Case studies put you in the shoes of real policymakers – and they’ve been one of the most valuable parts of the MPP

One of the distinctive features of the Master of Public Policy course at the Blavatnik School of Government is its use of case studies in learning. Case studies are real-life scenarios used to illuminate an issue – a theoretical concept, a policy, an ethical dilemma – by placing the student at the centre of the decision-making process. They build critical thinking, communication as well as leadership skills. Intuitive as it might seem, there’s more to case learning than just having a structured discussion with your classmates.

A former MPP student noted: “Most people are less analytical than they want to be. Often they let their natural responses – gut reactions – form their judgments more than they think they do.”

When I joined the MPP a year ago, I was new to case learning but I found it so intriguing that for my summer project I decided to work at the school’s Case Centre on Public Leadership. Once I delved into the literature on the case method, I came across some useful tips that helped me better understand what the whole point of case studies was – beyond introducing us to real-life policy problems.

As I wished I had had those tips before starting the course, I am sharing them here hoping they will enhance the learning experience for incoming students, as well as encourage those who are thinking about applying to study for the MPP.

The point of the case class is not to describe the case situation once again and to summarise facts. The case is a springboard for the discussion in the classroom. It should prompt students to analyse the issues at stake, make judgments about them, draw conclusions and suggest recommendations for further action or future behaviours, with the implications for broader policy context and professional skills in view.

  • Case classes are a discussion among the students, guided by teachers – they are not a discussion between the teacher and students.
  • In case classes, students are expected to figure out the contentious issues themselves in the classroom, without asking for the teacher’s help.
  • That said, the teachers have three main roles:
    • they decide who speaks and for how long;
    • they ask questions and drive the discussion;
    • they listen for the main points and summarise them on the board.
  • The board serves as a recording of the discussion to go back to anytime during the class, teasing out some of the key learning outcomes of the session.

It is good to be mindful of the discussion. Are you saying something that’s already been said? If so, is there real added value in what you have to say? Are you “waiting to speak” or are you listening and when responding, taking into account your classmates’ previous comment(s)? It’s worth asking these questions to yourself before you raise your hand to speak.

The point is not to have one person dominate the discussion, even if their contributions are excellent and poignant, but to have as many relevant inputs from different students as possible. The exchange of diverse views is what usually makes the discussion such a powerful learning experience.

If there are people in the room who know more about the topic discussed than the lecturer, they are encouraged to come forward and share their views. These are often very valuable both for their classmates and lecturers alike. As some of the case teaching champions say, “It is statistically obvious that a room full of people, given some variance in their background, should collectively know more and be better able to analyse a complex case than one person.”

On a more practical note, to make most out of your discussion, it is good to stick to some simple ground rules:

  • Teachers tend to call on students in three different ways:
    • Cold call – anyone can be called on without prior notice
    • Warm call – students are given prior notice as to who’ll be called on
    • Open call – anyone who wishes to answer the question raises their hand
  • When you want to make a comment, raise your hand. It’s good to put your hand up only once the person before you has stopped speaking – it makes those speaking before you feel less pressured; only raise your hand while somebody else is speaking if you want to react to what they are saying.
  • If you are nervous, don’t worry, just take your time to gather your thoughts and think through what you want to say – there’s enough time for everyone to make a meaningful contribution to the class. You can always rephrase if necessary.
  • In general, be ready to be called on anytime – often teachers don’t specify in advance what call method they’ll use. Also, the ever-looming threat of being cold-called is quite an effective tool for keeping yourself on track with your case class prep!

Finally, the MPP has great things in store for you – academically, professionally, socially. I hope all those coming to the Blavatnik School this year enjoy the experience to the fullest and that the case studies will be food for thought (and passionate discussions) throughout the course!

Zuzana Hlavkova is a Master of Public Policy student, currently finishing her summer project for the Case Centre on Public Leadership where she studied the geopolitics of 5G mobile networks. She was an anti-corruption activist in Slovakia, her home country.

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