How They Teach The Case Method At Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

Harvard Business School

The spontaneity and dynamism of a good case discussion can obscure the amount of teaching preparation required of professors, according to an online HBS guide to teaching the case method. “It is the very thoroughness of the preparation of class content and process that enables greater flexibility in the discussion,” the guide says.

Case-based classes are essentially 90-minute discussions of the case, with professors asking questions and making comments, and students offering analysis and opinions. Many professors compile a “call list” before class, based on previous participation by individual students, and on any particular expertise a student may bring to a discussion. Professors may prompt debates among students, or put them into roles of players in the case. Sometimes professors need to step in to keep student discussions on track when, as the HBS teaching guide says, student input has “the potential to derail the discussion, as when a comment is tangential, long-winded, incorrect, confusing, inappropriate, or offensive.” The guide calls such situations “special challenges.”

A “no right answer” principle underlies case discussions, to elicit maximum creativity, but there are definitely some wrong answers to any question, and professors may draw on their own expertise to interject benchmark knowledge.


“You never ever, ever, ever enter a price war if you don’t have credible low-cost position,” Rivkin tells a class in the HBS video. “If you ever do that and I learn about it I will deny that I ever knew you at Harvard Business School.”

Professors are especially gratified when class ends but students stick around unable to pry themselves away from lively case discussions, Kenny says.

Top B-schools all use the case method or a variation of it to some extent – the University of Virginia Darden School also relies heavily on it, reporting that 75% of its MBA programming is based on the method – but the technique is not without its critics. Former Rochester University Simon School professor Ronald Yeaple argues in a 2012 Forbes essay that students’ competition for “air time” in class can lead to superficial and naive analysis. And indeed, HBS’s own guide, in a section on evaluating student participation in classes, notes that “more frequent participation is often a positive factor, although excessive attempts to comment may lead to lower-quality contributions and may reflect a bias toward speaking over listening.” Yeaple also contends that case studies are inefficient for teaching quant courses such as finance, accounting, and statistics. Still, Yeaple admits that “it is hard to argue with the success of such outstanding schools as Harvard and Darden.”

HBS undertook the podcast project in part to showcase faculty work in an era of information overload. “There is so much great content out there these days,” Kenny says. “Even with a brand like Harvard Business School it’s still hard to break through and get people’s attention.”

HBS data suggest that in general, its podcasts get a lot of traction, and Kenny says it appears this media form is becoming popular again, likely because of its mobility – listeners can take in a podcast while driving, or working out at the gym.


Cold Call is intended to capitalize on the school’s apex position in case publication, to provide a learning opportunity that strengthens the HBS brand and can’t be replicated, Kenny says. Kenny believes the project will deliver value to practicing businesspeople, including HBS alumni who retain a strong affinity for case-based learning, and for aspiring MBA students who can get familiar with a major element of most MBA programs. “If they’re thinking about going to business school, they know they’re going to have to read a lot of cases,” Kenny says.

In the first podcast, “Dangerous Mines: Saving Lives Through Leadership,” HBS organizational behavior professor Gautam Mukunda outlines his case on Cynthia Carroll, a 1989 HBS MBA and former CEO of mining behemoth AngloAmerican. The case opens with Carroll, 18 years after receiving her MBA, sitting in a helicopter on a landing pad in South Africa and receiving news that yet another hard-rock miner has been killed in the most dangerous of her firm’s South African platinum mines.

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