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The Case Method: Hype or Lasting Value?

The Case Method has long been a unique selling point for Harvard Business School. Where did this method come from? How do other Harvard Graduate Schools use the Case Method and how to students perceive its benefits? This article attempts to answer some of these questions.

The challenge of trying to educate a group of highly motivated students with educational material that will capture their attention while forcing them to remain intellectually nimble and ready to articulate their ideas is what the case method is really about. Although more than 80% of HBS classes are taught today using the Case Method, many students might be surprised to learn that HBS was not the originator of the Case Method. This distinction is given to Christopher Columbus Langdell, Dean of Harvard Law School, who instituted the Case Method in 1870. It was not until 1921 that the Case Method became a formal part of the HBS core curriculum. Several other Harvard schools, notably the Medical School and Kennedy School, also make use of the Case Method although the way in which it is used differs dramatically.

Once we leave HBS, the mark of the Case Method will undoubtedly remain with us throughout our careers and professional lives. The purpose of this article is to take a look at how our colleagues across Harvard make use of the Case Method, and draw on some their experiences as we recognize the value of the unique learning experience we enjoy each day in the classroom.

Medical School

Harvard Medical School’s use of the case method occurs primarily during weekly tutorial sessions during the first and second year. In these sessions, learning groups of 5-8 students discuss and debate diagnosis and treatment options for a fictional patient described in the case. An instructor serves as a facilitator, whose role is meant to propel discussion forward by asking questions, but not answering or interfering with the conversation. The goal is to prompt self-directed learning and create an environment of inquiry and intellectual curiosity. Unlike HBS where the entire case is given to students before class, at HMS each page is handed out to the group one at a time, with lengthy discussions to follow. Each paragraph is scrutinized for what new information or insights can be gleaned. With each page of the case, information about the patient’s background, family, occupation, symptoms, tests, and ultimately correct diagnosis is revealed. To mimic the diagnostic process and the challenge of determining which questions to ask a symptomatic patient, which lab tests to order, and how to proceed with treatment, the case method in this context is meant to simulate real life challenges where, instead of playing the role of a case protagonist, students read about a patient while playing the role of the doctor.

Although thoughtful discussion of patients in this setting can yield fruitful discussions about treatment and diagnostic challenges, the Case Method at the Medical School is not without its critics. First, some students question the value of student-driven discussions in revealing important educational lessons from complex patient diagnoses or test findings. Expecting students to pick up on important nuances in the context of diagnostic decision-making seems ridiculous at times. A similar criticism has been lobbed against technical business school classes such as accounting or finance which challenge students to learn important details in the context of wandering classroom discussion. Second, much like at HBS where the professor serves as a facilitator for classroom discussion, many tutorial facilitators respond to student questions by asking the group for the answer. After every tutorial, students develop a learning agenda and assign topics to one another to prepare for the next day’s tutorial session. For many students in search of confirmation for their intuition or with the desire to have their specific question answered, this tactic is highly frustrating.

Law School

The focus of the Law School is to train students to apply legal reasoning and form a solid foundation in understanding the adversarial legal process. At Harvard Law School, every class (about 78 students) is taught with the Socratic method and multiple cases are often discussed in the course of one class. Students describe the law school curriculum as “academically rigorous” in the sense that the responsibility is placed on students to provide facts for each of their statements. Unsupported or opinion-based statements are immediately countered by fellow classmates or instructors. One student describes the environment as a strong training ground for “dealing in confrontation.”

Unlike an HBS classroom, which values personal experience and opinion data in an HLS case and information legal formality and procedure drive the framework of case discussion at HLS. Unlike an HBS classroom, which values creation of community as and having challenges and disagreements that are typically cordial, some HLS students report that fellow classmates “grill” each other, challenging beliefs and rebutting arguments while putting fellow students in the proverbial hot seat. The collegial atmosphere at the Business School deflects much of the heated and impassioned debate that can occur in a Law School classroom. Says one student, classmates at HLS “come down on you hard if you are wrong.”

Kennedy School

The Kennedy School of Government (HKS) strives to develop leaders in the public, private, and non-profit sectors. HKS prides itself on applying techniques, such as the Case Method, to public policy matters and leadership challenges involving public servants as the central figure. Unlike HBS, the Kennedy School utilizes the case method in few of its classes and the protagonist is typically an elected official or the leader of a non-profit organization. Another notable contrast to HBS: case accountability at the Kennedy School ultimately rests with the public and “citizens” unlike the shareholders that we at HBS are comfortable referencing.

HKS develops its own cases to tackle pressing social and public health problems. For instance, an HKS case may focus on a topic such as “Rebuilding Rwanda after the Genocide,” “Hurricane Katrina: Responding to an Ultra-Catastrophe,” or “Workplace Safety” from the standpoint of a federal agency executive responsible. Discussions tend to be more “academic” and concept-based according to some HKS students whereas HBS is more of a problem-solving dialogue where “you are expected to come up with an action plan.” Many HKS students note that the community at the Kennedy School is collegial, as students shy away from direct confrontation with one another and instead approach obstacles with discussion and dialogue rather than with challenge or argument. One benefit to the HKS experience that students rave about and HBS can’t top: all Fridays off in the first year curriculum.

Conclusion

In many ways, one of the major teaching highlights of the Case Method is the education of working in teams or groups where everyone is responsible for learning. The patience required to speak when called upon, the pressure we face voicing our doubts in front of 90 other students, and the value of learning about an entirely new industry while applying entirely new skills and having to defend each action and assumption is what the Case Method imparts. While the impact that our learning environment has on the way we think is difficult to quantify and evaluate, it may be that the skills we use everyday in the classroom, outside of what’s written on the pages of our cases, will carry us forward for a lifetime.

February 17, 2009
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