How to Facilitate A Case Study Exercise

By Katherine Friedrich
Based on an interview with
Dr. James Stith of the American Institute of Physics

Case studies are useful tools in discussions of diversity in technical fields. Discussing cases can help participants open up and talk with their colleagues about their experiences as professors and students. (For example, a professor resistant to conversations about diversity may sit near a colleague who has had personal experiences that are relevant to the discussion.) As people begin to speak openly with each other, the discussion provides evidence to reluctant participants that diversity is a topic worthy of consideration.

The purpose of case study discussion is not to solve the problems of racism, sexism, or other forms of discrimination in an hour, but to create an open forum in which all points of view are respected. It is not necessary for the group to find the most politically correct answer, the most compassionate answer, or the most pragmatic answer to the questions raised by the case.

A good facilitator is interested in diversity, willing to question his or her own ideas, and willing to listen. His or her job is to foster group discussion of the issues and problems in the case scenario, discuss possible responses to the problem, and explore the consequences of these responses.

During preparation, the facilitator should read the study and think through the case. Next, the facilitator should identify some flexible guiding goals and a few issues of interest, and develop a set of questions that he or she plans to ask.

Before presenting a workshop, it is a good idea to become familiar with participants' seniority, the demographics of the group, and their familiarity with diversity issues. It is also useful to know which issues may be controversial in that state or on that campus.

Case studies that deal with social problems are much more effective when presented together with statistics. A few simple but visually striking charts or graphs from reliable sources, presented before the case is introduced, can put the study in context and motivate listeners to take interest in the material.

A skilled facilitator speaks without lecturing. Through creative use of open-ended questions, he or she guides the discussion. Well-conceived questions do not have easy "yes or no" answers. It is essential to avoid injecting preconceived responses into the conversation. A facilitator should answer questions with other questions, stimulating further discussion. In an educational culture where people are trained to seek solutions, this lack of easy answers may surprise the group.

Some case study facilitators use a forceful method of questioning, known as the Socratic Method, to encourage participants to think critically about issues. Other facilitators simply ask a question and then step back to observe the conversation that unfolds, only interjecting a comment when it is necessary to maintain the positive group dynamics and the flow of conversation. Most facilitators prefer an intermediate method (Herreid, 2004).

An effective method of generating dialogue is to divide the participants into groups and tell them that, after a small group discussion, you will ask one member of each group to present their conclusions to the rest of the participants. Groups of three to four people are large enough to generate a variety of responses, but small enough that everyone has the opportunity to speak. The facilitator can circulate around the room and pose questions to quiet groups. The facilitator can also share ideas generated by one group with other groups to stimulate discussion.

Some problems may develop during the small group session. For instance, one participant may dominate the small group discussion, another may be silent, or group members may completely disagree on the major issues presented in the case. However, these problems are not difficult to address. If a disagreement develops at a table, the participants can present both sides of the issue to the larger group when the groups rejoin. If one person is unusually quiet, the facilitator can ask that person to report the small group's consensus to the larger group.

During the large group discussion, a lively dialogue may take place between groups. To add depth to the discussion, the facilitator may encourage groups to explore the reasons that they selected the conclusions they produced. With experience, a facilitator learns when to ask a question and when to allow conversation to continue. It is a good idea for the facilitator to continue to move around the room during this period.

Aside from setup requirements typical of most lectures (e.g., audiovisual technology), there are some logistical issues unique to case study facilitation. Some practical considerations for your setup will include:

1. Flexible seating arrangements are preferable to fixed auditorium-style seating because of the movement and reconfiguration of groups that takes place.

2. It is also important to allow sufficient time for facilitation. Some experts recommend 90 minutes for a thorough discussion of a case (Herreid, 2004).


The following is a sample schedule for facilitating a case:
5-10 minutes-Orientation
40-50 minutes-Small Group Discussion
20-30 minutes-Large Group Discussion

As a facilitator becomes more comfortable working with groups and smoothly directing the flow of conversation, he or she will likely find that the case study method is especially rewarding.

Case studies, sometimes called case-based learning, can be an effective tool for delivering technical content, but here we use them to explore diversity issues. This method, which fosters dialogue and values all participants' experiences, may be one of our best tools for fostering a welcoming culture in science, technology, mathematics, and engineering.



Herreid, C. F. (2004). Case studies in science: A novel method of science education. Retrieved December 11, 2004, from

Stith, J. Vice President, Physics Resources, American Institute of Physics. Personal interview, December 23, 2004.