Participation

Students and instructors are co-creators of class participation, and the stakes may be quite high, not only for collective and individual learning, but also for performance evaluation. (For example, at HBS participation often accounts for 50% of the total course grade.) During a class discussion, case instructors manage participation along two dimensions: who to call on and how to interact with students in the process of questioning, listening, and responding. In managing participation, instructors should strive to create a learning environment that students experience as fair, safe, and challenging.

During a case discussion, experienced instructors often rely on a variety of principles to decide which student to call on (or avoid selecting) at any point in time. Instructors might choose a student with expertise relating to the discussion topic to help clarify a difficult conceptual point or, conversely, select a student with little prior background to start off a discussion pasture. Instructors may seek to bring in less frequent participants by keeping a close eye out for their hands during the discussion and by cold-calling these students on occasion. Body language may also provide a useful guide: instructors may prefer to call on a student who reacts with excitement or confusion to a comment just made in the discussion, as opposed to a student whose hand has been up for some time. Instructors should track class participation on an on-going basis to ensure that their calling patterns are not biased with respect to certain demographic groups or individual students.

When calling on students, case instructors should endeavor to be simultaneously challenging and supportive. Besides the questions and responses instructors use with participants, tone of voice and body language can have a powerful effect on how safe students find the environment for participation. Experienced instructors may calibrate their interactions with individual students depending on the participant's background in the field and comfort level speaking in class. This does not mean, however, that instructors should relax standards or overlook weaknesses: on the contrary, maintaining high expectations for all students is the ultimate form of respect in the case method classroom.