Teaching Cases

What It Will Mean to Publish Teaching Cases at PMJ

Why Do We Use Teaching Cases instead of Research Cases in the Classroom?

Cases expose learners at all levels of post-secondary education to incidents and companies that may be far from their everyday experience. Cases have proven to be effective learning tools for a variety of reasons:

  • In the classroom, cases can generate lively discussion and in-depth analysis. Whether a student learns best by logic, by intuition, or by pattern-identification, learners of all styles seem to benefit from the use of cases. In addition, other benefits include practice in the application of skills and in the development of written and oral argument.
  • In the boardroom, cases can provide cautionary tales through illustrating examples of consequences experienced by other organizations. Many organizational consultants use cases in their training programs to guide executives in decision-making processes and improve communication skills.
  • In the community, cases encourage communication and connection between town and gown. This provides entrée to business leaders who wish to participate in the activities of their local university. The business and educational communities are often surprised to learn how similar their concerns are, and cases provide ample evidence of these similarities.
  • For instructors, case writing can provide an engaging path into both experiential learning and publishing opportunities. Teaching with cases requires the instructor to keep current with theory, with practice, and with pedagogical methods, and it allows researchers to derive secondary publications from their research that will reach many students rather than a limited number of academic researchers.

Community Demand and Satisfying Needs

Research conducted by PMI over the last several years has shown an increasing demand for teaching cases. Of all instructional materials requested by faculty, appropriate teaching cases head the list. There is a dearth of such cases in the area of project management, and we have been working hard to develop PM case writers.

The good news is that AACSB and other accrediting agencies have repeatedly indicated that cases with their associated instructor’s manuals or teaching notes, published in peer-reviewed outlets, can serve as the equivalent of other peer-reviewed publications in the same outlets. However, there has been significant confusion as to what a teaching case is and how it is distinct from other instructional materials.

What is a Case?

Beginning with the very simplest definition, a case is a story. This story describes a factual series of actions that occurred in the past. When a case is written as a teaching tool, the reader is expected to do one of two things: (1) make a decision or recommendation to the protagonist for a course of action to pursue, or (2) perform an analysis/evaluative description of the action that has already taken place. Any decision or recommendation will be preceded by a thorough analysis, of course, but the main purpose of a decision case is the formulation of a recommendation. The primary purpose of an analysis or evaluative description case is the process of analysis and evaluation. How were prior decisions made? What methods were used? How else might these decisions have been made? Were the outcomes foreseeable from the actions? What about unintended consequences of the actions? How might they have been mitigated?

The keywords in the description teaching cases are story, factual, past, decision, and analysis. Regardless of which type of teaching case you write, each of these terms will apply. Whereas a research case can tell a variety of stories to the careful reader, a teaching case can only tell one of two stories:

  1. Either the story is about an individual who is trying to make a decision and needs the readers’ help or recommendation to do so, OR
  2. The protagonist of the story has completed an action and is reviewing it, expecting the reader to comment on the effectiveness of the action or provide an alternative course of action.

Considering the elements of a case identified above, we conclude the following:

  • Story. A case is always a story. That means it must include a beginning, a middle, and an ending. It must involve narrative description, dialogue, and human interaction. A case needs to be interesting enough to engage the reader on an emotional level as well as an intellectual one.
  • Factual. A case is factual. It is true to reality. It is not a fictionalized tale, nor is it a composite story, a story with invented characters, or a fantasy. It must be supported by documentation, whether published in a credible source or derived from interviews. The author’s opinion has no place in a teaching case.
  • Past. A case takes place in the past. If the case were to take place in the future, it would be fiction. If the case were to take place in the present, students would not be able to analyze it based on outcomes. It would be guesswork, and education is not based on guesswork. It is based on the application of theories and analytical perspectives to past situations.
  • Decision. This describes story 1, above. A case often requires a decision to be made. The reader is in the protagonist’s shoes and must make a recommendation of action to be taken. Opinions play an important role in decision making; however, we are exclusively interested in informed decision making; that is, decision making that has the benefit of educated analysis supporting it.
  • Analysis. This describes story 2, above. A case may consider the actions already taken and establish a perspective as to their validity based on theory. The ultimate goal of teaching with cases is to encourage critical thinking in students—a crucial step toward wise decision making. Cases require students to analyze situations and evaluate actions that have been taken, as well as to consider alternatives to the actions that were taken by the protagonist.

Two Main Kinds of Cases: Teaching Cases and Research Cases

A teaching case is a factual description of a real situation. It is intended to serve as the basis for discussion in a particular course or discipline and contains sufficient information for students to be able to carry out the desired discussion. Teaching cases often have a decision focus (a particular decision to be made by the student on behalf of the case protagonist), but many course topics do not lend themselves to decision making; instead, some cases are written specifically for students to develop their analytical and evaluative skills. The Behavioral Knowledge Modules in particular need analytical/evaluative cases.

A teaching case encourages discussion and investigation, and is always accompanied by an instructor’s manual (IM) to guide the user in leading the case in the classroom. The IM identifies the specific Knowledge Module for which it has been written and contains a full case analysis, a teaching plan, a series of case questions and answers, and an epilogue that describes the real-time outcome of the case decision that has been made.

A research case is a descriptive analysis of a real situation that reflects a particular theoretical perspective, either by supporting a new hypothesis or by offering an alternative perspective to an existing hypothesis. A research case may be an N = 1 study of a specific phenomenon, or research cases may be aggregated to identify patterns of behavior that help explain greater social, economic, or fiscal trends.

What Impact Can We Expect from Publishing Teaching Cases in PMJ?

It makes sense that the readership of PMJ is primarily instructors teaching project management. This is the specific market for teaching cases – the people who have been requesting them for classroom use. Interest and distribution of the journal are likely to increase once it becomes clear that cases will appear more or less regularly in several issues. Case writers welcome new outlets for their cases and are always seeking high quality peer-reviewed publications in which to place them. We expect that these two groups will coalesce into one rich source of materials to serve the project management community.