Nation & World

From Law School to Business School — evolution of the case method

6 min read

On a recent Wednesday morning, 90 high achievers from around the world prepared to get down to cases.

Their professor buzzed through the classroom like a worker bee. Armed with large, multicolored pieces of chalk, he organized his notes, copied pastel-coded facts and figures on the blackboard, and set up a film screen. Soon his students would be equally hard at work, but in a strictly cerebral way.

This day the instructor was inclined to be kind, giving the young man who would open the class discussion an early heads-up, allowing some time to prepare. Often in this setting, classes start with the heart-pounding “cold call,” where a student is put to the test without warning. The deceptively simple “start us off” translates into “as quickly and coherently and convincingly as possible, tell us everything known about this situation and give us your best insight.”

As well as being busy and congenial, Jan Rivkin, a professor in the strategy unit at Harvard Business School (HBS), was clearly engaging, his enthusiasm infectious, his sense of humor unmistakable.

He started with a brief refresher video, one he’d secured from a colleague on holiday in the Bahamas. The class watched their vacationing instructor drop to his knees on the beach as the tape rolled. With a straight face, he reviewed the finer points of his recent technology-operations-management discussion with the class, drawing a series of overlapping diagrams in the sand. When done, he promptly jumped into the ocean.

The crowd loved it, but it was the last light moment. For the next hour-and-a-half the class examined whether the Spanish clothing company Zara should update its retailers’ IT infrastructure.

During the ensuing discussion and debate, Jan Rivkin, deftly prodded, questioned, and encouraged his deeply engaged class.

It was just another day at HBS — and one of its standard case-classes. The case method is the primary mode of teaching and learning at the institution, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. In honor of its centennial, the School will host a series of events on Tuesday (April 8) that will include a number of panels, a birthday celebration, and a case discussion on the future of HBS.

While it didn’t begin with the School’s inception, the revolutionary instructional approach followed shortly thereafter. But it wasn’t an entirely novel concept. The model was actually borrowed from the Harvard Law School and Christopher Columbus Langdell HLS Class of 1853 and dean of the Law School in 1870, who pioneered the technique for the examination of Harvard Law School cases.

Later, at HBS, it was Dean Wallace P. Donham, a Law School grad familiar with the technique, who pushed for the full inclusion of the case method at the Business School, where it was altered and adapted to a business perspective. Since 1921, it has been a core part of the curriculum.

The method of teaching differs greatly from the traditional lecture format, in which students take notes as the professor speaks. Instead, students are engaged in a dynamic back-and-forth with one another and their professor, discussing a topic typically pulled from a relevant, real-life business scenario and featuring a dilemma or challenge. Sometimes, once the class has examined and discussed the case, the actual CEO or president of the company in question will appear in person to explain how the situation ultimately unfolded.

The case topics are wide-ranging and include everything from the world of finance to semiconductors to sweeteners to satellite television.

Some cases offer historic reflections, employing the lessons tragedy imparts. Cases have been written, for example, about the space shuttle Columbia’s final mission in 2003 and the management decisions made prior to its fatal re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, Abraham Lincoln’s leadership during the Civil War, and the management of national intelligence prior to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Students are given an overview of the case’s material to read ahead of time. The packets, roughly 20 to 25 pages long, include a list of facts, an outline of the challenge at hand, and a history of the company or situation in text, charts, and graphs, all compiled into a neat brief.

More than 80 percent of HBS classes are built on the case method. Each week students prepare approximately 14 cases both alone and with the help of study groups. But in the end they are on their own. In class, it is up to the individual to articulate his or her argument and persuade others of its merits. A hefty 50 percent of a student’s grade is determined by class participation, so taking part in the conversation is crucial. Students raise their hands energetically, trying to get quality “air time,” as they call it. Two important unwritten rules, self-enforced by the students themselves: Never speak unless you have something valuable to contribute, and keep it brief.

The teaching technique most effectively prepares the CEOs of tomorrow for what they will inevitably face in the real world, say the professors who employ it.

“Getting a piece of material, having to sift through it, figure out what’s important, … come to a point of view, [then] come to class both prepared to argue that point of view … [and] prepared to listen and be open to others’ viewpoints — those are the skills that the business world demands, and via the case method they get to practice those in the classroom,” said Michael J. Roberts, senior lecturer of business administration and executive director of the Arthur Rock Center for Entrepreneurship.

Teaching the case method is an art in itself, and it takes time to develop. New professors — be they former Fortune 500 executives or Ph.D. candidates — are put through their paces in a weeklong summer training session. There, they take on the roles of both students and teacher, form study groups, prepare cases, discuss the teaching method, and take turns at the helm leading a selected case.

In addition, throughout the year, new and old faculty alike have at their disposal the C. Roland Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning. Founded in 2004 to support and promote teaching excellence at HBS, the center offers workshops, one-on-one coaching, and a variety of other support services to help professors become case-method instructors.

The case method, Rivkin said, helps students “develop their muscles for making decisions — something they get paid to do later on — exposes them to a wide array of industries and experiences, and allows them to discover important ideas for themselves. There’s a huge power in self-discovery. Something you figure out yourself stays with you forever.”