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Why HBS Developed the Case Method — and What It’s Like Today

Posted in Test Prep on May 19, 2011 by

If you’ve begun your b-school research, you’ve probably heard about the “case method.” Many business schools (Harvard perhaps best known among them) either base their curriculum on the case method or use it in some courses.

If you’re looking to apply to MBA programs, you should definitely be familiar with this pedagogical approach.

Here’s a primer:

What the case method is:

The case method takes its name from its use of case studies — that is, written descriptions of actual business situations. Case studies present real-world business or policy situations without obvious resolutions, as well as contextual information that would help inform an analysis of that situation (ex. financial statements and information about employees, products, markets, etc).

In case method instruction, MBA students are expected to read selected case studies and come to class prepared to discuss potential strategies or approaches to the business issue at hand. The professor guides the discussion, with the aim of helping the students develop a keener business judgement and a larger arsenal of problem-solving skills. According to HBS, students “place themselves in the role of the decision maker as they read through the situation and identify the problem they are faced with. The next step is to perform the necessary analysis – examining the causes and considering alternative courses or actions to come to a set of recommendations.”

The history of the case method:

Many credit Harvard with the origins of the case study. According to “Making the Case,” an article in Harvard Magazine, the method actually began with Harvard law school professors in 1870, and didn’t make its way to HBS until 1920, when its new dean (a Harvard Law School graduate) advocated for its use.

As the Harvard Magazine article states, “after convincing a marketing professor to create the first business casebook, [the dean] then provided funding for a broader program of casewriting, built around real business issues and yet-to-be-made decisions.” Today, many business schools — including HBS, Ross, Darden, and INSEAD — publish case studies which are used at MBA programs around the globe.

Why the case method:

A common criticism of MBA programs is that they don’t provide students with the real-world experience they need to be effective managers and decision-makers. The development of the case method was in part a way of addressing these concerns, and blurring the lines between the “real world” and the classroom.

As Darden professor Ken Eaders (an advocate of the case method) says in this Youtube video, Why Cases?, what students need is not to read business books. After all, anyone can do that. The case method is unique in that it gives students impromptu, in-the-trenches decision-making and leadership experience — and helps prepare them for “real life” post MBA.

The cons of the case method:

While the case method is a popular b-school approach, most schools incorporate it only partially into their curriculum. Schools that use it for close to 100% of their curriculum, like Harvard and Darden, are the exception rather than the rule.

Here are some common criticisms of the case method:

  • It works better for certain subjects than others (ex. the case method might not be as useful for finance as for strategy).
  • A class solely focused on cases does not allow time for students to develop an arsenal of tools and knowledge to prepare them to analyze those cases most effectively. While students get plenty of time to discuss cases, they have little time to cover the “nuts and bolts” of specific business disciplines.
  • In the case method, students learn primarily from their peers, rather than their professors — shouldn’t they be benefiting above all from the expertise of the instructor?

What case study classes look like:

Interested in checking out a case study class? Thanks to Youtube, you can. Here’s a video of a Darden case study class. You can also check out Harvard’s Inside the HBS Case Method 2010 video for more information.

What do you think of the case method? Do the schools that you’re applying to take this approach?