Student case pedagogy: Learning from their own experience

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

Student case pedagogy: Learning from their own experienceRonald Heifetz, Co-Founder of the Center for Public Leadership and King Hussein bin Talal Senior Lecturer of Public Leadership, uses experiential teaching methods like student case analysis—where students collaboratively develop and analyze cases drawn from their own work experiences—to promote deeper engagement and stronger retention of leadership concepts.

The benefits: Teaching leadership as practice in the Harvard Kennedy School’s MLD 201 Exercising Leadership: The Politics of Change and MLD 364 Leadership from the Inside Out: The Personal Capacity to Lead and Stay Alive requires not only learning a complexconceptual framework, according to Heifetz, but also the development of skills, temperament, and values. Analyzing a personal experience makes the lessons come alive for students, builds reflective practice, and teaches them to examine a problem, despite emotional ties.

The challenges: Outside of regular full class meetings, students meet weekly in small consultation groups to analyze each other’s cases, rotating chair and presenter roles. Heifetz relies heavily on teaching staff, meeting as a team before and after each class to discuss student progress (tracked via weekly written work) and determine response. This adaptive approach can be particularly challenging for less experienced teaching assistants, though a significant professional development experience.

Takeaways and best practices:

  • Don’t be afraid to focus on failure. Students select a failure experience rather than a success story because Heifetz believes the exercise desensitizes them to failure itself, teaches them to take corrective action more quickly and persevere, and increases their learning retention: “People lose sleep around their failures because those experiences have high emotional valence. The odds, therefore, go way up that they will carry those lessons into their own future behavior.”
  • Incorporate creative elements for additional practice. Leadership is an improvisational art, and so Heifetz structures exercises where students read poetry and improvise song to illustrate key relational dimensions of leadership (e.g., listening, creativity, inspiration). Students learn to listen to and analyze emotional content, and to connect with an audience non-defensively.
  • Provide a framework, but resist the temptation to jump in and direct. Having employed experiential teaching methods for over 30 years, Heifetz can see themes emerging quickly, and realizes he is sometimes prone to react and instruct, not ideal for students to learn from and teach one another. He depends on his teaching assistants to speak up in class, interpret the dynamic, and help him step back and resist the urge to restore class discussion equilibrium unnecessarily.

Bottom line: Heifetz believes that teaching practice is enhanced by using specific, illustrative cases that lead to generalizable concepts. “Rather than doing it with prepared cases at a distance from students’ experience, I’m doing it with their own cases. Many of them return years later and say, ‘I think about this every day.’”