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Harvard Business School’s Case Method Is Officially 100 Years Old

Harvard Business School Classroom

The case study method has long been a staple of the Harvard Business School (HBS) experience. The method begins with students analyzing business narratives and developing solutions that they defend in front of classmates.  Proponents of this teaching style believe it is the most effective way to teach students about leadership and management, along with honing their decision-making and presentation skills.  The case method has become so popular that B-schools around the world actually pay Harvard for access to its casebooks. In 2020, HBS sold more than 15 million cases.

“Cases expose students to real business dilemmas and decisions,” Nitin Nohria, the former dean of Harvard Business School, writes for Harvard Business Review. “Cases teach students to size up business problems quickly while considering the broader organizational, industry, and societal context. Students recall concepts better when they are set in a case, much as people remember words better when used in context. Cases teach students how to apply theory in practice and how to induce theory from practice. The case method cultivates the capacity for critical analysis, judgment, decision-making, and action.”

This year marks the 100-year anniversary of Harvard’s case study method. The Harvard Crimson recently dug into the history of the method and asked students and professors to highlight what it means to them.

HISTORY OF THE CASE STUDY METHOD

The first HBS case was written in 1921 by HBS graduate Clinton P. Biddle—just 13 years after the school was founded, according to the Crimson. At the time, HBS was intent on finding the most effective way to teach students about business, leadership, and management.

Experts say the case study method was related to similar approaches first pioneered by law and medical schools.

“The idea that you can learn inductively from problems and then generalize — that idea had already started in law and perhaps even in medicine,” V.G. Narayanan, chair of the MBA Elective Curriculum — or second-year curriculum — and an HBS professor, tells the Crimson. “The Business School was standing on the shoulders of giants.”

THE PURPOSE OF COLD CALLING

One of the important aspects of the case study method is cold calling, where a professor calls on a student at random and asks that student to offer input for class discussion.

While cold calling may seem pressuring to some students, HBS professor Aiyesha Dey says others actually find it useful.

“So when you actually cold call, I’ve heard students often say, you know, ‘I’m glad you called on me because I was not going to raise my hand, and because you called on me, the spotlight was on me, and I had to speak and it actually made me think, and I was very happy I could contribute,’” she tells the Crimson.

WHY IS THE CASE STUDY METHOD EFFECTIVE?

Many call the case study method one of the most effective ways to learn precisely because it offers the perfect level of versatility.

“It’s effective because it uses a narrative approach that promotes problem solving, and critical analysis while really engaging students,” New York University professor Kevin M. Bonney tells the Crimson.

HBS professor Rebecca A. Karp says the method is particularly useful in teaching students how form an argument using evidence-based analysis.

“As a student, it really forces you to support your perspective,” she tells the Crimson. “So you can’t just kind of have an opinion willy nilly, like you have to use the facts of the case to make your point. And that’s such an important lesson to learn in the world of business.”

For many students, the effectiveness of the case study method lies in the foundation that it sets for real world success.

“None of us are going to be going into jobs that are super clear-cut and where we know everything we’re expected to do,” HBS second-year MBA student Ilana R. Springer tells the Crimson. “It’s super important to learn about all of the tactical skills in the context of a greater ecosystem, and that’s what they’re teaching us to do.”

Sources: The Harvard Crimson, Harvard Business Review

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