Facilitate a Case Discussion

Cases are much more instructional when they involve students in nitty-gritty decision making within the context that the case presents. For this reason, one should try to minimize the amount of lecturing about a case one does (assuming students have already read it) and instead get the students to do most of the talking.

On the day of the case discussion, come prepared to explain why the case is relevant to your course content and then facilitate a discussion about the case with a handful of open-ended, prompting questions, such as:

  • What are the basic dilemmas here?
  • How did they come about?
  • Which position do you most strongly agree with?
  • What are the possibilities for action?
  • What are the consequences for action?
  • What are the reasons or rationales for choosing one action over another?

Track the major issues as they manifest in student discussion by writing them on the board for all to see. This can be helpful in two ways: first, it shows the students that you are taking their process seriously and second, it can help to organize their thinking around the major issues.

One way to help students engage in a case study is to require them to take on the perspective of one of the stakeholders involved, and argue with you or each other from their assigned perspective.

At the end of the discussion, be sure to bring the discussion to an organized conclusion by highlighting what you see as the most important/relevant points that were made and how they connect to other material in the course. If the case is based on real events, revealing what actually happened in the real case (and the consequences) can be a satisfying way to end class for the day.

Among the most useful things we as teachers can do during class discussion is shut our mouths. In an oft-cited meta-analysis of wait-time research, Tobin (1987) described findings of greater engagement and achievement when teachers waited at least three to five seconds after asking a discussion question before speaking again. Above this threshold, higher level thinking was observed and student academic performance improved. However, teachers behaving "normally" only tend to wait about one second. Students need a few moments to digest what they have recently heard, formulate their responses, and work up the courage to speak. Slow down, and more of your students will keep up with you.


To take the discussion to a deeper level, consider asking students to identify or generate perspectives on the case from different levels in Kohlberg's (1983) model of moral judgment. In Kohlberg's work, he would categorize the reasons given by people for whether something was right or wrong.

In a classic dilemma, Kohlberg described the husband of a cancer patient needing medicine from a pharmacist who was charging $2,000, when the pharmacist only paid $200 for the medicine himself. The husband scraped up $1,000 but the pharmacist still would not sell, so the husband stole the medicine. Was that right or wrong?

Level 1 (Pre-conventional)

1. Avoidance of punishment and obedience for its own sake

Confusion of authority's perspective with one's own.

"It's wrong to steal."

2. Ego-centric self interest amidst relativism

What's in it for me?

"It's right to the husband to steal the medicine, it's wrong to the pharmacist."

Level 2 (Conventional)

3. Social expectations and conformity

Having good motives and interpersonal feelings

"It's the pharmacist's fault for meanly choosing profit over death."

4. Social system awareness and conscience

What if everyone did it?

"It is wrong to steal because if everyone did it, there would be social chaos."

Level 3 (Post-conventional)

5. Social contract orientation

Commitment to the greatest good for the greatest number

"It is wrong to break the law, but the wife's right to live is a greater good than the pharmacist's right to profit."

6. Universal ethical principles

Some principles are universal and can be understood if all parties are impartial and given equal trust

This is a theoretical level, which Kolhberg acknowledged as problematic to identify in practice.


Davis, B.G. (2009). Case studies. In Tools for teaching (2nd Edition) (pp. 222-228). San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.

Tobin, K. (1987). The role of wait time in higher cognitive level learning. Review of Educational Research, 57,1: 69-95.

Crain, W.C. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136.

Colby, A., Kohlberg, L., Gibbs, J., and Lieberman, M. (1983). A Longitudinal Study of Moral Judgment. Monographs for the Society of Research in Child Development 200, 48,1-2. The University of Chicago Press.