Types of Cases

Reading maketh a full man, conference a ready man …" Sir Francis Bacon

The Case Method Project of the Marine Corps University employs two types of cases: the “conference-style case” and the “Harvard-style case.” The heart of each type of case – a decision made by a leader in a specific real-life situation – is the same. They differ, however, in the way that students make sense of the context of the decision.

A “conference-style case” is one in which the great bulk of the story telling takes place in class. Thus, while students may have received a short reading that served to whet their interest prior to class, they are not ready to make a decision until after the teacher has told the first part of the story. A “Harvard-style case” is one where the lion’s share of the background to the decision is provided by case materials distributed prior to class. Thus, it is possible for each class to begin with the teacher asking a student to either summarize the facts of the case or directly engage the problem at the heart of the case. (In the world of case teaching, this is known as the “cold call.”)

As the name implies, a “conference-style case” is well suited to events where the teaching of a case is a stand-alone event. It is also a good way to introduce students to the case method. When, however, students are familiar with the case method, and are enrolled in a course that employs it, “Harvard-style cases” make it possible for them to spend more time with a particular case, explore it in depth, and appreciate it with a greater deal of sophistication. This is particularly true where students work through a case in an informal study group prior to engaging it in the classroom. Elements of the two types of cases can be combined to create a hybrid case that combines the use of pre-class assignments with the provision of additional background in the course of a class discussion. This additional background can be as simple as a handout that provides an update to the situation or as sophisticated as a second, somewhat shorter case that is designed to complement the first.