Monday, April 16, 2012

Understanding the case method .. Student read ..

Understanding the Case Method

The case method is a popular way of teaching at b-schools, though the degree to which they use it can vary.  B-schools like Harvard Business School and University of Virginia's Darden School of Business in the US,Richard Ivey Business School in Canada and IE in Spain are known for their case method pedagogy and use it as their predominant mode of teaching. At HBS and Darden, students go through more than 500 cases during the 2 year Full time MBA.

These b-schools are committed to conducting extensive research and have built exhaustive cases database. While HBS has a 13,000+ strong cases repository, Richard Ivey's Ivey Publishing adds a whopping 250+ cases to its 8000 strong database every year.

 So, what sets their teaching methods apart? Unlike in the lecture based teaching which is faculty led, in a case study, the entire class participates. Cases are based on real world business problems faced by real companies. Students are expected to step into the managers' shoes and use their analytical, decision-making and communication skills to arrive at possible solutions.

 Darden Student Anand Rao (2009) blogs that case method should be looked at, "as a three stage process. First 'prepare', second 'participate and engage' and third 'reflect'. Case-method will only be effective when one chooses to actively participate in the conversation."

Class participation is vital to leading a case discussion successfully. At HBS, 50% of a student's grades for many courses are based on the quality of class participation.  The class size is kept large at 90 students, to make it conducive to discussing cases at an exhaustive length. Additionally, unlike in some other b-schools, students can not waive core classes, even if they have studied the course in undergrad. The advantage is that they benefit the entire class with their perspectives on the case and therefore make the discussion richer and livelier.

At Darden, students are grouped in learning teams of 5-6, based on their diversity. After spending time on cases individually, the learning teams get together to discuss the case for class-discussion. By the time students are in the class, they have individually identified problems, analyzed data and outlined action points and refined their ideas through team discussion. In the classroom, the professor opens the discussion by "cold calling" any one student- asking her/him to lead the discussion for that case. This builds pressure on the students to come prepared to class and gives them a great opportunity to lead a real business like situation. 

Diversity of the class incredibly helps in adding depth to the discussion. Most US b-schools have a 30-35% international class-composition, while it is 90% at IE. International students because of their experiences in varied settings, can bring out entirely new perspectives to the case discussion.

The real learning takes place when students are willing to listen to others' perspectives and are flexible enough to adapt to others' points of view.  Compared to the faculty-focused, lecture based study,students become equal contributors in each other's learning, and the faculty takes on the role of a facilitator in this process.

Detractors of the case method feel that with the focus shifting to student-based learning, there is less learning from professors. However, this does not undermine the professor's role in ensuring a successful case discussion. They are like directors of a theatrical production and the class, their stage.  Other than planning on the case to discuss a particular concept, the faculty steer the direction of the discussion by asking thought provoking questions and promoting debate, while managing the allotted time for a logical conclusion.   They can also make the class more interactive through role play- students are assigned roles of stakeholders within the case study and are encouraged to think and communicate like them.

Additionally, faculty can ensure added depth by letting students who have the industry/market perspective or have been in a similar situation in a different environment, a chance to speak. At HBS, faculty use class cards – background descriptions of every student- to get them to chip in at crucial moments.

The most engaging  case studies are the ones that are followed by debates much after the class is over– this could also last upto weeks – these are a definite high point for any professor. Therefore, reflection on the case is as important and the insights can prepare students to tackle similar situations in the future.

The case method is an excellent platform to develop skills like dealing with ambiguity, analyzing the same problem with different outlooks, and taking a stand in tough situations. The learning team/ study group model enhances team building and communication skills – all of these skills are required by managers of tomorrow.

For those who have experienced the case method, there could be no other way to learn.

Participating in Class Discussion of a Case Analysis: (

 Classroom discussions of cases are sharply different from attending a lecture class. In a case class students do most of the talking. The instructor's role is to solicit student participation, keep the discussion on track, ask "Why?" often, offer alternative views, play the devil's advocate (if no students jump in to offer opposing views), and otherwise lead the discussion. The students in the class carry the burden for analyzing the situation and for being prepared to present and defend their diagnoses and recommendations. Expect a classroom environment, therefore, that calls for your size-up of the situation, your analysis, what actions you would take, and why you would take them. Do not be dismayed if, as the class discussion unfolds, some insightful things are said by your fellow classmates that you did not think of. It is normal for views and analyses to differ and for the comments of others in the class to expand your own thinking about the case. As the old adage goes, "Two heads are better than one." So it is to be expected that the class as a whole will do a more penetrating and searching job of case analysis than will any one person working alone. This is the power of group effort, and its virtues are that it will help you see more analytical applications, let you test your analyses and judgments against those of your peers, and force you to wrestle with differences of opinion and approaches.

To orient you to the classroom environment on the days a case discussion is scheduled, we compiled the following list of things to expect:

  • Expect students to dominate the discussion and do most of the talking. The case method enlists a maximum of individual participation in class discussion. It is not enough to be present as a silent observer; if every student took this approach, there would be no discussion. (Thus, expect aportion of your grade to be based on your participation in case discussions.)
  • Expect the instructor to assume the role of extensive questioner and listener.
  • Be prepared for the instructor to probe for reasons and supporting analysis.
  • Expect and tolerate challenges to the views expressed. All students haveto be willing to submit their conclusions for scrutiny and rebuttal. Eachstudent needs to learn to state his or her views without fear of disapproval and to overcome the hesitation of speaking out. Learning respect for the views and approaches of others is an integral part of case analysis exercises. But there are times when it is OK to swim against the tide of majority opinion. In the practice of management, there is always room for originality and unorthodox approaches. So while discussion of a case is a group process, there is no compulsion for you or anyone else to cave in and conform to group opinions and group consensus.
  • Don't be surprised if you change your mind about some things as the discussion unfolds. Be alert to how these changes affect your analysis and recommendations (in the event you get called on).
  • Expect to learn a lot from each case discussion; use what you learned to be better prepared for the next case discussion.

There are several things you can do on your own to be good and look good as a participant in class discussions:

  • Although you should do your own independent work and independent thinking, don't hesitate before (and after) class to discuss the case with other students. In real life, managers often discuss the company's problems and situation with other people to refine their own thinking.
  • In participating in the discussion, make a conscious effort to contribute, rather than just talk. There is a big difference between saying something that builds the discussion and offering a long-winded, off-the-cuff remark that leaves the class wondering what the point was.
  • Avoid the use of "I think," "I believe," and "I feel"; instead, say, "My analysis shows " and "The company should dobecause " Always give supporting reasons and evidence for your views; then your instructor won't have to ask you "Why?" every time you make a comment.
  • In making your points, assume that everyone has read the case and knows what it says; avoid reciting and rehashing information in the caseinstead, use the data and information to explain your assessment of the situation and to support your position.
  • Bring the printouts of the work you've done on Strat-Tutor or the notes you've prepared (usually two or three pages' worth) to class and rely on them extensively when you speak. There's no way you can remember everything off the top of your headespecially the results of your number crunching. To reel off the numbers or to present all five reasons why, instead of one, you will need good notes. When you have prepared thoughtful answers to the study questions and use them as the basis for your comments, everybody in the room will know you are well prepared, and your contribution to the case discussion will stand out.

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