Case Studies | Asking the right questions

In 2000, the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy published a guide for professors looking to bring the case study method to their classroom, called “The ABCs of Case Teaching.” Prepared by Vicki L. Golich, Mark Boyer, Patrice Franko, and Steve Lamy — all pioneers in the case study field — the guide presented a comprehensive assessment of how professors can systematically deploy the case study method in their classroom.

In this latest piece in our series spotlighting the book’s key insights, we focus on an important part of preparing your lesson: asking the right questions.

Three students read from large pieces of paper fastened to a cork board.
The case study method hinges on the instructor’s ability to as the right questions. (Image: javier trueba on Unsplash)

The case study method of teaching hinges on your ability as the instructor to ask the right questions of your class. Of course, your most immediate concern is to generate focused participation. This makes your first question critical. When thinking about your questions, consider this observation from Albert Einstein:

Most teachers waste their time by asking questions which are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning has for its purpose to discover what the pupil knows or is capable of knowing.

When used appropriately, questions can help students: obtain information, clarify or confirm a point, draw attention to related points, foster debate, change the direction of a discussion, suggest a hypothesis, and stimulate abstract thought. Careful questioning allows you to keep students focused on analysis as you seek to achieve class and course learning outcomes.

You can also use questions to guide students through the five typical stages of case analysis:

  • What is the situation?
  • What are the possibilities for action?
  • What are the consequences of each?
  • What action should be taken?
  • What general principles and concepts seem to follow from this analysis?

Determining your objectives

Planning out your questions should be a central part of your lesson planning and class preparation, and this step should begin with careful consideration of what you want to achieve from your class session. Different goals require different types of questions. If your goal is to initiate a discussion and create a safe space for students to participate, you’ll want to craft a “softball” question with no obvious right answer. If your goal is to help students to begin generating analysis, you’ll want to ask “how” and “why” questions. If your goal is to move towards evaluation, you’ll want to ask questions that draw out a variety of student opinions. And if your goal is to encourage prediction at the end of your case analysis, you’ll want to ask about the likely consequences of different scenarios. Asking the right questions starts with asking yourself what you hope to achieve throughout the course of your lesson.

Asking the right questions

Once you have established your goals for your case discussion, you can determine which types of questions will be useful to you in achieving those goals. This is not as simple as it sounds! In their book, Golich et al. identify as many as 15 types of questions, which all produce their own results.

A table excerpt from The ABCs of Case Teaching listing the 15 types of questions and their applications.
Table excerpt from The ABCs of Case Teaching (Golich et al. 2000)

Asking the right questions allows you to gently but strategically guide students along the learning trajectory you have in mind for them. They allow you to emphasize the importance of a particular topic or indicate that it is time to move on to another, diffuse conflict or tension if it arises, push students to support their claims with reasoned argumentation and empirical evidence, and pay attention to and honor a good point made by a student. Planning your questions is therefore a critical component of preparing to teach a case.

[Click here to access ISD’s library of over 200 case studies]



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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges