Shaping the Learning Environment

The ideal case method learning environment requires a climate that is supportive, challenging and conducive to risk-taking. In such an environment, every comment can provide an opportunity for individual and collective learning, and each student feels that he or she has a fair chance to contribute to the discussion. Creating and sustaining this kind of learning environment involves two essential elements: clarity of expectations, as represented in the explicit learning contract, and consistency in the instructor's corresponding behavior, which informs the implicit learning contract.

The instructor can present a set of rules, norms, and guidelines at the beginning of a case method course to define and shape student expectations regarding preparation, participation, the discussion process, attendance and other aspects of the learning process. Elements of this explicit contract may be included in the course syllabus, presented in class, and/or discussed in office hours. Clarity regarding expectations can be especially important when students are relatively unfamiliar with discussion-based learning. Even for students experienced in the case method, the instructor may find it useful to clarify or modify expectations to fit unique aspects of a course or to reflect changes in course content or objectives over time across the term.

The instructor's actual conduct inside and outside the classroom can serve to reinforce or contradict expectations set through more explicit means. For example, if the instructor encourages students to take risks in the class discussion, but is dismissive of comments that deviate from standard analysis, students will adjust their expectations, and the learning environment and student behavior are likely to change accordingly.