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Mastering The Case Method: A Prof’s Advice

Gregory Fairchild of the Darden School of Business. U-Va. photo

Gregory Fairchild of the Darden School of Business. U-Va. photo

The anxieties produced by the “case method” — the approach to teaching that requires students to put themselves in the role of decision maker and identify a problem that needs solving — are legendary. B-school graduates and first-year MBAs alike have long bemoaned the “cold call” style of classes, where the unprepared can find themselves sweating it out in front of their cohort. Many have chosen a school in part because its program doesn’t lean heavily in the case-method direction.

But students shouldn’t worry so much, says Gregory Fairchild, the E. Thayer Bigelow associate professor of business administration at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business and an acknowledged top case-method instructor. Instead, he says, they should prepare.

MOST OF THE TALKING IS DONE BY THE STUDENTS

A primer on case: Invented at Harvard in the 1920s, it is, according to Harvard Business School’s website, “a profound educational innovation that presents the greatest challenges confronting leading companies, nonprofits, and government organizations — complete with the constraints and incomplete information found in real business issues — and places the student in the role of the decision maker.” Students are asked to analyze real-world business challenges from the perspective of an actual business leader confronted by it, then provide solutions, all with little input from the instructor. In case classes, students do 85% of the talking.

Harvard, where case was invented, still leads all top MBA programs with about 80% of its teaching delivered via cases (compared to 70% at IESE Spain and 50% at UC-Berkeley’s Haas School and North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, for example). Close behind is Darden, where Gregory Fairchild teaches and where 75% of the MBA is taught by case.

SCARY THE FIRST FEW TIMES, AND THEN …

Fairchild says he remembers when case scared him as an MBA student at Darden. But eventually he realized it doesn’t have to be scary — and in fact can be exhilarating, and even change the way students debate and think about business dilemmas.

“You’re struggling and you’re worried because while you’ve been told this is a different way of learning, it feels really like being out on a tightrope,” says Fairchild, associate dean for Washington, D.C.-area initiatives and academic director of public policy and entrepreneurship at Darden. “As I like to tell people, it’s learning backwards. We give you the problem, and then we ask you to come forward the next day with your thoughts about how to solve the problem. But we haven’t given you any of the texts or the notes, we haven’t drilled you, you haven’t been asked to do what’s typical in education up to that point. Education up to that point is typically, we give you a body of knowledge, we ask you to read it, you come to class, somebody talks to you about that body of knowledge, you kind of join in, but when we test you on that body of knowledge you can show mastery.”

While case turns the traditional model on its head, Fairchild says, it’s also an exciting way to learn — and can even become addictive.

“It’s anxiety-creating but it’s exciting in that same regard,” he says. “Let’s not lose that after you’ve done it a few times, it’s scary, but that fear is actually driving a certain level of mystery. There’s a reason stories are written the way they are, to engage you — and so it’s more engaging in that sense.

“You also begin to learn that while some lectures will be chock full of information, at the same time the person delivering them can be kind of monotone,” Fairchild says. “Case has all the unexpected parts of ‘Who’s going to speak, when are they gonna speak, what they’re gonna say, are they gonna be right, are they gonna be wrong?’ So I want to say that it’s anxiety-producing, but it’s really fun.

“I can tell you when I went back and did my Ph.D. and I had to be back in a lecture setting, I was so desirous of being able to speak rather than to sit and listen. It was very difficult for me.”

BE PREPARED FOR A JOURNEY

The best way for an MBA to adapt to learning by case? Write a case yourself, Fairchild says. He’s written 83.

Fairchild wrote his first case when he was still an MBA student at Darden, traveling to Soviet-era Russia to study the business model of a Pizza Hut in Moscow.

“Once you know more about how cases are written, you begin to know how narratives work,” Fairchild says. “There’s any story you could take and you construct that narrative with a certain type of discussion in mind. So knowing how cases are written and then what they’re meant to do in the classroom, I would say: In a typical discussion you’re gonna expect that there’s gonna be three hardy, 20- to 25-minute discussions about three topics, so try as best you can to figure out what those three topics will be.

“The first thing I would say is, it’s not a right-or-wrong situation, it’s a conversation,” Fairchild advises. “You’ve got to come into this thing and know that it’s gonna be an hour and a half of discussion or however long your class might be, and that the discussion is going to lead you somewhere — but again, the old way, you come in, you have the answer, somebody says, ‘What’s the answer?’ and you give it, that’s not gonna be the way things are gonna go. So you want to be ready and patient with the idea that it’s a journey.”

PITFALLS OF TEAMWORK

Most case method courses work similar to the model set out at Harvard. Students are presented with a case, they put themselves in the role of the decision maker, and they identify the problem they are faced with. Next, they perform the necessary analysis, examining causes and considering alternative courses of action that lead to a set of recommendations.

Class participation is key. So is the ability to work in teams. But teamwork can present pitfalls — the biggest of which, Fairchild says, is the inclination to get answers quickly, to close group meetings quickly, to finish assignments quickly. It’s a natural desire, he says, especially among students who are otherwise swamped with coursework and other obligations.

Recalling his own MBA experience, Fairchild says it’s normal to want to divide tasks within a group according to perceived expertise — let the banker handle the finance questions, for example. “And we did that for sure, and that ends up being wrong,” he says. “And my advice is, try to have in your mind in the group this idea that it is again this discussion and journey, and the banker or the quant person in the group may not understand what the case is really about even if they happen to know something about the case topic.”