Teaching cases in political science: A collective action problem

In June 2014, I attended a training offered by NRW School of Governance and Bertelsmann Stiftung at the Bertelsmann residence in Berlin (pictured above) on case teaching in political science. Cases render teaching more lively and hands-on while the analysis of a concrete and complex example provides valuable insights into theories and their applications. For a quick introduction to case teaching in political science, have a look at Welcome to the Case Method!, for a more extensive overview The ABCs of Case Teaching.

While case teaching in political science has a long-standing tradition at Anglosaxon universities, it is virtually unknown in the German social science community. As a political scientist trained at German universities, I have never been taught using the case method. Nonetheless, based on the training, I think case teaching is a worthwhile addition to the still very limited tool box of political science teaching.

Closing in on the collective action problem

Why is case teaching struggling to take hold among German political scientists?

An obvious first answer is of course that university teaching evolves very slowly and professors by-and-large base their teaching methods on the way they have been taught themselves. However, while the twenty-odd political scientists that were apparently interested enough in innovative teaching methods to attend the training all became quite enthusiastic about the advantages of case teaching, the general opinion about the spread of the case method in German political science remained pessimistic.

Rather, it turns out that the supply of teaching cases is hampered by collective action problems: Writing a good teaching case takes time. Time that could be spent writing a journal article that may further your career in academia in a much more substantial way than gingering up your teaching with a custom-tailored teaching case, as the quality of teaching still seems to be a largely negligible factor for academic careers. Thus, if you for some reason end up having invested your valuable resources into producing a teaching case, why share it for free? So that others may save the time of producing a case themselves, instead writing that journal article and outrun you in the scramble for funding/professorships? No, you will rather use one of the existing, freely available teaching cases yourself! And there it is, the collective action problem that rendered the participants of the training so pessimistic: Every political scientist may want to teach with cases, but it seems hardly rational to produce a teaching case yourself.

Some US universities have cut through this issue by selling their teaching cases, e.g. the Harvard Kennedy School or the University of Washington. However, German university teachers usually do not have the necessary funds at their disposal to buy teaching cases for all of their students.

No way out

The thrust for case teaching at German universities led by NRW School of Governance rather relies on good will and altruism, even offering their own teaching cases in a Open Access database. A participant’s proposal to establish some kind of a journal for teaching cases – so writing a case at least increases your citation index – was ignored. Instead, the advised course of action was to sweet-talk talented students into writing most of the case study which then only needs some final touches by the university teacher. For my part, I certainly hope that the exploitation of students will not become the foundation of case teaching in German political science.

Therefore, while I see the many opportunities case teaching offers (and will certainly give it a shot in my own teaching), under the current institutional setup in German academia, I do not see case teaching becoming a success story in German political science.


For free political science teaching cases, check out Innovations for Successful Societies, a case collection by Princeton University

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