How to use cases in the undergraduate classroom

Matthew J. Drake

This column is based on a presentation that I gave at the 2015 INFORMS Annual Meeting in Philadelphia. I would like to thank Mike Veatch from Gordon College for inviting me to present in the terrific session that he organized. I have written in this column before about writing cases for widespread adoption (see “The Case for Writing Cases” in the August 2012 issue of OR/MS Today), but this time I am sharing some strategies for using cases in the classroom.

Teaching cases have been a mainstay in the MBA classroom for decades. Proponents of using cases often cite several main pedagogical benefits that cases possess over the traditional lecture method. Cases do a good job simulating a complex decision environment similar to the ones that students will face in their professional careers. Cases require students to separate relevant information from irrelevant information. Cases also require students to synthesize different concepts and analytical techniques to develop holistic recommendations for the decision-maker.

While case usage is ubiquitous for master’s students, they are somewhat less commonly employed in undergraduate classrooms. Undoubtedly this is at least partially due to the fact that many undergraduate courses are designed to simply introduce concepts and techniques rather than to give the students much of a chance to apply them. Indeed, if students are being introduced to an entire field of study for the first time, it can be somewhat unreasonable to ask them to analyze an integrated case study. That does not, however, mean that cases cannot be used effectively in any form at the undergraduate level. All of the major case publishers and clearinghouses such as Harvard, Ivey, Darden and The Case Centre publish cases geared toward undergraduates or incoming MBA students. Several case books containing shorter cases that are more appropriate for undergraduates have recently been published as well.

I have successfully introduced cases into my undergraduate courses in each of the following three ways:

1. Discussion only. Another benefit of cases is that they introduce students to the challenges facing one particular company or industry. Some cases are written in such a way that they do not require any sophisticated analysis and just ask students to consider the situation and generate and evaluate possible strategies. These cases are prime candidates to be used solely as a basis of class discussion. Usually I ask students to read the case before coming to class (and give them a short assignment requiring them to answer a few questions about the case to motivate them to read it), and then we discuss the case in class for 20 to 30 minutes. The teaching notes are usually a good source of possible discussion questions to pose to the class.

2. Instructor presents model. Many cases require a substantial amount of modeling and analysis, but instructors may not want to allocate the requisite class time that students need to complete the entire case analysis. In these situations I often will ask the students to read the case before coming to class (and give them the same short reading assignment discussed above). Then in class I ask them to summarize the decision scenario, and I lead them through the required quantitative and decision analysis. This allows me to still introduce them to the case, but it cuts down on the class time that I need to devote to its coverage.

3. Students conduct full analysis. Some cases are so rich and important that I find it beneficial to have the students complete the entire case analysis as they would if they were MBA students. This is especially appropriate for advanced, upper-level undergraduate courses, where the distinction between undergraduate and graduate students is often blurred. I usually assign these cases as out-of-class group homework assignments that the students complete over the course of two weeks or so. Once the students have submitted their work, I spend anywhere from 20 to 60 minutes in class discussing some of the additional issues and extension questions from the teaching notes with them.

Of course, these are not the only ways that instructors can incorporate cases into the undergraduate classroom, but I have successfully used all three of these methods in various classes. If an instructor is new to using cases in the classroom, I recommend that he or she start slow and introduce one case per course at a time. It is usually not necessary to redesign a course completely in one semester or quarter and introduce three or four new cases, especially if the instructor is not experienced with using them. As the instructor builds confidence, he or she can add another case the next time the course is taught if the material warrants it.

If you have unique experiences or strategies for using cases in OR/MS classes at all levels, I encourage you to submit them to an upcoming special issue of INFORMS Transactions on Education that I am guest editing. The call for papers will be published soon, and the deadline for initial submissions is Dec. 31. Please feel free to email me for details if you have not received the call for papers or if you have any other questions.

Matt Drake ( is the Harry W. Witt Faculty Fellow in Supply Chain Management and associate professor in the Palumbo-Donahue School of Business at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, Pa.