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A Master Class

Monica Higgins and the use of the case method in education

By Jill Anderson on October 6, 2014 2:26 PM

Professor Monica Higgins began with what seemed to be a straightforward question. “Forget the case,” she instructed. “Why would anyone want to climb a very tall mountain?”

One after one, participants responded with different answers: “Fun,” “internal accomplishments,” “adrenaline rush,” “connection to nature,” “to say he did it,” “flow,” and so on.

During the next hour, Higgins took the class on a journey — part question and part discussion — through the case study, Mount Everest – 1996. But this class wasn’t so much about what happened to the 98 men and women who climbed Mount Everest with tragic consequences as much as it was about the case teaching method.

As part of Master Class, a series that began at the Ed School a year ago as an opportunity to celebrate and investigate great teaching happening throughout the Harvard University campus, Higgins’ session, “Learning to Lead through Case Discussion,” peeled back the layers of what it means to teach using the case method. The Master Class last week led into HGSE’s annual Teaching and Learning Week (October 6 – 10), a series of events dedicated to exploring how we effectively teach and learn through demonstrations of powerful and innovative practices, presented by other members of the HGSE community.

“The nice thing about using cases in learning to lead is that it is usually a way to try out ideas,” Higgins said.

Higgins is an expert in the case teaching method, as well as leadership development. Awarded the HGSE Morningstar Teaching Award in 2009, students called her "phenomenal," "fantastically organized," "always positive," "inspirational," and "the epitome of an amazing professor.”

During her Master Class, many of the session’s participants, including several HGSE faculty, began to understand why.

“In case teaching, you are working with students,” Higgins said, adding that you have to have faith that you are going to get where you need to be, but at the same time, it is essential not to narrow the scope of the discussion too much.

Master Class discussant Senior Lecturer James Honan, who also uses case method teaching, asked Higgins about how she prepares for class.

Higgins admitted that she reads through the case before every class, even if she has taught it dozens of times before. Then, she prepares a lesson and readies herself by going for a run to clear her head. Higgins noted that teaching case requires undivided attention and that she makes sure to check any anxieties outside of class at the door.

Much of Higgins instruction is carefully thought through and choreographed, even though she admitted that the nature of this method can be unpredictable, which allows students to raise new thoughts and ideas that shift the discussions.

In order to help guide students through the process, Higgins shared that she also creates several documents before class. During class, Higgins, a self-confessed visual learner, posts ideas and thoughts that come from students on boards set up throughout the room — what she calls “pastures to graze around in.”

As much thought as Higgins puts into shaping the class, one student during the Master Class session asked how she manages to make people feel comfortable, especially considering the cold calling that occurs in class.

It turns out that beyond being prepared to teach the lesson, Higgins says she puts equal amounts of time and effort into how she calls on students and in creating an environment where students feel comfortable. Flashing a seating chart for a second to the audience, Higgins shared that she actually plans how she is going to cold call in class based on a couple of factors: students expertise on a subject, nonverbal cues they show during class, and her desire to help them grow and learn. “I view pushing students as a sign of respect,” Higgins said.

But she is also conscientious to never push too far to the point of embarrassing a student and will back off, fully knowing sometimes people have off days. “At the end of the day, I want to have a good class,” she said.

Typically, the class concludes with several slides in which Higgins highlights the key points of the case. But similar to how she begins the class, she likes to end class the same way: with questions.

“I don’t want to give the impression that it is all tied up with a neat little bow,” she said. “You leave with questions.” In fact, Higgins shared that she provides theory and readings for after the case, but ultimately, her hope is to see students continue the conversation as they walk out the door.


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