Professors' Use of Case Discussion Leadership at Harvard and Darden MBA Programs: Characteristics of a Successful Case Discussion

By Smith, Rachel A. | Academy of Educational Leadership Journal, April 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Professors' Use of Case Discussion Leadership at Harvard and Darden MBA Programs: Characteristics of a Successful Case Discussion


Smith, Rachel A., Academy of Educational Leadership Journal


ABSTRACT

The purpose of this study was to identify the key characteristics of a successful case discussion. The participants of this field-based case study were finance professors from Harvard Business School and the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, two top-ranked MBA programs that have used case discussion leadership as their primary philosophy of teaching and learning for many years. The methodology employed was a qualitative field study which utilized interviews of the finance professors, observations of case discussion courses, and analyses of relevant program documents. This article provides specific findings regarding the characteristics of a successful case discussion which can assist in developing the abilities and skills of educators to implement in the classroom across all disciplines.

INTRODUCTION

This study attempted to discover how professors in two top-ranked MBA programs describe and implement case discussion leadership in the classroom. The participants of the study were finance professors from Harvard Business School and the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, two top-ranked MBA programs that have used case discussion leadership as their primary philosophy of teaching and learning for many years. The methodology employed was a qualitative field-based case study which utilized interviews of the finance professors, observations of case discussion classes, and analyses of relevant program documents. This paper will present the primary qualities revealed as vital to the success of a case discussion. It will provide the relevant responses from interviews with the professors as well as observations from the processes and themes that were identified during actual case discussions in the classroom. The themes of successful case discussions revealed during this study include student preparation; multiple and diverse perspectives considered; quality, depth, and repetition versus quantity of coverage - effective, not efficient; energy, collaboration, and community in the classroom; maximum engagement of students; appropriate cases discussed; students discover a need for and find value in the learning experience; environment of respect and support versus fear and intimidation; learning - deep, life-long, applied, retained, and personal; emphasis on application, decision-making, and developing an action-plan; the graphic presentation and use of technology, and overcoming challenges of case discussion leadership. Each of these themes will be discussed with supporting detail of the narrative from professor interviews and relevant observations from case discussions in the classroom.

STUDENT PREPARATION

Interviews were conducted with professors at University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business and Harvard Business School. The interviews with the professors identified the following information about their views of student preparation for case discussions. Each of the professors discussed the vital importance of preparation on behalf of the students involved in case discussion classes. Professor Matthew McBrady stated, "Students must be prepared in order for an effective case discussion to take place." Professor Ron Wilcox stated that "the case discussion will not be successful without adequate student preparation. This allows them to contribute and challenge other students." Professor Nabil El-Hage stated that students will "lose a lot of learning if they are not prepared."

Classroom observations were made at both Darden and Harvard Business Schools. The classroom observations at Darden and Harvard demonstrated that the students are "ready to go" as soon as the case discussion begins. The observations revealed the following information that indicates the high level of preparation by students. The professor generally began the class with a question and immediately many hands were raised to answer the question. …

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