Case Study Myths

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As I’ve spoken to prospective MBA over the years, I often get questions about teaching methods, and specifically about the case method. It’s clear from these conversations that many students don’t understand the case method, what it can do and, (perhaps just as important), what it can’t do. Here then are some of my views on the major myths surrounding the case method.

Myth #1 - A school either uses cases or it doesn’t. In reality, just about every business school uses cases in one form or another. Some use cases as the sole teaching method and others use cases to supplement lectures, discussion and other forms of teaching. Chicago Booth, for example probably uses cases in 80% to 90% of its classes. Cases are a useful way to generate discussion and show how important business concepts are applied in practice. Schools may also use cases differently. For example, at “case only” schools such as Harvard or Ivey, students are expected to infer general principles and frameworks (theories) from the case itself. At other schools, such as Chicago Booth, the general principles are taught first and then applied in the discussion of the case. Both types of schools teach the theories, but they do so in different formats.

Myth #2 - Cases are designed to teach how to handle a particular business problem.

Although cases do outline a specific issue facing a company, the case is really just a means to teach an important underlying principle or framework. Cases shouldn’t be viewed as a means to learn all the “answers” but rather as a way to understand key concepts. These concepts will help you ask the right questions and develop your own answers - perhaps for issues that are unlike any you’ve ever faced before. You will never be in exactly the same situation as the protagonists in the case, so the specifics of what they did or didn’t do isn’t nearly as important as understanding the underlying concepts that you can apply to your own issues and organization.

Myth #3 - Cases must be recent to be relevant. Following on myth #2, if a case is really about teaching a concept, then the particular company, industry, country of origin or timing of the case really doesn’t matter. All that matters is how well the case communicates and highlights the key principles. So, for example, a case the Holland Tulip craze in the 17th century may be more effective in teaching about financial speculation than a case covering the recent real estate bubble in the US. Again, the case is simply a means to teach a concept, not a recipe for dealing with a particular business problem at a particular point in time.

Myth #4 - The more cases the better. Remember - the goal of a case is to help you learn a particular concept and how it can be applied. Hopefully, you professor’s goal is also to help you learn and understand the concept. Ideally, he or she will use whatever methods and materials are most effective in the learning process. Many times, that might be a case. However, some subjects, such as the basics of accounting or data analysis, don’t lend themselves quite as well to cases and may be better candidates for lectures, simulations, or other teaching methods. The ultimate focus should be on what you can learn not on how the material is delivered.

I hope that this helps clarify and demystify the case method. There is no magic to cases, they are simply one teaching tool in a professor’s toolbox. Used effectively, they can lead to some amazing insights. Used inappropriately or poorly and they can simply lead to a lot of hot air. Your focus shouldn’t be on how many cases or what type of cases a school uses, but rather on how much you’ll learn - from whatever teaching method is used.

Bill Kooser, Associate Dean for Global Outreach