elements that define excellence for classroom cases; the elements of excellence for teaching notes; the characteristics of a well-integrated case and teaching note “package”; and the elements of excellence for forms of innovative pedagogy other than traditional written cases. We also include as Appendix A a summary of key considerations and further resources for the processes of developing classroom cases and teaching notes. And finally, we have included as Appendix B a Review Work Sheet that we hope will provide a simple check list of things of which to be aware in the preparation and evaluation of these materials.
FINDINGS I: ELEMENTS OF EXCELLENT CASES
Classroom cases are a special form of scholarship. Their primary purpose is to enable learning initially through individual student preparation and then more powerfully through stimulating collective learning in classroom discussions. In addition, they can provide the basis for anecdotal research of an in-depth nature that leads to the development of concepts and hypotheses for further exploration by other means.
Cases can vary considerably in terms of topics and substantive material. However, the best examples excel in terms of ease of reading, ability to stimulate productive discussion, and intellectual richness contributing to the attainment of the targeted learning objectives. To facilitate further examination of these broad characteristics, we developed a set of eight elements that characterize excellence in classroom cases, each of which is elaborated below.
- Focuses on one or more managerially important issues that contribute to understanding the world of practice.
- Poses a problem or challenge that generally requires a decision and/or plan of action.
- Provides sufficient information to allow students to carry out the needed analyses without an instructor doing the analyses for the student. (In some cases, information may be intentionally left out of the case to foster particular student analyses and discovery.)
- Is self-contained, not relying on other notes, readings, text chapters, or reference materials, unless those are assigned with the case and included in the teaching note.
- If appropriate, uses media other than the written word to present needed information in a way that enables a richer understanding or analysis (e.g., videos revealing location context, processes, or protagonists’ personalities or perspectives) or software for exhibits that enables computer-aided data manipulation.
3. Clarity & Succinctness.
- Is written in a clear and engaging style typically using past tense and active voice.
- Features organization and sentence structure that are easy to read with language that is accessible and narrative that is clear and flows smoothly.
- Omits information not relevant to learning objectives and avoids unintentionally inconsistent information.
- Has an opening that clearly signals or states what the case is about and why it matters to the protagonist(s) or others, and a closing section that generally calls for analysis and action.
- Allows a reader to strongly identify with the key actor(s)’s issues, problems, situation, business or context, encouraging intellectual and emotional engagement, thereby stimulating thorough preparation and participation by students.
- Describes compelling organizations, leaders, issues or decisions and the seriousness of the stakes for case subjects.
- Describes conflicts or differences among interested parties.
- Enables a wide range of views to be presented in the case.
- Presents and raises fundamental and competing issues.
- Avoids obvious answers.
- Requires judgments.
- Presents hard-to-resolve dilemmas.
- Presents opportunity for demanding and high quality analysis.
- Is diagnostically rigorous but is manageable within time constraints.
- Requires students to build arguments for different positions or perspectives
- Calls for reasoned assumptions.
- Involves economic and/or noneconomic trade-off
8. Intellectual Richness
- Demonstrates new insights, novel ideas, concepts, or frameworks.
- Provides significant opportunities for discovery by students.
- Presents case material creatively to attain learning objectives.
FINDINGS II: ELEMENTS OF EXCELLENT TEACHING NOTES
Teaching notes are essential and valuable companions to cases. First, they guide the development of the case study by providing clear learning objectives, envisioning discussion areas and questions, and by offering suggestions for ways to introduce and encourage students’ analyses of relevant data and other information. Second, they provide assistance to instructors in using a case more effectively to evoke participant centered learning.
While teaching notes are not a substitute for case preparation or discussion leadership skills, they do contribute to greater instructor confidence, effectiveness, and efficiency in preparing to teach. Whereas the case is the intellectual discussion vehicle for the students, the teaching note is the instructor’s “driver’s manual” for guiding the discussion. It is where the author applies her or his pedagogical creativity and intellectual rigor. In brief, a teaching note explains:
* what the case is about
* where it fits in a course
* why we are teaching it
* what we are going to teach
* how we can teach it.
Teaching notes should not be confused with the less formal teaching plans that individuals prepare for themselves prior to a class. Rather, a teaching note is the document enabling others inside and outside of one’s school to use the case effectively, which is essential to achieving dissemination and impact of this intellectual capital. Teaching notes are not meant to provide precise maps to be rigidly followed, but rather they offer guidance and intellectual stimulus to instructors who in turn can apply their own creativity to adjust the teaching of the case to their particular situation.
Excellent teaching notes measure up well on three main components: learning objectives, substantive analysis, and teaching process. Each can be assessed on several dimensions.
1. Learning Objectives
Learning objectives anchor a teaching note. The design and substance of excellent cases contribute to the attainment of specified learning objectives. These educational goals are generally elaborated and refined in the process of case and teaching note development and are set forth explicitly in excellent teaching notes. There are three principal characteristics of effective learning objectives: clarity, specificity, and positioning.
- Clarity. Objectives are clearly expressed. They are not confused with case issues, which are themes for discussion rather than the types of learning being sought by the discussion of those topics. Stating what a student is going to do, e.g., “analyze…” or “compare…” is insufficient; excellent notes express clearly what that activity aims to achieve in terms of learning. (See boxed insert for example.) Not all learning objectives are equally important. Where there are multiple objectives their relative importance and connectedness are indicated. Overloading the case with too many objectives can cause confusion and dilute learning impact.
- Specificity. The overall goal of management education is to develop capabilities to analyze problems, make decisions, implement them, and lead organizations so that they make a positive difference in society. Learning objectives specify the types of learning sought in a case that will contribute to that larger educational goal. Learning objectives in excellent teaching notes comprise: (1) Knowledge Enhancement, such as theory, frameworks, concepts, information, institutional knowledge; (2) Skill Building, such as problem or opportunity identification and analysis, strategy formulation and implementation, function-specific techniques, or other more generic analytical capabilities; (3) Attitudinal Development, such as values, beliefs, self-awareness, intellectual openness, receptivity to change, risk tolerance. The more specific the objectives, the clearer the guidance for what information is included or excluded in the case and how best to lead the discussion. Ambiguity is to be avoided.
- Positioning. The relevance and importance of the case and its objectives are specified relative to a body of learning in excellent teaching notes. This can include their contribution to a course or program or module in which the case is to be used as well as to the relevant literature. Cases both draw from and contribute to a larger body of knowledge. Accordingly, excellent teaching notes contain a synopsis of the case and indicate how and why it is positioned in a specific course for target students. Where a case has multiple potential uses, the identification of alternative positioning in other courses, programs or modules can also be helpful. This brief description can be helpful to instructors reviewing the teaching note to “shop” for cases that might be useful, or skimming the note as a precursor to reading the case during the class preparation process.
2. Substantive Analysis
The teaching note provides the analyses of the case that inform the instructor and reveal the analyses that students are expected to carry out. These substantive analyses constitute intellectual capital that can generate insights about the subject matter and reveal quality of mind. They provide the content to the teaching plan.
This content can be presented in different ways. Some authors prefer to create a separate section for the analysis, then draw on that detail as they outline the teaching process. Others integrate the substantive analysis into a more detailed description of the teaching process, revealing the kind of analysis each question is expected to evoke. While specific analyses will vary greatly across cases and courses, the following elements characterized many of the best teaching notes we examined:
- Thoroughness. Analyses are thorough and clearly related to the learning objectives and how the case draws on and/or contributes to the relevant literature.
- Clarity. All qualitative analyses and quantitative calculations are clear in terms of how they are made and what data in the case are used. Opportunities for student discovery of insights are flagged and explained.
- Alternatives. Alternative analyses are presented with arguments and calculations for pros and cons.
- Complications. Possible analytical areas that students may find problematic are highlighted, including, for example, the possible use by students of data about the case gleaned from the Internet, with suggestions to the instructor about how to handle them when they occur.
- Exhibits. Exhibits are annotated in terms of how they are used in the analyses; if an exhibit is not referred to in the note, it may be an indication that it is superfluous to the case.
- Learnings. Possible “takeaways” or closing insights tied to learning objectives are indicated.
- Supplements. Linkages to relevant literature are cited and supplemental background reading materials that might be helpful to instructors may be suggested.
3. Teaching Process
Guidance on how the case can be taught is vital and can reveal an instructor’s pedagogical creativity. While each case will call forth a unique set of specific processes, an excellent teaching note encompasses the following basic elements: Discussion Plan, Questions, Openings & Closings, and Special Techniques.
- Discussion Plan. Excellent teaching notes provide an overview map that sets forth the main discussion areas or sequential topics, sometimes referred to as discussion pastures or segments. This structure is not rigid and should always be subject to real time adjustment based on the actual classroom dynamics, but it should propose a logical learning path that is linked to the educational objectives. The degree of flexibility of the sequencing of the topics should be indicated. Suggestions for how to make transitions from one discussion area to the next are helpful. Because the scarcest resource in a class is the time available, time management in a discussion is particularly challenging, so a tentative time allocation for each topic area is specified. Board space is also limited, so a possible board plan is also quite helpful. Incorporating classroom experience into the note is highly valuable, particularly for flagging possible process pitfalls and how to deal with them. Usually teaching notes are not finalized until the case has been taught one or more times. Teaching notes continue to be dynamic documents that should incorporate additional experiential insights. Those with revision dates are welcome evidence of this process.
- Questions. A discussion leader’s primary tool is questioning. The best teaching notes delineate a set of questions that most effectively guide the discussions through the Discussion Plan’s topic areas. Types of questions found in excellent teaching notes include the following: (a) information-seeking (who, what, why, when, where) that may be relevant to setting up a particular analysis, but may also run the risk of case fact regurgitation leading to low student engagement; (b) analytical (why, how) that require diagnostic, causal, or interpretive mental skill-building; (c) action (what, how, why) that foster decision-making and implementation skills; (d) challenge (why) aimed at deepening or expanding the analysis; (e) hypothetical (what if) that allow discussants to extend analyses with different assumptions beyond the case information; (f) predictive (what will happen) to foster the development of forecasting capabilities; (g) generalization (what lessons) that encourage a more abstract level of cognitive reasoning, which also may require more reflection time by the student before answering. (See boxed insert for examples of the foregoing types of questions.)
The question plan that is set forth for a discussion area often will have a primary question and a series of follow-up questions. In addition to the in-class discussion questions, excellent teaching notes offer a set of study questions assigned to guide the students’ preparation. Rather than simply being listed, their purpose is explained, e.g., to advance the students’ understanding and analysis of the case including focusing on specific areas requiring pre-class calculations. By using in-class questions that go beyond what the student will have probed before class, the discussion can build on pre-class work rather than just have the students present their prepared answers.
- Openings and Closings. Many regard the instructor’s introduction of the case as vital to its positioning, and particularly the opening question which can be the most important one posed by the instructor. How one opens a discussion can be influenced by the specific class circumstances, but excellent teaching notes offer one or more suggested openings. This is the only part of the class session that is under the full control of the instructor, so planning it is feasible and important, given that how a class begins can inordinately influence the dynamics of the entire discussion. The opening is specified and justified in terms of its purpose.
Similarly, planning a closing is extremely desirable because it can significantly affect how students feel about the session. This is a more complicated task because the session dynamics and evolution can shape what seems most effective for a closing, and therefore the instructor must be ready to adjust (and even discard) a planned ending. While one can usefully have a list of potential “takeaways” ready, it is important to alter or relate these to the actual discussion or they may seem “canned” and discount the utility of the actual discussion. Sometimes it may be effective to leave the class with a provocative ending question, and so one or more may be included in the note.
- Special Techniques. The process guidelines might also suggest the use of special techniques such as roleplaying, voting, dyad or breakout groups, and multimedia vehicles. There are many options for pedagogical creativity. Excellent teaching notes explain in detail how the technique will be used and how it will enrich the learning process.
FINDINGS III: ELEMENTS OF EFFECTIVENESS FOR CASE/TEACHING NOTE INTEGRATION
A case and its teaching note can be evaluated separately against their respective criteria. However, it is also important to scrutinize the two together as an integrated unit. A superb case with a weak note, or vice versa, does not merit excellence. Furthermore, outstanding work will reveal reinforcing linkages between the two. Four integrative criteria are synergies, transferability, intellectual contribution, and learning experience.
- Synergies. A case and its teaching note fit together in complementary and reinforcing ways. The note reveals pedagogical richness in the case that would not be obvious by simply reading the case. The case in turn enables analytical rigor and insightful analyses in the note.
- Transferability. The case and note enable an instructor unfamiliar with the case to have a successful learning session.
- Intellectual Contribution. Managerially significant ideas or original concepts are creatively presented and illuminated in ways that advance thinking.
- Learning experience. The case and teaching note are likely to produce a powerful learning experience for students.
FINDINGS IV: ELEMENTS OF EXCELLENCE FOR OTHER TEACHING MATERIALS
A variety of materials other than traditional decision-oriented cases may be prepared for use in the classroom. These include, but are not limited to, technical notes that present and explain a concept, role-playing situations (such as those requiring negotiations), simulations, games, and group exercises involving research and the exchange of ideas. Case materials may also make use of various media including video or the Internet. But as long as these variants on the traditional case exhibit a set of educational objectives in the context of a course or teaching module and are focused on participant-centered learning, they can be assessed on many of the same dimensions characteristic of more conventional classroom case materials discussed above.
Like more conventional classroom cases, these materials can make conceptual and intellectual contributions, as exhibited by the degree to which they convey important information, link ideas to arrive at new insights, relate their contents to a broader literature, or demonstrate pedagogical creativity stimulating powerful learning. As with cases, teaching notes are critical in assuring that these kinds of materials can be used widely.
AN ORGANIC DOCUMENT
While the foregoing elements that describe excellence in cases and teaching notes are intended to be encompassing, they are not necessarily exhaustive or definitive. Case authors, their mentors, and reviewers of cases and teaching notes bring to the task their own experiences and judgments that may suggest adding to or adjusting the elements highlighted here. This document should be viewed as an organic work that will continue to be revised and enriched by users based on their on-going application. Lastly, we hope that developers of cases and teaching notes find this document to be useful in their vital task of creating new pedagogical capital in the pursuit of effective learning.
APPENDIX A: DEVELOPING CLASSROOM CASES AND TEACHING NOTES
As we noted in the beginning, this document focuses on the criteria for excellence rather than the processes of preparing classroom cases and their teaching notes. But in this appendix, we briefly shift focus from a detailed definition of the characteristics of excellent output to a brief overview of the input processes required to create such materials. In doing so, it is important to note that our intention in this final section is simply to highlight key aspects of those processes, before referring the interested reader to some highly useful sources that deal with these topics in detail.
Creating the kind of excellent pedagogical materials described in this note inevitably involves the same kind of long and careful process of research and writing that faculty typically invest in developing an excellent article or chapter. It begins with an idea that may be rooted in a larger research project or a course development need, and ends in a careful process of writing, rewriting, and revising to create a stimulating and engaging piece of classroom material, matched with a thoughtful and insightful teaching note.
The following describes a sequence of key steps that a first-class case researcher will take in creating the kind of quality pedagogical material that meets the standards of excellence described in this note:
- Identifying the case opportunity: An initial step typically stimulated by a course need, a site opening, or a chance to bring research findings into the classroom.
- Clarifying the case focus: The vital task that we represented as the first criterion in our description of learning objectives for an excellent case.
- Obtaining site access: A sometimes challenging task for younger faculty who can often elicit the support or senior colleagues or alumni.
- Negotiating the case agenda, data access and interview schedule: This vital process is key to ensuring that the research investment will result in material that matches your case’s identified opportunity and focus.
- Outlining the case and teaching note: This initial outline is a base level document that will be adapted and modified by the material gathered during the research process, An early outline will ensure that the document is developed with the focus, completeness, complexity, controversy, and other criteria we have described in this note.
- Gathering the data: This involves the art of careful interviewing as well as collecting relevant documents to ensure that the case has the completeness, robustness and richness that defines an excellent case and teaching note.
- Updating the draft case and teaching note: In an iterative process, the draft case and teaching note are continually adapted and refined during this research process. It is very useful to have a draft teaching plan with discussion segments and questions that one can match with the case content to see if there is too little or too much information to enable the desired discussion.
- Writing the final draft: This is where the researcher can actively check to ensure that the case and teaching note reflect the criteria represented in this document. It is a process that should identify any gaps in information that must be sought from the company.
- Obtaining case clearance: This will be much easier if the contract was clearly defined at the outset. In some cases, it may require negotiations to disguise sensitive data.
- Revising the case and TN: Most cases can be significantly improved if they are revised after being taught once or twice in a real classroom situation.
The case method has been at the heart of teaching and learning at Harvard Business School since 1924, and in that time, a great deal of wisdom has developed around the process. Although the nature of cases has evolved during that time (e.g. supplemented with video, integrated online tools, etc.), the core characteristics have remained remarkably consistent. And over that long history there has been a tradition of passing down the art and craft of developing excellent classroom materials from one generation of faculty to another.
This note draws on much of that wisdom, but leaves much of it untapped, for those who wish to explore further the issues around case development that we have briefly identified above we recommend the following key documents:
- Malcolm P. McNair, "McNair upon Cases" Harvard Business School Bulletin, July-August 1971.: Prof. "Mac" McNair was an HBS faculty member for 44 years, and recognized as one of the School’s great developers and teachers of case materials. This document is condensed wisdom taken from a video recording of one of his many discussions about the development of cases. In it, he focuses a great deal on the structure and style of a case study which he characterizes as "a distinct literary form." Worth reading for his distinction of all key structural elements -- time, narrative, expository, and plot.
- Benson P. Shapiro, "Hints for Case Writing" Harvard Business School Publishing case number 9–587–052. Prof. Ben Shapiro is an emeritus professor who had a long and distinguished career as one of the school's preeminent developers and teachers of case material. His focused five page document offers practical advice on the full process of developing a case from designing the case to evaluating and improving the final product.
- Michael J. Roberts, "Developing a Teaching Case" Harvard Business School Publishing case number 2-900-001. Prof. Mike Roberts also had a long career at HBS, not only as a member of the teaching faculty, but also as its Executive Director of Case Development. This encyclopedic note with 31 pages of text and four exhibits covers everything from the definition of a case to the steps of researching these content to writing up the final materials.
- James E. Austin, "Teaching Notes: Communicating the Teacher's Wisdom" Harvard Business School Publishing case number 9-793-105. Prof. Jim Austin, one of the authors of this note, was also one of HBS’s preeminent developers and teachers of case materials. He was also known as the champion of the teaching note, a fact that is reflected in this excellent document detailing the preparation of TNs. Although much of his wisdom is reflected in the preceding pages, it is worthwhile reading his referenced note which provides considerable more detail on this important topic.
- Louise A. Mauffette-Leenders, James A. Erskine, and Michiel R. Leenders, Learning with Cases (Richard Ivey School of Business, 2007). The authors of this book all have extensive experiences with case method teaching. While it is written from a student perspective, the book is also of value for case method instructors. It provides in-depth coverage of the case-oriented learning process as well as useful suggestions for small and large group effectiveness, case presentations, reports, and exams.
Of course, the ultimate effectiveness of a case and the teaching note depends on how they are applied by an instructor, which requires discussion leadership skills. An excellent source of guidance for teaching can be found at http://www.hbs.edu/teaching/case-method-in-practice/
APPENDIX B: CASE AND TEACHING NOTE CHECK LIST
ELEMENTS OF EXCELLENT CASES
1. Focus – Does the case:
- focus on managerially important issues generally posing a problem or challenge generally requiring a decision?
2. Completeness – Does the case:
- provide complete and self-contained information allowing the student to thoroughly analyze and develop a richer understanding of the core issues from multiple perspectives?
3. Clarity & Succinctness – Is the case:
- written in clear, straightforward language around a logical structure without unnecessary verbiage or information? Are Exhibits referred to and used as necessary to provide additional essential data? Does the case opening reveal one or more key issues, and the closing call for action or decision?
4. Engagement – Does the case:
- provide strong student engagement through the inherent interest in, or importance of, the protagonist, the organization, and/or the core issue?
5. Controversy – Is the case:
- written to highlight the differences in perspectives, stakeholder interests, and/or potential outcomes of controversial issues?
6. Complexity – Is the case:
- structured around multifaceted issues with no obvious answer, but often with trade-offs and dilemmas?
7. Robustness – Does the case:
- require rigorous analysis of information provided, sufficient to support multiple points of view, with the analysis often needing reasoned assumptions and the resolution requiring judgments?
8. Intellectual Richness – Does the case:
- contain novel ideas, concepts, or frameworks providing significant discovery opportunities for students, with material presented creatively to attain learning objectives?
ELEMENTS OF EXCELLENT TEACHING NOTES
1. Learning Objectives – Does the note:
- include at its core clear, specific case learning objectives, explicitly defined and tied to the teaching plan and case analysis; objectives indicate specific learning sought (e.g., concepts, analytical skills, knowledge, attitudinal development) rather than simply indicating case issues? Are the relative importance and interrelatedness of multiple objectives indicated.
- present an overview of the case describing its content, its positioning and the importance of the learning objectives in the module, course, and student level?
2. Teaching Process – Does the note:
- detail a complete class discussion plan, including an overall structure and sequence of discussion “pastures" or segments with related primary and follow up questions, a proposed timeline, a related board plan, suggested openings, simulations of possible discussions, possible problems and how to handle them, and closings including summaries and takeaways? Are assignment questions included and their purpose explained?
3. Substantive Analysis – Does the note:
- provide a complete analysis of the case related to the learning objectives, including pros and cons of options, supported by information and calculations clearly linked to case sources and exhibits. Are additional reference sources and linkages to the relevant literature to assist an instructor’s understanding supplied where called for?
ELEMENTS OF EXCELLENT CASE/TEACHING NOTE INTEGRATION
- Does the fit between the case and the note reinforce each other and bring out strengths in both?
- Do the case and note enable an instructor not previously familiar with the case to have an effective classroom teaching experience?
3. Intellectual Contribution
- Do the case and note present managerially significant ideas or concepts and creatively illuminate and advance thinking?
4. Learning Experience
- Do the case and note enables students to have a powerful learning experience.
Profs. James Austin, James Heskett, and Christopher Bartlett, Harvard Business School, 2014.