Knowing your Students

Case method teaching is ultimately about teaching the students, as opposed to teaching the case. Instructors who know their students well are better able to create a learning experience that is genuinely participant-centered. A familiarity with student's backgrounds especially those who have expertise or experience relevant to a particular class session can lead to richer discussions with a higher degree of personal relevance. Knowing which students lack extensive background in the subject can be equally important, as comprehension checks with these participants can help the instructor more effectively pace the discussion flow. C. Roland Christensen once noted that the art of case method teaching is the ability to ask the right question of the right student at the right time in the right way—a virtually impossible aspiration without deep knowledge of one's students.

At Harvard Business School instructors have access to online class cards that provide a detailed profile of each student, including a photo, name pronunciation, educational background, work experience, demographic data, and extracurricular interests. Instructors study these profiles before the start of the term to develop a strong familiarity with their students and to consider the perspectives and expectations specific individuals are likely to bring to the course. Prior to each class session, instructors review student profiles to identify individuals whose background may be especially relevant for the day's learning objectives. This assessment, combined with a review of participation records, helps inform the preparation of a priority "call list" of students the instructor would particularly like to involve in that day's discussion.