The Case Method: Alive and Thriving or On its Way Out?

The case method approach has come under increased scrutiny of late. Established by Harvard Business School more than a century ago, it is still widely used at top MBA programs worldwide.  Harvard relies on the case method for approximately 80 percent of its instruction, and students at Darden School of Business are exposed to more than 500 cases in a variety of industries and functions during their time at the UVA MBA program.

By definition, case studies are authentic business or management scenarios that present executives with a problem or uncertain outcome. The case lays out the situation in the context of the players, events and issues that influence it, and enables students to identify closely with those involved. The next step is to perform the necessary analysis””examining the causes and considering alternative courses of actions to come to a set of recommendations.

If the case method approach is so useful, why doesn’t every top business school embrace it wholeheartedly?  In an article that created quite a buzz in management education when first published, Harvard Business School professor James Heskett pointed to concerns that the case method is too time-consuming, ill-suited to teaching quantitative techniques, and based on the idea that there’s no right or wrong answer””only some that are better than others.

Columbia Business School uses cases about 40 percent of the time, and in a recent interview with MBA Channel, Vice Dean Amir Ziv explains where he thinks the approach succeeds, and where the criticism is valid. For Ziv, the obvious advantage is that the case represents a real-life situation and forces students to solve it.

The second big advantage,” he adds, “Is that a case draws on everyone’s experience. If you have 60 students and everyone has four years of work experience that is many more total years than what I have myself. In the case method everyone benefits from the shared experiences of everyone else in the class.”

As for the downsides, Ziv agrees that sometimes the problem is efficiency. “In order to teach two plus two, I don’t need a case””I can teach that in a lecture, which is less time-consuming,” he says.

Another big problem: most cases are already too complete. When handed a 30-page analysis, students already have everything they need to know and don’t need to do any additional research. “That is artificial and doesn’t allow students to think what additional information they might need and how to get it,” Ziv notes.

In order to deliver a good case analysis you need lots of preparation from your students, Ziv adds. “If people are stressed or tired or do not prioritize academics, they don’t prepare, it shows, and all the benefits of the case method are absent.”

Columbia has come up with an alternative method called the decision brief that teach students to handle tough, real-world issues by providing them with incomplete data that forces them to become resourceful, and hence, better decision-makers.

“In one case we hand out two emails and one picture. You have to figure out what the issue is, who on the team should work on what, and what other information you need,” Ziv explains. “That’s how we overcome the weakness of the case method: by giving our students incomplete and unstructured information.”

The case method approach is considered a proven winner because it brings the subject to life, brings business back to reality, and allows you to benefit from the professional experiences of a diverse group of classmates. But judging by the interview with Ziv, and other media stories on the issue, this method may not be for everyone.

Are you applying to school that relies heavily on the case method approach? Or, are you looking for an MBA program with a broader teaching style that combines lecture and experiential learning? We’d love to hear feedback from our readers on the usefulness of this teaching approach, so please leave us a comment with your opinion below.

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