The case method, which was pioneered at Harvard Business School and is used predominantly at Darden, IESE and the University of Western Ontario (and to a lesser extent at Tuck), requires a specific way of learning. You are given a business case—which can often be more than 20 pages long—to read, and as you do, you try to metaphorically fill the shoes of the manager about whom you are reading and analyze the often incomplete data that he/she possesses, reaching your own conclusions about the problem that is presented. After you have completed your analysis, you meet with your learning team and share your conclusions (or perhaps your questions!), and then everyone discusses and debates each other’s position and helps one another learn. In class the next day, your professor may cold-call you, meaning he/she may select you to present and defend your analysis of the assigned case, and this will initiate a broader debate among all the students in the class. Ultimately, you will reach a point at which your professor, who serves as more of a facilitator than a teacher, will identify some key learnings, though the central problem described in the case may never be “resolved,” because the protagonist’s actions and choices will always be subject to second-guessing.
So, now that you know the basics of how the case method works, do you think this is the right method for you? Do you work well in teams? Would you be comfortable reading and analyzing 60 pages of information (or more!) during “three-case days”? Would you feel comfortable speaking in front of your peers if you were cold-called? Are you ready to have half your class grade be based on your classroom contributions?
Of course, case-based learning is not the only option in business school. Some MBA programs employ the traditional lecture method, in which a professor presents information in class and asks students questions along the way. At other schools, professors might use a case one day and then a lecture the next, or cases throughout one entire course and exclusively lectures in another, often depending on the subject matter of the class. Still other schools could be said to have taken the case method to the extreme by incorporating practical “action-based learning” into their curriculum; students in these sorts of courses actually consult to “live” businesses, analyzing a real-world, real-time problem and offering possible solutions, over the course of a semester or even a year. (Michigan Ross and Dartmouth Tuck are leaders in this area.)
So, as always, we want to clarify that neither method is necessarily better than the other, but one is likely a better fit for you and your talents or learning style. Do your homework and give some serious thought to which method (or methods) will best allow you to gain what you need from your target MBA program—you don’t want to spend $50,000 per year on tuition in an environment in which you cannot learn!
By Jeremy Shinewald, Founder/President, mbaMission