Published: June 4, 2021 By

Entrepreneurial Environments is an undergraduate course for junior and senior students in Entrepreneurship. This course aims to provide students with an understanding of the entrepreneurial process and how to think like an entrepreneur. It gives future entrepreneurs tools and information for evaluating opportunities and developing strategies for starting innovation-based ventures. Such strategy applies to the numerous challenges that invariably emerge in the course of assessing and exploiting opportunities for starting new businesses. The course is designed to address the needs of students who hope to pursue startup opportunities in the near future, prepare for entrepreneurial activities at later career stages, lead new ventures in established firms, or pursue careers where the ability to evaluate startups would be helpful (e.g., venture capital, mergers, and acquisitions).

Traditionally, this course is based on in-class lectures in combination with an experiential approach. Student learning is achieved through a combination of readings, guest speakers, in-class presentations, field projects designed to convey the unique environment of entrepreneurship and new ventures. In this Making Teaching and Learning Visible project, we will add the case method into this course to help students gain greater exposure to the entrepreneurship process and apply the theories to the case discussion.

With the current COVID-19 situation and a shift toward online teaching, we face additional challenges in implementing case methods with online teaching. Thus part of this project also addresses ways to adapt the traditional case-discussion method to the new online teaching paradigm.

Lessons Learned: About the Case Teaching Method

The case method is a participatory, discussion-based learning method where students gain skills in critical thinking, communication, and group dynamics. It is a type of problem-based learning and is commonly seen in classrooms in the professional schools of medicine, law, and business. In a case discussion class, students work on a case during class to discuss important issues as a whole or in small groups. The case method promotes more effective contextual learning and long-term retention and provides students the opportunity to "walk around the problem" and to see varied perspectives (1, 2).

For this class, students work on Harvard Business Publishing cases in a case discussion session. The cases provide far more details about a venture, its development process, and the startup team's problem. These details help students go beyond a simple venture idea example and see the entrepreneurship process they cannot otherwise access. The cases are mainly dilemma or decision cases (3), where students are presented with a problem that the entrepreneur must solve. We go through the decision-making process based on the theory they learn in class and then see the actual historical outcomes after they work through the case. It is also important to note that there are no right or wrong answers to questions faced by the entrepreneurs. The more important task is to think through the decision-making process and analyze the options faced by the entrepreneurs using the theories learned in class.

Case teaching typically involves three major parts: preparing the course, in-class teaching, and finally evaluation and grading (4). During the MTLV project and the discussion with other participants, many learning and improvement lie in each of these three steps. I will elaborate in detail in subsequent sections.

Teaching Tips and Techniques

Preparing a Case Discussion Class

A lot of preparation needs to be done before a case discussion class, both by the teacher and the students.

For the teacher, the selection of cases should be based upon clear learning objectives. Each case can be interpreted emphasizing different theories and can be applied to various theoretical perspectives. So the teacher should have a clear learning objective for the class and pick a case that can address this objective.

Once a case is selected, there should be a detailed plan for the flow of in-class discussion and interactions. Teachers can either use pre-prepared PowerPoint slides or use a board during the in-class discussion. Either way, the teacher should have prepared the content on the slides or the board beforehand.

For the student, they need to read the cases carefully before starting a case discussion class. There are also pre-assignments that help the students to work through the cases more extensively. At the beginning of the semester, we will hand out instructions (5) on "how to prepare long and complex cases," and ask students to learn and develop their own process in preparing for cases.

In-class Case Discussion

In-class case discussion usually starts with a warm-up exercise to go through the case, followed by specific questions from the teacher to initiate and redirect the conversation.

  • Engaging students: The teacher should give students every opportunity to engage through different formats – speaking up, polls, online chatbox. It is important to have as many students engage as possible, which may involve both warm calls and (sometimes) cold calls.
  • Fostering interaction among students: Students are encouraged to build on the points of others or share personal experiences related to the case and the theory. We can also divide the class into groups and have a debate during the class.
  • Using simulation cases: Occasionally, we can use simulation cases that ask the students to work through the decision-making process as a player. And after the simulation, we talk through their decisions. This is a special form of case discussion.
  • Debriefing cases: At the end of a case discussion, the teacher should summarize what has been learned from the discussion. This can be done either by the students summarize the learning points, or by the teacher. This is an important step to tie the case with the theory and the learning objective. It is also good practice to relate the case to other cases seen in class.

Other Tools and Online Case Teaching

  • Using the whiteboard during an online Zoom session: for teachers who prefer using a board rather than pre-prepared PowerPoint slides, Zoom offers a whiteboard function that enables the teacher to write down discussion summaries on the go. It is also possible to allow students to write on the board. So it is a quite convenient function for online case discussions.
  • Breakout groups in synchronous Zoom: We use breakout groups from time to time to allow a group of students to exchange their idea before addressing a specific question. For some cases, we also put students in groups to work through some calculation problems (e.g., estimating the firms' total addressable market). Integrating breakout rooms with shared Google documents provides a unique online learning environment that engages students. 
  • Asynchronous online discussion platform: we also used an online discussion platform (Packback) that allows students to have a free discussion over the course topics and cases after each class session. Students were able to exchange their thoughts through deeper conversations there.

Ways to Assess Learning with this Strategy

  1. Participation-based evaluation: The online teaching platform using Zoom offers an important tool to evaluate case-based teaching. It is easy to collect data on student attendance and participation from the class records. Student participation is graded not only by quantity but also by the quality of their participation – bringing novel insights, personal business experiences, and making arguments highly regarded during the in-class case discussion.
  2. Assignments: Various forms of assignments are designed to help students prepare for the case and gain a deeper understanding of the case discussion.
    1. Pre-assignment questions: To ensure students prepare for the case, they need to read the cases carefully and answer a series of stimulating questions before coming into the class. While the assessment is mainly based on completion, this exercise helps students think through the questions and be better prepared during the in-class discussion.
    2. Team case-presentation: At the beginning of the case discussion, a group of students is assigned to go over the case to refresh everyone's memory regarding the case. The students are also required to do some basic strategy analysis for the company and the entrepreneur.
    3. Post-class self-evaluation: After the case-discussion class, we ask students to complete a self-evaluation (5). The self-evaluation let students to reflect on their participation during the case discussion. The best participation should provide careful analysis leading to appropriate and inventive conclusions. Students are also expected to provide evidence, show clear signs of independent thinking and mastery of the subject.
    4. Individual case analysis. Every student needs to complete a detailed case analysis write-up for one of the cases throughout the semester. It is important to make sure that every student carefully goes through analyzing a case and generating a case analysis report.
  3. Self- and peer-evaluation
    1. Post-class self-evaluation: After the case-discussion class, we ask students to complete a self-evaluation (5). The self-evaluation let students reflect on their participation during the case discussion. The best participation should provide careful analysis leading to appropriate and inventive conclusions. Students are also expected to provide evidence, show clear signs of independent thinking and mastery of the subject.
    2. For the team-based case presentation, students will also evaluate each team member on their preparation and contribution of this assignment.

Future Questions and Next Steps

Working through the MTLV project and discussing with other researchers have elucidated many new thoughts to develop the case discussion course further. For the next steps, we will put more effort on:

  • Developing rubrics for student-written assignments. We can also engage students in the rubric design process, which facilitates better learning.
  • Selecting and developing more cases to be used in class. Some of the cases are on more traditional companies, which provides a good illustration and link to the theory. But students also have a preference over more recent companies.

Student Reflections

  • "As an entrepreneur currently in California manufacturing cycling clothes, this class is teaching me everything I need to know about the business world. How to talk to employees, how to view quality, how to manage a process. Everything is being very useful to my life. But maybe the most important thing is the case studies that we do. I learn a lot from them, from real experiences from real companies trying different things to be successful. I am glad I took this class and now I can develop my work ethics better."
  • "Personally, I took this class as a real estate major in order to gain a wider perspective on how entrepreneurs think and act. Some of my most important takes have always come from the case discussions. These discussions allowed me to see entrepreneurs in action and how they operate as they develop products, teams, and ideas. Entrepreneurship is a journey. The developing processes that are efficient are key to success. One's path may seem clear but in the end is (could be) different from imagined."
  • "Prior to attending this class, I had ideas about starting my own company/agency. However, I experienced a hard time figuring out where to start, which steps to pursue and strategies to follow. This is the gap that was mostly filled in this class and thus increased my confidence in doing the business I have at the moment... This class gave me a vast amount of information so far, and I am looking forward to learning more of it. I noticed articles and Harvard Business cases to be one of the most beneficial ways to further explore this class."

Further Reading and Resources:

  1. Bruner, R. (2002). Socrates' muse: Reflections on effective case discussion leadership. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  2. Christensen, C. R., Garvin, D. A., & Sweet, A. (Eds.). (1991). Education for judgment: The artistry of discussion leadership. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  3. Heath, J. (2015). Teaching & Writing Cases: A Practical Guide. The Case Center, UK.
  4. Schiano, B., Andersen, E. (2017). Teaching with Cases Online. Harvard Business Publishing
  5. Andersen, E., Schiano, B. (2014) Teaching with Cases: A Practical Guide. Harvard Business School Publishing

Xiaoshu Bei is an assistant professor at Leeds School of Business