Elevating class conversation: Taking a case-based approach

This post is republished from Into Practice, a biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Elevating class conversation: Taking a case-based approachNancy Kane, Professor of Management and Associate Dean of Case-based Teaching and Learning at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Healthtrains instructors on using the teaching case to lead effective course discussions.


Elements from case-based teaching can elevate the level of discussion in just about any class. Research has long suggested that “doing” rather than just watching promotes deeper learning.


Productive discussion requires a deep level of commitment by both the instructor and the student. Kane customizes her reading list to each class based on their experience level and works hard to counter a culture where many students expect to be “entertained.”


  • Kane asks students to define good and bad discussion attributes in the first meeting, and she says, “in every subsequent class I appoint two new students to take notes on our discussion and we grade ourselves. It makes the group take responsibility, come prepared, and be respectful.”
  • The instructor should be a facilitator, “not the arbiter of all knowledge and facts.” Kane encourages student involvement by asking questions that invoke analysis, evaluation, and judgment. Facilitators also need to anticipate likely class responses in order to relate them back to specific learning objectives.
  • Get to know the students: “For students, anonymity makes it easy to disengage. It’s a very different feeling when the professor knows your name, and it’s always a nice feeling to be known – once you get over the shock of not being able to hide.”


Setting an expectation for discussion and engagement in class promotes deeper learning in both synthesis of the content and in communication skills. “Students learn how to engage, articulate clearly, listen to what their peers are saying, and respond effectively.”

See also: SPHdiscussion