The Case Method at the Harvard Business School: Papers by Present and Past Members of the Faculty and Staff

By Malcolm P. McNair | Go to book overview

II. Development of a Student under the Case Method

W. WALLER JR. CARSON

It is the purpose of this paper to describe the case method of instruction and to trace the reaction and development of a student by examining the author's own recent experience as a student at the Harvard Business School. With this examination as a basis, the unique values and limitations of the case system are discussed.

Perhaps the most striking experience of the student confronted with the case method for the first time is the discovery that the preparation of most assignments differs from any in his previous school or college training. I found that I was not held responsible in a retentive way for a given body of facts or propositions upon which subsequent work would depend. The primary responsibility in preparing for each class session was for a common-sense analysis of the relationships involved in a printed description of a situation in a business concern. Such a description, called a "case," seemed most often to be written from the point of view of one person within the company's organization. Typically, it included a statement of the nature of the industry and perhaps some background information about the company's operations and organization, along with such quantitative and other factual information as might be available to the individuals chiefly involved, whether or not pertinent. The inclusion of irrelevant information in the cases was an important device to force us to think about selection of information in making our analysis. The case frequently dealt with a situation in which some decision seemed called for or had just been made. Sometimes the situation as described was such that the responsible executive was not aware of an impending decision or problem. But generally the more subtle cases, in which we students were required to decide whether or not an issue was immediately present, were left for later in the program. In our early assignments a few leading questions were appended to the cases to help direct us to the significant areas of the situation and guide us in preparation for class discussion. Later in the program, as we gained proficiency in analyzing cases, specific questions were omitted, and we were forced to seek our own means to get into the heart of the problem.

From the first assignment, we felt an intense interest in the cases, both because of the uniqueness and freshness of the material itself and because of the competitive spirit prevailing among us. My own preparation for a class generally consisted of careful reading, some experi

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