Case learning methodology in operations engineering

Case learning methodology in operations engineering

Kulonda, Dennis J


While there are many ways to use cases, the most appropriate approach depends upon specific learning objectives, the maturity of the class, and the level of skill reached by the instructor. The author contends that there is a best practice for case learning which shifts the burden of learning from the instructor to the student. Accordingly, this paper promulgates a working definition of cases and case method instruction, which has its roots in Socratic learning and has been time tested in business and engineering settings. After establishing a working definition, a complete case learning cycle is examined from case assignment through classroom analysis. This demonstrates the integration that can be achieved using the suggested methods and illustrates the shortcomings of compromise case approaches.

Finally, guidelines and suggestions are offered for using this approach to design an effective learning experience in an operations engineering course.


There are perhaps as many notions of a case and a case teaching approach, as there are faculty. The purpose of this document is to define an approach that stems from the original concepts of this learning approach and to explain its use and benefits in conveying knowledge in the study field known as Operations Management or Operations Engineering (OE). Operations Management is defined1 as the study of the systematic direction and control ofthe processes that transform inputs into goods and services. While OE can be conceptualized as focusing on the design and development of such systems, good designs are not achievable without a good understanding of the business objectives of the system and their relationship to enterprise strategy. Hence, for the purpose of course design we use the terms operations management and operations engineering interchangeably.

As illustrated in Figure 1 below, operations engineering focuses on man-machine-information systems at a relatively macro level. It focuses not on the detail of each operation step but rather on the design and redesign of the interconnections among operations to satisfy customer and stakeholder needs in the systems environment. From this standpoint, one could reasonably argue to refer to it as process engineering; however that term has generally accepted usage focused upon the mechanical sequence of steps in a manufacturing process or a chemical process.

This paper examines the use of case methodology in light of its value in accomplishing behavioral learning objectives at this systems level.

For the purposes of this exposition, the essential characteristics of a case2 include:

* A description of a managerial or operational situation set in a complete context

* Where some protagonist requires some action

* Who faces real-world realities such as incomplete/imperfect information, political interests, etc

* That requires skill in problem finding, generation of alternatives, consideration of multiple points of view and application of theory to achieve a solution

* Which will need to be implemented in the problem context.

Those cases, which meet these criteria, are usually carefully crafted products. Typically they are produced in conjunction with a company and represent several hundred hours of research. This effort results in a twenty to thirty page document, which the case analyst (student) must read and then carefully reread to begin to identify the issues) that need to be addressed. Once the overall scenario is understood, the student must:

* Define the issue to be examined and solved

* Set the scope based upon information available within the case or readily obtainable elsewhere

* Identify alternative courses of action

* Specify suitable metrics for comparison of alternatives

* Compare and weigh alternatives

* Select a tentative course of action

* Assess the viability of his chosen action in the context provided

* Make and justify a recommendation

* Prepare to promote and defend his recommendation in the class discussion

With this sequence in mind it should be obvious that a case is not merely a long textbook problem. Textbook problems typically follow a treatise on specific theoretical constructs and require a mapping of a specific construct to a very specific artificial situation. In the parlance of the Kolb Learning Model,’ textbooks typically present abstract conceptualization, which is subsequently refined via practice exercises, which provide active experimentation. While this is a common teaching paradigm it utilizes only two of the four learning styles epitomized by Kolb. For most textbook problems, there is no ambiguity regarding the course of action required and there is a correct answer. Witness the frequency of requests for answers to exercises as a means for students to assess the validity of their approach to textbook problems. In the Kolb Model as shown in Figure 2, this is diagrammed as the upper of the two learning paths with the abstract conceptualization style applied for acquiring information and active experimentation to convert information to knowledge.

In contrast when the case method is used, issues are introduced via concrete experiences as generated by the case scenario. This forces most students to employ what Kolb calls reflective observation from many viewpoints in order to develop conclusions and develop conjectural models of the new concept. In Figure 2, this is illustrated by the lower path (last row) of the table. Only after this has been done do most students apply the new concept in similar and finally different contexts in effect branching back to the upper path. This makes most students try all four of Kolb’s learning styles. Whiteman and Nygren3 use a similar argument for learning situations where problem solving in engineering is espoused but eclipsed in practice by instructor’s wont to provide solution algorithms. Again, cases are much more than long problems because they force a problem definition before proceeding to a prescriptive solution.

Similarly, a case is not a case history. Although a good case records historical antecedents to the situation under examination, the conclusions, recommendations and subsequent actions are left unanswered. It is the resolution of these that create real educational value in case learning.


Again referring to the steps a case learner follows in preparation, four conclusions are obvious regarding the impact of case learning methodology on students

* Significant preparation and research is required

* The requirement to find a solution to the issue that the learner has identified motivates research

* The solution space to be researched can extend well beyond the preceding chapter of a text

* This approach places the burden of preparation on the learner Of course, the key to driving this process is conducting the class in a manner where the effort expended by the student in preparation affects his measured success in the course. Approaches to classroom use of cases are examined in the next section. First, it is helpful to summarize the learning outcomes and their value.

It is crucial to note that the learning that is sought is more than content knowledge. The learner gains experience and confidence in problem solving with every new case. Learning to apply knowledge in problem situations is at least as valuable as the knowledge content. In short, experiential learning broadens the process to include the application of knowledge. Further, the student is often forced to refer to theoretical constructs to define and evaluate issues. The case situation creates a “need to know” the theory. This is a far stronger motivator for learning than either the promise of a real world application or the threat of a potential exam question. Knowles4 suggests that a need to know is one of the most important principles of andragogy, the science of adult learning.

The learner also benefits from exposure to a variety of industries, organizations and other institutional information is a by-product of his efforts to analyze cases and synthesize solutions. Acquiring this exposure adds to his ability to synthesize results in new settings. Thus learning is conceptualized as something much different than an organized sequential process. Rather it includes learning by discovery, learning by doing while pursuing a need to know.

The value of case method widely espoused by the Harvard Business School is succinctly summarized in the now classic HBS note, Because Wisdom Can’t Be Told.5 The essence quite simply is that student learns teaches himself through trial and error, the process of problem finding and problem solution. Postman and Weingartner6 expound even more poignantly:

“The teaching business has generated dozens of superstitions. Among the more intriguing of these are the belief that people learn most efficiently when they are taught in an orderly, sequential and systematic manner; that one’s knowledge of anything can be `objectively measured; and even that the act of ‘teaching’ significantly facilitates what is known as ‘learning’.”

To be fair, here are many who do not accept the superiority of active learning methods. Lightsey7 reviews prior studies and presents statistical evidence of only a small difference between passive and active learning outcomes. However, his assessments are based only on learner reaction and content knowledge measures. If learning outcomes were measured using the four level model (which as shown in Figure 3 adds behavioral change level and the workplace results measures to the first two) suggested by Kirkpatrick,8 it is likely that more vivid differences would be observed.

The value of the case approach stems not from its ability to teach content knowledge but rather from its ability to teach problem solving and to motivate content learning.


All the above considerations place a heavy burden on the structure and operation of the class in order to achieve closure on the learning ideals enumerated above. The classroom must become an arena where participants present and debate their conclusions and recommendations with their peers. One way to motivate this behavior is to place a substantial grade premium on the revelations that occur during the class case analysis. This requires that the discussion leader appraise each participant’s contributions to the class analysis as a matter of routine. It also requires that the class be organized as an open forum where free exchanges of ideas are the norm.

For this to occur the role of instructor must move from “expert lecturer” to “discussion moderator” and “learning manager.” In the latter role the instructor designs the course and sequence of case experiences to achieve some behavioral objective that is related to achieving results inside a business in the future. As learning manager, the instructor may nudge the discussion toward certain issues, provide mini-lectures on especially salient points, and design an experience, which uses support collateral or outside resources.

As discussion moderator, the instructor must know each participant and provide assistance where needed to enlist more timid students or control more vociferous ones. He must maintain the class at a high energy level. He must paraphrase contributions and solicit dissenting opinion at the close of class he must record (privately) his impressions of the contribution of each student.

Some approaches described by their proponents as case teaching do not in fact comply with this model. Some instructors “lecture” a case. Some instructors have rotating student teams present each case. Some instructors use cases as an application to teach a theory. None of these is appropriate in the context described here because each removes the burden from every student and places it on the instructor.

In the method advocated, it appears that the instructor is relieved of the “teaching” burden, but in fact, his preparation time actually increases. Consider the preparation checklist offered by Bonama2 In Figure 4. There, the orchestration required to conduct an effective case session begins to become evident. With class conducted and main conclusions summarized, the case cycle is complete for one session. The next section of this paper looks at the issues involved with stringing together a series of cases to develop a course. This is important in that one case will only illustrate problem solving skills. The learning of problem solving as a skill depends upon repeated experiences. Hence, a curriculum design should involve a sequence of cases.


Developing a course using cases, requires the course manager to abandon the chapter by chapter approach to course design in favor of a course plan based upon behavioral and learning objectives based on the main set of themes to be developed in the course.

The themes intended in the author’s operations engineering course are:

* Operations as a system with environmental connections

* System Metrics including accounting measures and their impact on system behavior

* Alternate forms of system structure

* Strategic choices: capacity, structure and infrastructure Operations as a competitive weapon

With these established the task is to identify a sequence of cases and readings which will provide the out of class support for the learning effort. Figure 4 shows the outcome of such an exercise. Quite naturally others instructors may choose a different theme set depending upon their curriculum, students and educational objectives. The point is not to argue here for a specific course design but rather to outline the approach and show the outcome as an example of the synergy and course integrity that can result from a learning design using case methodology.

Copyright American Society for Engineering Education Jul 2001

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