Case Studies and Problem-based Learning

Teaching a Variety of Cases

…it’s good practice to have a picture in your mind about everything you've covered or will cover, so that … you can connect ideas across class sessions.


We wanted students to have some kind of baseline grounding knowledge about global health issues, so we explored untreated conditions and the burden of disease using a variety of cases ranging from malaria and HIV to maternal health and surgery. We tried to enliven the class and give these issues some immediacy by having people Skyped into class from different parts of the world, so students could actually interact with the people dealing with real problems. For instance, the very first case, on Hello Healthcare, featured a South African entrepreneur whom we Skyped into class, and we did the same with Riders for Health.

We also tried different kinds of formats for case studies. We had traditional written case studies from Harvard Business School and others that were written in developing countries, but we also included some completely unconventional cases. For example, we asked students to watch a TED talk video, and analyze it in class.

Having varied methods requires giving guidance to students to ensure that they put in the same effort into analyzing the unconventional cases as they would with traditional ones. Students often say they want a variety, but they tend not to come to class prepared in the same way for a media example as they would for a written case. So I asked students to watch the video twice, to take notes, to look at the transcript on the TED site, and I even provided guiding questions.

With case studies it can be easy to teach each session as a standalone because each case is a little world in and of itself. But how do you link them? As an instructor, it’s good practice to have a picture in your mind about everything you've covered or will cover, so that as you go, you can connect ideas across class sessions. Students often ask for that at the end of the course. As we explored different issues, providing a variety of cases worked well because they could become touchstones as we worked through the issues. I asked students to recall the example of a particular organization and draw a contrast across classes throughout the semester.

Creating opportunities for problem-based learning

We paired case study with students doing their own case analysis on a particular organization. This required quite a lot of prep work for us because we wanted to look at about a dozen interesting organizations with promise for delivering more and better healthcare in low resource settings. So we did some due diligence ahead of time, checking that there was enough depth of data available for students to assemble a truthful analysis, and then we wrote up profiles of each. We presented the ideas to students who formed team groups around their interests in that area. We also encouraged them to form their teams across programs.

I wanted to teach business-model analysis in this course, but a huge challenge of this class setup is that the students don't have baseline knowledge to actually have a conversation. Very few people come in with knowledge about issues in global health per se, and certainly not spanning the discipline. So we pulled out the disease conditions relevant to cases or potential student projects in the class. We made a short list of these, and each student quickly wrote up a managerial briefing on a particular condition. Later, if we had a case on malaria, a few students would have already done an in-depth study of malaria.