The case method is a staple of the HBS MBA experience. Pioneered by our faculty, we think it’s the best way to prepare our students for the challenges of leadership. So how does it work? And how does it change how students think? We decided to have a few of our students give their perspectives on it. Here’s what Ashley Daniels (MBA’16), Jeremy Watson (MBA ‘16), and Ezra Okon (MBA ‘15) had to say about the case method and how it’s changed how they learn.
- The case method disrupts the traditional lecture-based classroom model
Jeremy: The case method is the primary method for learning at HBS. Each course is taught by evaluating and discussing the decisions and/or actions of a protagonist in a case. A case is essentially a story about a business problem. Each case contains background information, a business situation, and supporting data.
Ezra: The case method is a unique and exhilarating method of learning that depends as much on the caliber of the students as it does the teachers. Everyone comes to class armed with their creativity, insight, personal biases and backgrounds, and professional experience ready to propose a solution. Debates emerge, coalitions form, professors challenge, and everyone learns.
- The case method requires thorough, thoughtful preparation
Ashley: Prior to class, I meet with my amazing discussion group (a group of 6 people in different sections who are required to meet during the first semester of the first year, and can choose to continue meeting during the second semester of the first year) to talk through interesting aspects of the case and review the case assignment questions.
Jeremy: It takes a lot of time to make sure you’re prepared for the day’s cases. I like to break it down into a few steps. First, I review the first page of the case, which is usually an executive summary of the case. Second, I review the exhibits to identify any data that may be important in understanding the business context. Third, I review the discussion questions. Fourth, I read the case proactively looking for information that will provide insights to answer the questions. Fifth, I'll discuss the case with friends.
- It’s possible to learn tough business concepts through the case method
Ezra: The case method teaches you to take ‘textbook’ concepts you would learn in a lecture, and tests your ability to mold them to different situations, because no two business problems are exactly the same. Lectures and textbooks will teach you the basics, but the case method is really a special way to learn to apply concepts in a risk-free and exciting way. Cases are fast paced, and while the professor will sometimes review more difficult concepts, students rely on outside sources to supplement. When there are concepts that are more difficult to understand, there are always resources to help out (discussion groups, tutoring, section mates, professors, assistants, etc.). Discussion groups are diverse for a reason; mine was incredible and had a few people in every field ready to explain the more difficult finance, accounting, and operations concepts.
- The case method makes you think in new ways
Jeremy: You learn through the case method by first taking a position on a decision or action taken in the case. Taking a position requires you to build a case to support your argument. This usually involves analyzing financial statements, corporate memos, legal documents, etc. That is how part of the learning takes place. The major part of learning comes from the class discussion because each student comes in with their own position and their reasons for why they believe it is right. In most cases the position, supporting reasons, and argument of your classmates is different from yours. The debate over these differences is how most of the learning occurs.
Ezra: No level of pre-work can completely prepare you for the full 80 minutes of class. Once an argument that you didn’t consider is made (and it will happen), you need to learn to think quickly about whether it changes your answer, and be able to present your case while considering the new information. You will learn to process information quickly, to defend your position, and learn to be wrong now and then. The case method has changed the way I think about making decisions. Easy answers are hard to come by, but learning to surface a variety of perspectives helps a lot.
- The case method incorporates real business leaders into the classroom
Ashley: When a case protagonist visits class, the professor typically concludes the case discussion early to give the protagonist time to address the class. He/she will often provide an update on the salient challenge(s) he/she faced in the case, respond to specific comments made by students during the case discussion and end with an open Q&A session. One of my favorite case protagonist visits was in the first semester Leadership and Organizational Behavior (LEAD) course. My professor wrote a case about Mr. Jean-Claude Biver and the Swiss luxury watch industry, and this was the first year it was included in the MBA curriculum. Mr. Biver visited our class, shared some insightful and inspiring remarks, and took a picture with my entire section after class!