Category Archives: Teaching hacks

How to write a teaching case

Since I sometimes give classes on how to do case teaching and have written a book on the subject with Bill Schiano, I am sometimes asked how to write a teaching case. The following blog post is a quick tips & tricks collection (essentially an update of this post.)

Why are you writing this case?
First and foremost: Cases are written for a teaching purpose – and to write a teaching case, you need to have a teaching objective in mind. It is not enough to have an interesting company. Even the best company story needs to have a pedagogical point, a theory or dilemma to illustrate. So don’t write a teaching case just because you happen to know someone in a really interesting company – it does need to be a good story, but it also need to have a purpose.

The standard outline
Cases – particularly the standard HBS case – follow an outline that can seem rather trite, but which is very effective. It is something like this:

  • 0.5 page: Intro: The protagonist is introduced, typically pondering a question of some importance. The idea is to tell the students from which perspective the case is written, to set the scene – and that is all there is to it.
  • 1 – 1.5 pages: Description of the company – not the whole history, but the relevant details, explaining what the company is doing, how they make their money. Most companies are to a very large degree formed by their history, so the relevant parts need to be told.
  • 1 page: Industry. Companies exist within a context, and you need to set it. Explain the industry, its evolution, and the company’s position within it. Do it succinctly, but leave more detail in than what is strictly necessary.
  • 1 – 5 pages: Specific issue. This is the meat of the case, the issue at hand, the story to ponder. Make sure you tell it logically and cooly, not leaving anything out, but also conveying the complexity of the situation.
  • 0.5 page: Conclusion, typically with the protagonist wondering what to do, often with some sort of event (board meeting, etc.) where he or she has to present a solution to the problem.

Most cases are just that – one case. You can have a B case and even a C case, but keep them short, since they have to be handed out and read in class. The B case should explain what the company did and perhaps introduce a new problem, the C case, if necessary, should bring some sort of closure, explaining what eventually happened. In my experience, it is very hard to get discussion after a C case – the students become exhausted. As a novice case writer, especially if you are writing about a company with a long history, it can be tempting to create a long string of small cases, but in practice this seldom works well – for one thing, it forces the discussion into a very predictable path.

The no-nos
No theory. A good case should be a description of an interesting situation, frequently a decision point – and nothing else. This means that there should be no theory and no discussion of the case in the case itself. Save that for the teaching note, or write a separate academic article about it. Not only does this make the case more realistic, it also means it can be used for more purposes than the one initially envisioned. This can be quite challenging for the traditional academic writer – but it is actually good practice to only present the facts (though, of course, which facts you choose to present constitute a discussion of sorts).

No hero, no villain. When teaching students how to analyze a case, I always start by saying that for most business situations, if is useful to begin the analysis with the assumption that people are not stupid and not evil. Consequently, when you write a case, make sure it has no heroes and no villains. If a case has a clear-cut hero or villain, it is a sign that you have not done enough research. Write things so that the students can see the issue from many perspectives.

No judgement. I frequently find, when reading prospective teaching cases, especially if written with the help of the communications department of a company, that judgements tend to be embedded in the text itself, though it is supposed to be as neutral and purely descriptive as possible. Do not write that a company is “leading” – instead, describe what they do, perhaps adding a bit of industry numbers for comparison, and let the decision about how leading the company is be up to the student. Do not write “Smith was a highly accomplished manager, leading a successful technology implementation.” Instead, write “Smith, at 29, was promoted to be the youngest vice president in company history after conceiving and overseeing the introduction of the first machine learning platform in the industry.”

No consultingese. Be very careful of weasel terms – is the company embarking on a strategic alliance or merely collaborating with another company for a specific purpose? (As a friend of mine said: “I buy all my socks at Marks and Spencer. That does not mean I have a strategic alliance with them.”) Avoid terms that are not well defined, and be precise in your language. Remember, a teaching case has the longest legs when it describes a human situation (since humans change slowly) and to not tie the narrative to specifically to a technology or a situation. (See the example of Fabritek below.) I quite often use old technology cases, and when the students complain, ask them to take out a pen and change the dates mentioned to current times, update the technology capabilities accordingly – and see if anything else changes.

Dramatic structure
A really well written case has dramatic structure – there is a beginning, a middle that builds up the story, and a really compelling issue at the end. The best cases are almost like a detective story, where you have to dig deep into the analysis to find surprising and sometimes counter-intuitive conclusions. One example of a “detective story” case is Fabritek 1992*, a very old (first published 1969, rewritten by Jan Hammond) case about a quality control issue in a small mechanical workshop. (Hat tip to Robert D. Austin, eminent case teacher, for making me aware of this case and showing me how to teach it.) The case is excellent because it starts with the company (strategic level), proceeds to describe a new situation and a new process (organizational or business logic level) and then introduces the problem (operational level.) Analyzing the operational details leads to one conclusion, which then can be discussed in terms of the organization and its business logic, which can then be placed into a strategic context. The case is excellent because it allows links between these levels – and also teaches the students that the devil indeed resides in the details, and that you as a manager better be very close to how the business you are leading works and makes money.

iPremier-front-pageA second case which shows quality and innovation is iPremier, written by Robert D. Austin and Jeremy C. Short, the first and only graphic novel (cartoon) case I am aware of. The story is about a small online gift company being attacked by hackers, exposing glaring gaps in their security procedures and forcing managers at various levels to make some really hard decisions. The graphic format is excellent in making the various characters real (though they, on average, tend to be way too good-looking for a normal business situation), illustrates technical issues in a way that is very understandable even by non-technology students, and has a cracking good storyline with a B and a C case. I like to introduce a few technical cases in my courses because, well, I don’t think there is enough technology in business schools, and this cases answers very well because it illustrates that certain technical decisions very much require top management attention – ignore (or mindlessly delegate) technology understanding and responsibility at your peril. The graphic format also provides a welcome break from the standard case verbiage, which can be a trifle dour on occasion.

Details, details, details!
Research cases – the kind that is published in refereed journals – tend to be written from a very specific viewpoint, and only facts pertaining to that perspective is included, often in a very abstract format. A teaching case is the direct opposite: It needs lots of details, frequently made available as exhibits (graphs, pictures, documents, tables, etc.) placed at the end, after the main text. A teaching case writer, when visiting a company to write about it, needs to notice the small details, much like a really good journalist does. I tell my students that they should prepare each case so well that they feel like they have worked in the case company – and to allow them to do that, you need to provide the operational details necessary. (Incidentally, having more details than strictly necessary has the added benefit of making the case realistic – in the real world, you have to decide what is important and what is not.)

Doing it – and reading about it.
grandongillI am not aware of many books about how to write a good teaching case, with one exception: Grandon Gill (pictured), professor at University of South Florida and an excellent case teacher, has written a book called Informing with the case method, which is available for free download in PDF, MOBI and EPUB format from his web site. It has lots of details, tips and tricks, not just about case writing, but also about case teaching and course planning. (For the latter, of course, I am duty bound to recommend Bill Schiano’s and my book Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide.)

Last but definitely not least: Don’t underestimate how much work writing a proper business case is. Getting the details right, describing the dramatis personae, and making the storyline compelling is quite a challenge, in many dimensions different from the traditional academic article. On the other hand, should you get it right, you will have a very effective teaching tool for many years to come.

Good luck!

Recommended: appear.in

Premium_–_appear_in_–_one_click_video_conversationsTelenor has made a video conferencing service called appear.in (Twitter: @appear_in) – and it is fantastic! All you need to do is open a browser window and type

appear.in/something

where “something” is a word you choose. The other participants do the same, and you are in conference. Camera, screen sharing, everything work great, the whole thing is free (at least with up to four participants, have not tested with more). If you want your own room with your own design there is a premium version for $12 per month. No app installation, no weird settings, no drivers, no updates. Just works. Excellent!

Recommended!

(No, I am not sponsored. Just like the service.)

Effective student feedback

In our book Teaching with cases: A practical guide, Bill Schiano and I talk at a fairly high level about how to give effective student feedback by using a spreadsheet and personalized emails. Our argument is that by giving every student individual feedback in addition to the grade, you reduce the number of grade justification requests and complaints. This blog post is a detailed guide on how to do it – too detailed for the technically inclined, probably, but we all have to start somewhere.

You probably already have all the tools you need on your computer – a spreadsheet and an email client that works with your spreadsheet – such as Excel and Outlook, for example. (For myself, I use Excel and SerialMailer, a cheap serial mail client for Mac.) You can probably use online software as well, for instance a Google spreadsheet (which is nice because editing by more than one teacher is easy) and Gmail, though I have never tried it.

The idea is to use the spreadsheet to organize all your feedback, and to set it up so you use as little time as possible to give as much feedback as possible. I will demonstrate this, with an example for a fictitious course with three in-class sessions (with participation grading, 40% of grade), an individual written examination (30% of grade), and a group assignment (30%). I will show the various details of building the spreadsheet below – if you want to skip ahead and inspect the thing your self, I have made it available for downloading.

I start with a spreadsheet of students and email addresses, provided to me by the administration or downloaded from our LMS. Let’s say it looks something like this:

1eval

(If I have the time or can get the administration to create it from their databases, I ask to have first and last names in separate columns. For this demonstration, I won’t bother.)

Then I add columns for each of the assignments that I am going to grade:

2eval

(In this example, the individual examination has six questions, of which the students should answer four.)

For the group project, I create a separate sheet (in the same workbook, called “Groups”

3eval

The group sheet is exceptionally simple, just group number, points and comment. If you have several group assignments, this is where you will put them:

4eval

Note that I also create a group numbered 0. This is what I use for students who drop the course or don’t do the group assignment.

With that done, I assign students to groups in the Students sheet…

5eval.jpg

…and then I am ready to start teaching my course.

As the course rolls along, I enter points and comments for each student. As mentioned in the book, it is extremely important that you do the participation evaluation immediately after each class. I tend to give the students a score of 1-3, sometimes 1-6, with some definition. As I will show later, what scale you use does not really matter, as you can normalize them to whatever you want later in the process.

Anyway, assume the course is finished, and you have entered comments and points for everything – for the individual student, in the Student sheet….

7eval.jpg

…for the groups, in the Groups sheet:

6eval

To finish the evaluation part (we’ll get to communication later), you need to a) match the group points and comments to each individual student, b) calculate a final score for each student, and c) determine the letter grade for each student.

First: Group grades and comments. For a small class like this, this is probably a bit of overkill – you could just copy comments and points over to each individual student. But doing it the way I show here has the advantage (aside from being correct from a database administrator’s point of view) of error-correction (any error you make will be systematic and therefore easily spotted) and repeatable (the first time you do this, it is a chore, the second time, you just copy your previous spreadsheet and fiddle with it). Moreover, if you have a class with more than 40 students, a bit of “programming” saves time and effort. (I have done this for classes of 350 students, a situation where participation grading is not really possible – except as a small reward for exceptional students – but where the group feedback mechanism becomes extremely valuable.)

So, first – link individual students with their group’s scores and comments, using the LOOKUP function:

8eval

The formula is

           =LOOKUP($E2;Groups!$A$2:$A$8;Groups!B$2:B$8)

and what it does is take the student’s group number (E2), look it up the first column of the “Groups” sheet (Groups!$A$2:$A$8), using fixed references to be able to copy the formula to the rest of the sheet, and displaying the group score (which is in column Groups!$B2:$B8). This nicely picks up all the group scores and comments:

9eval

We now have all the information for each student, then we have to calculate the various scores. We have the exam score already (the average of the exam points) and the participation score (a sum of the score for each session.) We now need to calculate the total points, which isn’t too hard: The max for participation is 9, for the others it is 10, so the formula for the total will be:

01eval

         =(W2*0,3)+(O2*0,3)+(J2*0,4*10/9)

(I use comma as a decimal delimiter, parentheses for readability). We can now add a student ranking in the G column (students are always interested in this, so why not tell them?)

02eval

Now we are ready to set the grades. The simple way to do this is to sort the students by their scores (or rank, if you will):

03eval

How you set the letter grades is up to you, of course, but it helps to have the students sorted. I set grades by starting at the top, trying to get a reasonable distribution, and make sure that I don’t use absolutes so that some unlucky student narrowly misses a better grade. Let’s say we end up here:

04eval

Now we are ready to communicate the results to the students. We will do that by writing a letter to them, composed largely of common text (i.e., feedback that is the same to all students), and them use the mail/merge function of word to merge in the individual details from the spreadsheet.

1feed

Example letter using SerialMailer

As said above, I use a product called SerialMailer on my Mac. The concept is simple: You write the letter, link to the spreadsheet, and insert field names into the text. When the letter is sent out (or printed), the field names are substituted for the values for each individual student.

Here is how to do it in Word (if you want to send it out via email, you need to have Outlook as well.):

First, open Word and write the letter:

2feed

(As you can see, I recycle much of my texts…)

Let’s start by replacing “student” in the opening salutation with the student’s name. Then you open the Mailings tab in Word and hit Select recipients from an existing list…

3feed

…and select your spreadsheet:

000ff

I get this message, click OK:

5feed

And open the “Students” sheet (i.e. the individual sheet):

6feed

If you click “Insert Merge Field” now, you should get a list of the column headings in the spreadsheet:

7feed

Delete the word “student”, choose “Insert Merge Field” and choose “Name”, and the field code will be in the document:

8feed

If you hit “Preview Results”, the code will be replaced by the content for each student:

9feed

Now write field labels and insert the fields you want to share with the students. I like to add the listing at the end of the letter, but you can do whatever you want:

1ff

Hit Preview, and this is what each student will see:

2ff

And there you go. Now hit “Finish and Mail Merge”, and select whether you want to print the documents on paper (or PDF) or send them out via email (shown).

3ff

You must tell Outlook where the email addresses are in the spreadsheet:

5ff

Then specify a subject and choose HTML Message (if you want formatted text):

6ff

…and, well, this is where I will have to stop, since I do not use Outlook. But trust me, it works well, the students love having individualized feedback, and it really isn’t that much more work than just providing the grade. As an added bonus: If students want a grade justification, you can just tell them that they already have it…

(Corrections and feedback welcome, of course.)

Teaching hacks: Getting rid of those long links

I find myself having to ask students to look up web pages and online materials in various forms all the time. Often, the links are quite long and not very intuitive. The way to fix that is to use a URL (Uniform Resource Locator, fancy name for web address) to turn, for instance

into

  • goo.gl/1kfvfzqr1

which is undeniably shorter and easier to write down fast. I can also make it into a QR code which can be scanned by the students from a PowerPoint slide and brought up on their smartphones.

There are a number of such URL shorteners – goo.gl, bitly.com, TinyURL, and so on. I use goo.gl, but after a tip from Ragnvald Sannes I have installed it as an extension of my Chrome browser, which means that whenever I want to share a link to many people I go to the page in question, click on the URL shortener in the top line of the browser, and that’s that. (There probably are similar extensions available for your browser of choice, go search.)

Quite a little timesaver…

If you want to read more about URL shorteners, try the Wikipedia article (which also lists some of the technical issues that sometimes crop up, though not much in a teaching context.)

Teaching hacks: Write next year’s course this year

As a teacher, you tend to have the same courses year after year. I have 5-6 courses I repeat in various shapes and forms. To keep them fresh, they need to be updated every year – new materials, purge stuff that has gone stale or didn’t work, and so on.

My problem is that as soon as I have finished teaching a course, I completely forget about it until the next time (normally a year later), and then have to scramble to update things and find new literature. While you are teaching the course, you notice things that don’t fly, but then you forget the details.

gra6834-2017_-_google_driveThe hack, of course, is simple: Write next year’s course documentation as you are teaching this year’s course. For instance: I have a detailed syllabus (written as a Google Doc) for my course GRA834 Business Development and Innovation Management (which I last taught in the fall of 2016). The syllabus is largely the same from year to year, but when I start teaching the course, I make a new copy of document (as the figure shows, the whole course folder), and fiddle with it after each class. For stuff I will have to change later, I make a note to myself, inserting the text “zxzx” which I can search. When the course starts next year, I simply make the edited documents available to the students straight into It’s Learning (the course management system we use at BI.)

Not exactly rocket science, but the hack is doing this as you start teaching. Much less hassle the next year…

(PS: You can do similar things with presentations and other stuff: My eminent colleague Hanno Roberts has a hidden slide in the back of all his presentations, where he writes notes to himself about what he will need to change the next time he gives it.)

Teaching Hacks: Using Google Docs under It’s Learning

(This is a new category I just dreamed up – will post little snippets of useful stuff for teaching. My view is that technology should make your life easier and the experience of the student better – otherwise, don’t use the technology.)

At BI Norwegian School of Business we use a learning management system called It’s Learning. As these systems go, it is (I think) no better or worse than any other system, but the interface is a bit clunky. However, it has a very useful feature (which I learned from Ragnvald Sannes), namely the ability to display Google Docs within the page:

screendocs

This is very useful because

  • you can create all your course documents (syllabi etc.) in Google Docs, which is much better for editing and everything else. You can even edit the docs right in the It’s Learning window.
  • you can give the students read, comment or write capability as you please. Giving the students write access to a shared document is useful for many purposes – I use it as a shared arena for proposing term papers, for instance. Linda Rademaker uses a shared spreadsheet for student group formation – the students write themselves into groups, and she has a tab with “Lost sheep” who have not found groups to work in.
  • you can also share a Google Folder with the students and link that right from It’s Learning.

To set up a page like this, first create the document in Google Drive, copy the link to the document (“Share” in Google Doc, set the access rights to whatever you want), go to It’s Learning, click “Add” in the left column, choose “File or link”. Here you can choose various options, but what has worked for me is choosing “link” and pasting in the link. Make sure the “Embed page within itslearning” is checked, write the Title, and there you go.

Certainly has made my life easier, and hopefully made the students’ experience better.

(By the way, this does not work in China, of course (no Google Doc access), in case you teach there.)