Case Studies | Managing class size

Even large classes can benefit from the case study method, if managed well

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.

As a part of our series spotlighting the book’s key insights, we look at how to wrap up a case discussion and assess students’ learning.

Case studies can still be beneficial in large classes with advanced planning and some thoughtfulness. (Image: Miguel Henriques on Unsplash)

Although the fall semester is still two months away, it is never too soon for international affairs instructors to begin preparing for the next term. For those who plan to incorporate case studies into their syllabi, now is the perfect time to begin planning for one important variable: class size. Ideally, a case class will have between 20 and 40 students — but then that is the ideal size for almost any teaching situation. Cases are run successfully in very large classes of over two hundred quite consistently. All that is required is some thoughtfulness and advanced planning.

Create a space that fosters participation

Teaching large classes requires more constant attention to create and maintain a safe culture of participation and to manage case discussions. Students seldom feel comfortable speaking in front of large numbers of anonymous peers. Usually, the classrooms force students to sit in rows, making it difficult to carry on a genuine conversation — talking to someone else’s back.

Shy students find participation painful in large classroom settings. Volunteers are either very brave or enjoy performing (but might not be the best analysts). Large classes place a greater burden on you to call on students whose hands are not up, thereby risking their embarrassment. Incentives for participation are low because students figure you will not remember who spoke anyhow. Nevertheless, case teaching works and works well in large classes. Several tricks can decrease the threatening atmosphere of a large classroom.

To make an intimidating classroom feel more intimate, you can break students into small groups and give them a short exercise. Sitting in a classroom buzzing with conversation, students often feel safer to lend their voices and report on behalf of their peers when the entire class reconvenes. It is also a great way for more than one student to share an important insight or observation and for them to see that they can learn from each other.

Play the role of conductor

To facilitate the flow of discussion around the class, you can ask student X to comment on the response from student Y. In this situation, you are very much the conductor of a large orchestra, with many instrumental sections. When possible, use the classroom space — walk up and down the aisles. This brings you closer to your students and helps those in the back row recognize that they must play the game as well.

If moving about a large classroom makes board use difficult, consider one of these two techniques help to mitigate this problem. If you have student assistants, task one to be the class scribe and record key discussion points. To assess participation, you could use a student assistant to record who has contributed what to the conversation. You can also ask students to self-assess, describing their participation, and, perhaps, naming the one or two peers from whom they learned the most that day. At worst, this will help you remember just who the stars of that class were.

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



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