Realistic cases are a mainstay in business communication classes, for good reason–ours is a problem-solving discipline, and nothing is quite as effective for teaching our students how to grapple with communication problems as giving them realistic situations to deal with.
Of course, for realism, you can’t beat having your class tackle an actual project for an actual client. But this approach does have drawbacks: the difficulty and time requirements of such projects are unpredictable, and sometimes real projects don’t enable you to focus squarely on the specific learning outcomes you’re aiming for.
Enter fictionalized cases. If designed well, they can present students with ample opportunity to generate solutions for realistic business situations.
Qualities of a Good Case
What makes a simulated business communication problem a good one? Here are some hints from the literature on cases in business communication (see the end of this post for the full source list):
“A case must have verisimilitude .”—Brockmann
“Tell an entertaining and interesting story.”—Groth
“A case must give students a full rhetorical context.”—Brockmann
“Having simulations where students can identify with the roles is . . . a prerequisite for greatest success.”—Groth
“Our current case-based instruction focuses too much on the exceptional rhetorical situation—on the situation that requires students to resolve business problems of great import in writing.”—Dorn
“Cases should be applicable to all students in the class.”—Schullery
“Cases should suggest, or at least accommodate, multiple solutions.”—Schullery
From these words of advice we can distill four main criteria for good fictional cases:
Our students–especially the Generation-Y-aged students that most of us teach today–must be engaged by a case in order to give it their best. The case should focus on a relevant and current issue that is nontrivial–that is, one in which something significant is at stake.
To have verisimilitude, cases need to have both internal consistency and external validity. That is, they need to tell a coherent story, and they need to represent a realistic business situation.
A do-able case is one that the students–ideally, all of them–are able to handle reasonably well. This means that they need to be given roles that they can imagine themselves playing at their current level of professional development (for example, usually not the CEO of a company). They also need to be able to imagine being in their readers’ shoes in order to make inferences about what those readers value/expect and how they’ll respond. And finally, the communication topic should not be one that requires relatively sophisticated business knowledge (for example, how to terminate someone’s employment).
Carefully chosen educational payoffs
To make sure a case will serve your needs at any given moment in the term, be sure to identify its likely educational payoffs and be sure they’re in line with what you want students to learn from the exercise. Is it organizing/formatting information? Using rhetorical skill? Learning an important genre? Designing and integrating visuals? Learning about part of the business world? The potential payoffs are many. Design the case to focus on your particular goals, and don’t include too many challenges in any one case.
Assessing a Sample Case
Using the four criteria listed above, how would you assess this sample case: Reporting the Results of a New Campus Policy?
Here’s how we would rate it on each criterion:
Interest: very good (the topic is timely and relevant to students, and it concerns a worthwhile issue)
Realism: very good (the situation described in this case seems logically consistent, and it has external validity in that it describes an actual situation on many campuses)
Do-ability: good (students are invited to identify with a young professional who is probably just one step beyond where they currently are; they are marginally good at inferring what a university administrator would want/need to know; any specialized knowledge needed to handle the case is included in the case)
Educational payoffs: worthy and manageable (the rhetorical situation is kept relatively simple so that students can focus on the orderly and meaningful presentation of information, but doing the necessary math is a little tricky, and so is designing the visuals)
Augmenting Written Cases
No matter how good a fictionalized case is, your students will benefit from anything you can do to make it come alive for them. Here are some ideas:
- Use class discussion to generate additional details for the case and invoke students’ knowledge/experience
- Use role playing to help students visualize the participants
- Create fleshed-out fictional characters (known in the Web development world as “personas”), complete with photo, name, and relevant personal facts, to represent the different players in the case
- Use relevant resources already available (e.g., website of companies like the one in the case, websites about issues/topics in the case, supporting documents)
For Further Advice . . .
. . . consult these resources:
Brockmann, R. John, ed. The Case Method in Technical Communication: Theory and Models. N.p.: Association of Teachers of Technical Writing, 1984.
Dorn, Elizabeth M. “Case Method Instruction in the Business Writing Classroom.” Business Communication Quarterly 62.1 (Mar. 1999): 41-63.
Groth, Brian Ibbotson. “Brit Trips—Midway Hotel: A Simulated Negotiation.” Business Communication Quarterly 64.1 (Mar. 2001): 63-71.
Rogers, Priscilla S., and Jone Rymer. “Business and Management Communication Cases: Challenges and Opportunities.” Spec. issue of Business Communication Quarterly 61.1 (Mar. 1998): 7-25.
Saunders, Peter M. “Experiential Learning, Cases, and Simulations in Business Communication.” Business Communication Quarterly 60.1 (Mar. 1997): 97-114.
Schullery, Nancy. “Selecting Workable Cases for Classroom Use.” Spec. column,“Focus on Teaching: Using Cases.” Business Communication Quarterly 62.4 (Dec. 1999): 77-80.
*Presented by Kathy Rentz at the International Meeting of the Association for Business Communication, 30 Oct., 2010, Chicago, IL.