Austin: Making a case for a different approach

Editor’s note: Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. This is one of a series of stories highlighting teaching excellence at Western.

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Rob Austin makes a strong case for, well, cases.

“Students are on a journey of discovery and I’m the tour guide,” said the Ivey Business School professor. “Case method is an approach I like to call inductive. It starts with specifics of a particular situation and asks the students to extract some generalizable principals they can re-use in other situations. It’s discussion based; it’s the Socratic method; it’s engaging for the students.”

Ivey is known worldwide for its practical, collaborative teaching approach where students learn by working with actual business challenges faced by real managers. The method challenges their ability to analyze information, make decisions and defend them when others around may disagree.

In his classes, Austin said it is not unusual for 40 or more different students to speak up and offer thoughts on a single case. That is the point, he continued, because when students feel they’ve discovered a principle for themselves, they are much more likely to retain it.

“Sometimes people think case method is just about examples and anecdotes, that there’s no theoretical content,” he said. “This is my argument that it’s inductive. When we learn, we both induce and deduce; we look at specific situations and outcomes and extract from them generalizable principles that we reapply in a deductive mode.”

Austin echoes the sentiment of former Harvard Business School professor David Garvin who said a case is “a literary work intended to be discussed.”

“It’s analogous to a play. A script doesn’t realize its full purpose until enacted on the stage. A case doesn’t realize its full purpose until discussed in the classroom,” Austin said.

In case method, students are expected to say what they think – right or wrong. This is not easy as students will often say what they think the instructor wants to hear.

“I had a student and I asked, ‘What do you think this company should do?’ He said, ‘What I think you’re trying to get me to say is …’ and then he laid some theoretical notion on me. My response was actually, ‘I’m not trying to get you to say that. But if that’s what you think the right answer is, and you want to justify it was that theoretical notion, that’s a reasonable argument.’

“At first, they are frightened. All of a sudden, they are responsible for what they’re going to say about what Company A should do. But soon they feel empowered. It’s what they have to do when they go out into the world; they will have to make judgements where they don’t have enough information, or have too much information, or not have the right kind of information, and they then need to figure it out. It doesn’t take long for students to embrace the process.”

Western will host the Times Higher Education (THE) Teaching Excellence Summit June 4-6, the first time the event has been hosted in Canada. It will be dedicated to discussing teaching, celebrating achievement and exploring how to advance the practice towards greater success. Attendees will include higher education leaders, innovators, investors and government policy-makers from around the world.

Austin, who teaches case-method teaching to instructors around the world, said bringing together scholars will be an opportunity expand his own learning skills.

“We need to be open all the time when updating our methods and trying new things. When I teach around the world, I learn a lot from them. There are things they do that I don’t do, or haven’t done, that sounds like good ideas,” Austin said.

“Case method is still evolving and everyone should feel empowered to innovate on the form. A professor should make case method his own. We are always experimenting and finding our voice. It’s a robust approach; it does really work everywhere, but only if you are doing it your way.”