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The Case Study Method

One of the defining features of the HBS educational experience, the case study method is the pedagogy of choice for all of your first-year classes. If you are used to endless problem sets and/or clear resolution of issues at the end of a class, then the case study method may prove frustrating at first (as a former engineer, I can vouch for this personally). However, the method certainly has its strengths, and with the opportunity to read over 500 cases during your HBS career, you will undoubtedly become a master of the genre by the time you graduate.

What is the Case Study Method Anyway:
The case itself might be described as a written explanation of a business problem. Cases are generally seven to 20 pages in length, and usually involve a protagonist (either a person, company, or country) who has managed to get himself/herself/itself into some kind of trouble. As a case reader and analyzer, your job is to take a general manager’s perspective to discover the origin of the problem and recommend possible solutions.

This exercise will help to sharpen your ability to recognize important pieces of knowledge through active reading and analysis of written information. Undoubtedly, facility with this skill is essential to a good manager.

Your individual reading and analysis of a case, however, is only one part of the case method. In fact, the case method has four distinct parts: individual analysis; study group meetings; class discussion; and reflection and integration. Your individual analysis will only take you so far in your understanding of a case-the entire premise of the case method is that a case is not “cracked” by one person alone. After reading and trying to understand the case on your own, you will discuss it in your study group. You will then discuss it in the actual class room. Finally, after class you will reflect on the case and integrate the learnings into future cases.

Your case discussions with classmates both in and out of the classroom are necessary to bring a richer, more well-rounded perspective to the case. If you pay attention to the comments by your classmates when the case is discussed in class, you will almost invariably find that their professional or cultural background has given them an interpretation of case facts that differs, perhaps subtly, from your own. This is the beauty of the case method; diversity in the classroom is much more meaningful when diverse perspectives are given an audience. In this light, the weakness of a lecture-based learning model is clear; in that format, students are only expected to regurgitate the information they are given, with no real emphasis on interpretation and creative thinking.

Other Advantages of the Case Method:
One of the greatest shocks to a student used to lecture-based learning is that he or she actually needs to prepare for a case method class.

Because the concepts and numbers used in a case are not abstract but specific to the day’s discussion, an unprepared student cannot participate effectively in the class. And if pure desire for intellectual growth isn’t a proper motivator, the fear of cold calls and a heavy emphasis on class participation in final grades are sufficient to ensure a high level of preparation. In fact, I would estimate that on any given day, 95 percent of students in a given section are fully prepared. I would guess that this compares extremely favorably with most students’ prior educational experiences. A fully prepared class makes for an entertaining and engaging class discussion.

Another advantage of the case method is its ability to let you both teach and learn from your peers. Verbalizing a comment, which places you in the position of teacher, often helps you to internalize knowledge more fully. Furthermore, being challenged in your verbal arguments (a common case method occurrence) allows you to recognize more clearly the depth of your understanding of a particular subject.In addition to developing speaking skills, the case method also helps students practice the ability to be good listeners. Effective classroom dialogue can take place only through thoughtful consideration of and response to other students’ comments.

The case method helps students develop other important managerial skills, as well. In the process of discussion, students learn to analyze others’ opinions in real time and contribute to team problem solving by sharing their own

relevant insights. Such skills are universal and powerful skills a manager can use throughout his/her career.

Weaknesses of the Case Method:
Of course, if there were no cons, the pros wouldn’t be as meaningful.

Certainly there are weaknesses with the case study method. First, the case method takes time to get used to, especially for the vast majority of those who have not experienced this style in their previous academic experiences. Because of the traditionally overwhelming first-year academic load, adjustment to this learning style can be painful. The case method requires a great deal of reading, which puts slow readers (or readers who are not completely fluent in English) at some disadvantage.

Be prepared to put in some late nights at the beginning of the term.

Although it is difficult at first to know what to look for when reading a case, one eventually becomes used to the mechanics of the process of case preparation. When this occurs, the challenge is not to become bored by the system and to stay intellectually engaged with class discussion.

Job searches, an active social life, and other distractions make this more difficult than it sounds.

A common complaint of the case method is that it fails to teach some basic numerical analysis skills. This doesn’t mean that numerical analysis isn’t used in cases; however, the theory behind the numerical analysis is seldom explored in depth during class sessions. There are opportunities outside the classroom, through optional problem sets and review sessions by second-year students and teaching assistants, to supplement the minimal in-class numerical analyses and to help you assess your grasp of the basic quantitative skills required for a class.

Finally, the case method can be intimidating at first for those not used to participating actively in class discussion. The idea of voicing an opinion that is subject to dissection by 80 intelligent colleagues can cause anxiety for even the most confident students. Fortunately, HBS has introduced Foundations as a low-risk environment to help students with this transition.

Though the case method is not perfect, it has resisted many attempts at change and has remained a unique, effective way of educating managers. As with other learning models, some teachers are better than others at facilitating classroom discussion through the case method.

Ultimately, the case method places the burden of learning with the students, not only individually, but also as a class. Perhaps the best argument for the case method is its ability to teach future managers to be great leaders as well as great teammates.

February 18, 2003
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