Case Studies Teach Business Concepts in Real-World Scenarios
By Becky Kramer
Most of the students are talking in Chris Cooney’s Business Administration 100 class, but there’s no penalty for the free-flowing conversation. In fact, talking in class is encouraged.
Students are hashing over the Neighborhood Café’s dilemma. In the business case study, the owner of a chain of Northwest cafés lost one of her bread suppliers when the company declared bankruptcy. She’s evaluating proposals from two bakeries interested in the contract.
“She’s got nine cafés operating in the Seattle area, and her bread supplier there just went under,” says Julianna Topper, a marketing and advertising major.
“This seems pretty urgent,” notes her classmate, Logan Sparber. “She needs to make a decision soon—probably this week.”
But which supplier should the café owner pick? The company with the lowest bread prices might seem like the obvious choice. But the owner also wants to pick a firm that’s viable in the long run.
Accounting and finance can help provide answers, says Cooney, a career track associate professor. Armed with income statements and balance sheets, the students learn calculations that will help them compare the suppliers—not just on bread prices, but on company profit margins, debt levels, and liquidity.
The case teaching method
Harvard Business School developed the case teaching method more than 100 years ago. Using real events or fictionalized narratives, case studies help students connect business concepts in the classroom to real-world scenarios—like a café owner forced to make a quick decision about a new supplier.
“We are trying to help students slip into a business setting,” says Jason Porter, an associate professor of accounting. “Case studies introduce them to some of the pressures and ambiguity that are part of normal business operations.”
“It’s my favorite way of teaching,” adds Debbie Compeau, senior associate dean for faculty affairs and research. During small group discussions, students gain an appreciation for different viewpoints. Often, there isn’t a single right answer.
“Sometimes, students are forced to make a decision without having all of the information,” Compeau says.
Case writing academy
Last summer, the Carson College of Business put on a case-writing academy. Porter, Compeau, and Tom Tripp, senior associate dean for academic affairs, led the effort.
Their goal was two-fold: produce case studies to address specific teaching needs in the Carson College and issues relevant to Pacific Northwest industries.
Eight faculty members participated. Among them was Hana Johnson, who wrote the Neighborhood Café case study. Like Cooney, she also teaches Business Administration 100, which introduces students to various business majors.
“With accounting and finance, it’s helpful to see how the concepts are used in decision-making. Otherwise, it just feels like a math calculation,” says Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Management, Information Systems, and Entrepreneurship. “Case studies help students understand how this information can play a critical role in analyzing a situation.”
Plans are underway for a second case-writing academy this summer.
Shawn Gegg took Business Administration 100 last year during his first year at WSU. He enjoyed the class discussions so much he returned his sophomore year as a teaching assistant. The entire class is built around case studies.
“It was all so relatable,” says Gegg, a business management major. “Neighborhood Café was a business anyone could run. People could picture themselves in the story.”
Case studies align with goals of The Next Carson Coug undergraduate curriculum, which includes a focus on smaller classes and higher expectations for student participation in class. Students are expected to read the case study before class and come prepared to talk about it.
Arriving at class prepared to discuss the case requires independent learning, says Topper, the marketing and advertising major. While she sometimes struggles with figuring out material on her own, Topper says the case method challenges students to be accountable for their learning and become better problem solvers.
In Neighborhood Café, she found herself empathizing with the business owner. “I could picture myself in her shoes,” Topper says. “The story helps the reader understand the problem and the urgency of finding a solution.”
“That’s the power of a really good case,” Porter says. “It’s a narrative you are into, and it helps you remember what you learned.”