"Can You Please Give Us An Example?" : The Use of Case Studies in the Teaching of Business Economics

Contact: Guglielmo Volpe
University of North London
Published June 2001


"At degree level, the technical content of economics has tended to increase: there is more mathematical and abstract theory... Many students with only GCSE mathematics find this hard going and get put off the idea of doing an economics degree. Just as importantly, I suspect, economics has tended to become less interesting in the sense that debate and controversy have been put into the background… Economics needs a makeover. We need to rethink the way economics is taught and examined... We need to learn to communicate and engage with a wider audience of students... We need to put emphasis on practical policy issues and problems..." (Huw Dixon, The Times Higher, 01.06.2001)

Business Economics is a second year module that is mainly taken by business studies and business administration students. The module deals with the economics of business organisation, market structure and strategic behaviour. In the past the students found these concepts too abstract and difficult to contextualise. The students lack a specific interest in economics and many of them have a negative experience from the first year when they take the Introduction to Economics module. Once they enter the second year, they approach the study of Business Economics with many preconceptions about their ability to cope and they become discouraged after the first difficulty. The failure rate was high. When I was given responsibility for the module I thought it necessary to change the style of the teaching in order to stimulate the students' interest and involvement. My approach has been the use of case studies.

The Use of Case Studies

Our objective as educators is to develop in the students the 'higher skills' of Analysis, Synthesis and Evaluation. However they can be achieved only after the learner has acquired the 'lower skills' of Knowledge, Comprehension and Application. This is the so called KCAASE educational taxonomy. To develop the 'higher skills', the students need first to be motivated and stimulated into the learning of basic knowledge. Case studies can help in achieving these first 'lower-skills' as well as then developing the 'higher skills'.

Articles from the Financial Times or The Economist are used to capture the students' attention, convey knowledge, apply it into context, induce analysis and synthesis. One of the lectures in the Business Economics module deals with the analysis of the issue of strategic commitment. The main aim of the lecture is to introduce students to the strategic value of inflexibility by referring to tough and soft commitments in price or quantity competition. To explain this topic this year I used the following article:

"Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, stepped up its international shopping spree Monday when it agreed to pay 6.7 billion pounds for Asda, Britain's third-largest supermarket chain… Analysts said Wal-Mart's bid for Asda will turn heads in the business community. "Retailers, not only in Britain, but right across Europe this morning were sitting up and taking notice,"...

Wal-Mart's entry to the U.K. market would be on a far greater scale than previous international forays into Germany and Asia, and poses a huge challenge to the established British retailers.

The offer sent a tremor through the U.K. retail sector. Asda shares soared 18.6 percent, while Kingfisher fell 47 pence, shares in the two largest supermarket companies [Tesco and Sainsbury's] were also down. "If Tesco and Sainsbury had a head-to-head battle, they'd probably lose," said Mike Godliman, Verdict's director." (FT, 14.06.1999)

The lecture hour is then organised as follows:

  • at the beginning, the article is shown to the students and it is used in order to introduce the lecture's topic and to highlight the main points of discussion. The students' attention is captured and general knowledge is conveyed.
  • during the lecture the main theoretical concepts are developed by continuously referring to the article's content. This helps the students to put theory into context: the article supports comprehension and shows application.
  • at the end, the main issues are summarised and the article is shown again to fix concepts into students' minds.

The lecture is, then, complemented by a seminar hour where I adopt a similar approach but where students' involvement is greater and where the education taxonomy is completed. This year, I used the following article in the seminar:

"Safeway yesterday threw down the gauntlet to Tesco, the UK's biggest food retailer, by claiming it intended to be the country's first choice for food shopping and unveiling plans for 25 hypermarkets by 2000...

As part of this strategy, Safeway planned to launch 25 hypermarkets of 50,000 sq ft or more by extending existing stores over the next two years. A further 45 stores would be extended in following years to create a 70-strong hypermarket chain… The Safeway hypermarket, "would be a futuristic view of a hypermarket", he said [Safeway Chief Executive], more focused on fresh food and home products such as entertainment, bedding and cookware...

One analyst said the cynics had been won over by the group's current trading performance, given that there are no signs of slowdown after a full year of promotions..." (Financial Times, 24.11.2000)

I insist that the theoretical concepts (knowledge) are well explained and applied in the seminar. The article helps this process by inducing application into context, analysis, synthesis and evaluation of information. The educational process is now complete.

There are many advantages in organising the delivery of the lectures and seminars in this way:

  • the presentation of the article at the beginning of the lecture and seminar helps to capture the students' attention and sets the tone for the following analysis.
  • Students find it easier to put abstract theoretical concepts into context and therefore they find it easier to understand them. In turn, and most importantly, this encourages them to positively engage with the module. Fewer discouraged and fearful students.
  • By applying theory to practice, this teaching method is helping students to develop the 'higher skills' of critically analysing and evaluating information.
  • For the lecturer it becomes easier to explain and convey knowledge when the students are actively involved in their learning.

The result of this new way of organising and delivering the module has been positive. Students tend to engage more actively and the pass rate has greatly improved. The students' reaction, as collected in the end-of-semester module monitoring form, has been rather positive and students commented: "This is the only module where we do not fall asleep".