The opening of a case method class can exert a powerful influence on the success of the session as a whole. Openings include three distinct, but interrelated elements: the instructor opening, the opening question, and the student opening.
The instructor opening provides an opportunity to put the class in context, shape and clarify expectations, and heighten engagement. Some instructors prefer a minimalist opening, consisting of little more than a "Good morning!" followed by a cold call along the lines of "Chris, what should the case protagonist do?" This approach can generate a high energy start, with students immediately focused on a critical question for evaluation and discussion; it may also leave some students disoriented and unclear as to the broader purpose of the class. Other instructors prefer a more extensive set-up. They may position the case within the context of the course, frame the importance and relevance of the topic at hand, provide an agenda for the class session, and highlight elements of the case situation as a prelude to the opening question. This approach can create a solid anchoring for the discussion, but may dampen classroom energy and constrain student discovery. Ultimately, the optimal length and scope of the instructor opening for a specific class session will vary depending on the nature of the case, the topic, the participants, instructor style, and the timing of the session within the term.
The opening question sets the initial path for the class discussion. Experienced case instructors typically prefer to start with a decision-oriented or evaluative question, leveraging underlying tensions in the case to engage the student opener and fellow participants from the outset. Yet for newer instructors, working backwards from a decision point as the class discussion unfolds may be difficult to manage. They may prefer to start with a descriptive question such as "what is the situation?" or "what are the issues facing the case protagonist?' to develop a more linear flow to the discussion. The risk of this approach is a class that begins with an unengaging regurgitation of case facts. An additional consideration in the selection of an opening question is its relationship to the assignment questions. Some instructors routinely draw the opening question directly from the assignment, while others prefer an element of surprise or unpredictability in the initial question.
The student opening follows the initial question posed by the instructor. Within the HBS context, the opening question is typically a cold call-or "warm call," in which the instructor notifies the student just before the start of class or during the instructor opening. Case method instructors occasionally ask for a volunteer opener to begin the class discussion. Yet the use of cold/warm calls provides both the incentive for careful preparation and the challenge of responding in real-time to the instructor's inquiry in the presence of peers. The student opening, including follow-up questions, can last as long as 5-10 minutes, depending on the extent of the student's preparedness and the instructor's approach to the start of class.