About Case-Method Learning

Making the Most of Case-Method Learning schoolbuilding_facade125

Unlike EO’s other executive education programs, the EO/London Business School Growth Forum is a program focused entirely on case-method learning. Case-method learning is different from many other approaches to teaching and learning. It requires substantial advance preparation by the participants, and the quality of the learning largely depends on their collective effort and engagement that, when done well, results in a lively, engaging, and often memorable case discussion. Happily, case-method learning “sticks” much better than many other kinds of learning, due to its experiential nature, as it is often easy for participants to relate to the protagonist and the situation he or she faces in the case.

Because case-method learning is mostly about what people do – or should do in a particular decision setting – it is highly pragmatic and delivers considerable take-home value. In business settings, case-method learning is often found to be immediately applicable to one’s own business.

Why Case-Method Learning?

Most of today’s adult learners recall portions of our education that were characterized by “lectures,” in which a professor would tell us what he or she wanted us to know and to be able to dutifully repeat on an obligatory exam. Sadly, much of that information went in one ear and – after the exam – out the other. And sometimes there was little attention given to the application of what was presented. Assessment, all too often, was about what we had learned – what we knew, not what we could do with what we knew and had learned.

Fortunately, in today’s most engaging learning environments, other teaching and learning approaches have made the learning experience much more engaging and focused on doing rather on knowing.

What is Case-Method Learning?

Typically, the instructor has chosen a particular case for a particular reason. Often, the reason is to give the participants practice at applying some theory, tool or framework – a way of thinking about decisions like the one faced by the protagonist in the case, for example – that he or she wants the participants to learn. To that end, the case may well be accompanied by an article or book chapter that sets forth such a tool or framework.

In case-method learning in business school settings, a case typically tells a story, most often a real story, of something that actually happened to a real person or persons in a real company. But, at its best, the case doesn’t tell the whole story. It tells only a portion of it – half the story, if you will – and ends, often abruptly, at a moment in time when the protagonist faces a difficult decision about which way to go regarding a business decision. Should we buy or sell? Pursue this opportunity or pass on it? Promote the new employee who has done something differently than “the way we do things around here” or sack him.

It is then the job of the participants, stepping into the shoes of the protagonist and loosely led by the instructor, to discuss and decide what the protagonist should do about the dilemma he or she faces, based on the evidence provided in the case. (Note: It is generally not a good idea to Google the company to find out what the protagonist actually did. Doing so will rob you of an opportunity to think through the protagonist’s dilemma on your own, just as he or she had to do initially. You’ll probably find out what happened soon enough, from the instructor, anyway.)

The most engaging cases present thorny, difficult decisions where it is not very clear which alternative is best. Arguably, multiple alternative courses of action have some merit. At its best, the resulting debate – with some participants arguing “Go north” while others argue “Go south” – brings everyone into the discussion, with participants seeking to prove the merits, sometimes passionately, of their point of view.

Ready to Jump In?

Read about what you can expect to encounter in a case-method driven learning environment by following these links:

Benefits of Case-Method Learning

Preparing for a Case Discussion

Where Do Great Cases Come From?

John Mullins, Associate Professor of Management Practice, London Business School, prepared these notes as a guide for case-method learners. They arenot intended to illustrate either effective or ineffective handling of classroom teaching and learning. Copyright © 2014 London Business School and the National Entrepreneurship Network (NEN). All rights reserved. No part of these notes may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, photocopying, recording or otherwise without written permission of London Business School or NEN.