Posts Tagged ‘accounting’

Case Method Learning

Classroom discussion is only one setting for Darden’s case method of teaching. We also learn from individual preparation, learning team meetings, and post-class reflection. For me, the majority of ‘technical’ learning takes place during individual preparation. In this post I’ll outline some of my observations on the learning process at Darden. If you are looking for some specific information on how the case method is implemented at Darden, you may want to check out my earlier Case Method post.

The business elements taught at Darden naturally break down into two groups, as follows:

Technical skills – this includes elements such as creating an income statement, performing a discounted cash flow valuation, or analyzing the effectiveness of a marketing campaign. Most people first think of the case method in terms of technical skills and wonder how these skills can be effectively taught with class discussion. Generally, most technical learning takes place before class and we use our discussion time to review the material and learn from our mistakes. (see my Case Method post for an example)

Business background – this includes the broad knowledge and the general skills required for effective management. Examples include teamwork skills, industry knowledge, communication skills, and concepts like business acumen.

Both of these groups are taught throughout the Darden program. Naturally, some settings are better suited for building specific competencies. Below is my analysis of how Darden students learn these elements:

Setting Technical skills Business background
Individual preparation
  • Reading technical notes
  • Completing individual analysis
  • Reading cases set in different business environments (industry, location, etc.)
Learning teams & group work
  • Refining individual analysis
  • Working in teams and with peers
  • Picking up industry, cultural, and functional knowledge from learning team members
Class discussion
  • Reviewing techniques
  • Learning from your mistakes and the mistakes of others
  • Developing business communication skills
  • Building confidence in your capabilities
  • Identifying connections between classes/subjects

In addition to learning from the formal curriculum, I have developed my business background through involvement in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities at Darden.

Case Method

The virtually 100% case based learning is a clear differentiator for Darden. However, if you ask former business school students what they think about a 100% case based approach you will get two responses. From my experience, people that attended the 100% case based schools think it’s the best way to learn, and people that attended mixed schools (case and lecture) think a mixed approach is best. Here are my thoughts on how you can reconcile these two views:

1. Not all case based learning is the same. The level of case preparation seems to be much higher at Darden than mixed schools. My friends who attended mixed method schools recall that ‘cases are great because you can do well by skimming the case 60 minutes before class.’ At Darden, if you only skim the case you will not pass! Most classes at Darden start with the professor selecting a student at random (termed the “cold call”) to present their analysis. In an accounting class, this analysis may be very complicated and include identifying cost drivers and reallocating each indirect cost to make a product decision. On average I spend 1.5 hours preparing each case on my own and then another 1 hour reviewing the case with my learning team. After these 2.5 hours of preparation, I’ve already learned most of the concepts from the case. The case discussion is then used to validate my approach, understand other student’s perspectives, and learn how to explain my approach and the case concepts to other students. Learning how to articulate and explain concepts in easy to understand language has been a huge advantage of the Darden program.

2. The Professor makes a big difference. Teaching with the case method requires a different style of thinking. When giving a lecture, a professor presents concepts in a one directional and often highly technical broadcast format. In contrast, when teaching with the case method, students come to class already familiar with the concept from technical notes and have already analyzed a business situation using the concept. The professor’s responsibility is then to facilitate a discussion that addresses student questions regarding the concept’s application. Specifically, the professor needs the students who “get it” to explain the concept to students who haven’t yet grasped the concept. This is often a very difficult task for professors who spend much of their time focused on highly specific or technical research (i.e. proving the superiority of a new commodity pricing equation). These professors would find it natural to present a concept’s proof (via lecture), but have a hard time explaining the concept in easy to understand terms. In contract, my best case discussion professor’s have quickly learn each student’s strengths and strategically select which student to call on in order to keep the discussion on track.

3. Accounting is a great class for the case method. Most applicants that visit Darden ask how accounting can be effectively taught with the case method. To address this question, I consider two dimensions of the course topic – 1) number of acceptable case solutions, and 2) average student comprehension level. For financial accounting the number of acceptable solutions is relatively low, leading to the reaction that accounting would be best taught with a lecture. However, after reading a chapter in the financial accounting textbook, preparing a case, and then reviewing the case in learning team, the average student comprehension level coming into a case discussion is very high. This means that during the class discussion there are literally 55 students ready to explain a financial accounting rule to the 5 students that don’t yet understand. We usually start class by having several students’ complete different portions of the case on transparencies. Then class is conducted by sequentially presenting the transparencies and having students ask questions where clarification is needed. Our professor generally defers all questions to the student who presented the transparency and only steps in when we get stuck as a class.

The What and the How

Have you ever executed an analysis perfectly and then learned that the analysis didn’t hit the mark with regards to What was needed. My engineering education provided me with many tools, so I’ve always been good at knowing How to complete an analysis, but that’s only gotten me half way to the finish line.

A recent accounting class at Darden really brought this concept home. My class had just finished an accounting case where we had applied activity based costing to allocate fixed costs. Armed with this tool, most of us spent 2-3 hours in our next learning team debating the appropriate drivers to allocate the fixed costs in our next case. It wasn’t until we finished the allocations that we realized fixed costs were irrelevant to the current business situation. We spent our time determining how to allocate fixed costs rather than discussing what costs were important to business.

Every MBA program teaches the how and the what in different proportions, and it’s important to understand which elements you need to develop. If you have an engineering or technical education (like myself), you probably have a pretty good handle on how to complete an analysis and apply a framework. If you have spent time managing people and organizations, you might have your bearings with regards to what are the right tools to address a business problem.

Another consideration is the career field you seek to enter. If you are looking at a specific technical function such as asset valuation, you will probably need to bone up on how to apply different valuation tools. The more general and cross-functional the career, the more you will be challenged with determining what tools are appropriate.

Once you have an understanding of your development needs, you should consider the teaching focus of your target MBA programs. An assessment of the teaching methods employed can be a good indicator of the programs focus. I’ve included some examples below.

What: cases, class discussion, team discussion, simulations
How: text books, lectures, technical notes, excel models