Posts Tagged ‘case method’

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.

Internship Abroad

This summer I am working in London for PRTM Management Consultants. I pursued this opportunity to build on my international business experience and gain some exposure to European culture. Also, the timing worked out well for my wife, who teaches high school in Charlottesville and was able to join me in London for the summer.

My first project was based in South Africa and lasted about one month. Since my wife arrived in London the day I left for South Africa, we arranged for her to travel with me for the first part of the project (see photo with elephant above). While she was touring South Africa, I was working with my project team to support the formation of an international joint venture. Specifically, my role was to perform an operational capabilities assessment of a South African company. Having completed similar projects with PRTM as a pre-MBA associate, it is clear to me that the first year Darden program did a great job of preparing me for this project. In particular, the following capabilities that I developed over the last 8 months at Darden significantly improved my effectiveness on this project.

Communication skills – for this project I participated in dozens of executive level meetings. The case method of teaching was good preparation for these meetings and during the first year program I participated in around 300 case discussions. These discussions were in many ways similar to executive meetings as both environments require that I make clear, concise, and helpful points at the appropriate time.

Broadened business background – the general management curriculum at Darden provided me with a broad background in understanding businesses. This proved extremely useful for a capabilities assessment project, where the real work is not in determining the company’s capabilities but in determining the level of capabilities required for success in the context of the specific business and industry. This is another area where the case method was very helpful; instead of diving into the derivation of particular formula (e.g., Little’s law), we broadened our understanding of business situations and industries by reading case after case during the first year.

Technical competence – being able to drill into the technical details of a business situation was another important skill for this project. In several instances I identified the relevant inputs of a specific business formula (e.g., inventory optimization) in the context of this particular company. Then, during interviews I would assess the company’s capabilities for managing these inputs. Darden helped me develop this technical competency by introducing concepts in technical notes, providing an environment to practice these concepts (learning team), and then reviewing these concepts during classroom discussion.

Increased confidence – the Darden program increased my confidence in assessing and managing business situations. Because of this increased confidence I pushed others a little harder then I would have otherwise, and ended up generating better results for our team. I attribute this increased confidence to the rigorous first year program coupled with the support provided by the Darden faculty and staff, my classmates, and my learning team.

Working Hard

There is a clear perception that Darden Students work harder then students at other business schools.  Although this image can make prospective students nervous, it has several positive implications for the Darden community including the high level of credibility it affords us with recruiters and alumni.  Many of the factors contributing to the ‘we work harder’ perception are part of the schools heritage and date back over 50 years.  Some of the most influential factors include:

Class schedule – the general belief is that Darden students prepare 3 cases per day, 5 days per week.  This perception falls somewhere between the actual workload and the workload from when Darden was founded.  In 1954, classes were taught 6 days per week and there were 3 cases every day.  I’ve even heard rumors that exams were administered on Sundays so they wouldn’t interfere with the class schedule.  The first year program for the class of 2009 averaged about 12 cases per week.  Our schedule alternated between 4 and 5 teaching days per week and 2 and 3 cases per day.  I’ve provided a snapshot of a typical Darden week in my weekly schedule post.

Case method – most classes begin with the professor selecting a student at random to present and defend their analysis of a business case.  With participation accounting for about 50% of final course grades, Darden students prepare for every class session.  In comparison, lecture format classes found at other schools may not require any preparation.  One advantage of working through cases during the quarter is the limited amount of studying needed for exams.  In fact, many Darden students only spend a couple hours studying for each exam.  I’ve written more on Darden’s teaching style in my case method post.

Attendance policy – students are allowed to miss two classes per quarter without a valid reason.  This policy helps ensure high attendance, which is necessary at a school where classroom discussion is an integral part of the learning process.  I remember the class of 2009 being generally supportive of this policy when it was introduced during first year orientation – apparently there was no expectation of skipping class.

Learning teams – part of the case method, these teams generally meet the evenings before class is taught.  Although these meetings take time, they ultimately reduce the total time most students spend preparing for class.  In my team we assigned each individual one case to analyze for the next day.  Each team member would then share the results of their analysis in the evening learning team meeting.  Therefore, on any given night I only analyzed one case in depth and then reviewed my team members’ work on the remaining cases for the next day.  In addition to their efficiency benefits, these meetings provided a great environment for learning how to effectively review other people’s work – an important skill for MBA graduates.

Image promotion – Darden’s students, alumni, and faculty often promote the ‘Darden students work harder’ perception through their own personal dialogues.  It’s often with a sense of pride that someone from the Darden community discusses the rigors of the program.

All these factors contribute to a culture in which working hard is valued.  The communication of this culture has a reinforcing effect as prospective students looking for an easy or ‘social’ MBA generally choose to attend other schools.  The result is a student body that expects to work hard for a well respected education.

This culture applies to our community as a whole and does not necessarily mean that Darden’s academic program is more time intensive than programs at other schools.  From my own observations, the hardest working students at Darden spend less than half their time on the academic program and devote huge amounts of energy towards club leadership positions or multi-industry career searches.

Choosing an MBA Program – Why Darden

My first step in selecting an MBA program was retrieving each of the published business school rankings. I then supplemented these rankings with additional criteria which were important to my decision. Finally, using the MBA program data published by US News, I was able to apply my criteria and weightings to each of the MBA programs and produce the following rankings:

Rank School
1 University of Virginia (Darden)
2 Harvard University (MA)
3 Dartmouth College (Tuck) (NH)
4 Stanford University (CA)
5 Yale University (CT)

The criteria and weightings used to produce these rankings are as follows:

Weight Category
30% Reputation
15% Selectivity
15% Learning method
15% Class size
10% Undergraduate degree
10% City size
5% Placement

Before discussing the weightings, let me provide some background on the originally published rankings and my additional criteria. When I first visited Darden it became apparent that the rankings did not capture many of Darden’s key advantages. For example, almost every visitor who observes a case discussion will agree that Darden offers a superior learning method. However, none of the published rankings use learning method as a criteria when comparing MBA programs. I therefore set about developing a more complete analysis that took into account this criteria along with three others. Here is what I choose:

Learning method – captures the teaching style and mix of learning methods employed by the MBA program. My preference was for programs that maximized the use of cases and active learning methods and minimized the use of lectures. This preference would also favor general management programs over more technically oriented programs (see The What and The How)

Class size – getting to know my classmates and having a sense of community within the program was an important objective, and one that would be significantly influenced by the class size. Within the 20 top schools as ranked by US News, the class size ranged from 171 at Emory-Goizueta to 910 at Harvard. Balancing between the advantages of a small and strong network vs. a larger and inherently weaker network, I gave the maximum score to schools with a class size between 250 and 350.

Undergraduate degree – having an undergraduate degree in engineering and a technical mindset, it was important for me to develop the less technical aspects of my business knowledge. Therefore, I preferred MBA programs that had a lower ratio of students with engineering, math, or science degrees. I was a little surprised at how much the MBA programs varied in this category. Within the 20 top schools as ranked by US News, the percentage of students with an engineering, math, or science degrees ranged from 21% at NYU-Stern to 61% at MIT-Sloan.

City size – in addition to the stronger sense of community enjoyed by schools in smaller cities, my wife and I also have a personal preference for smaller cities. Although this criteria is somewhat independent of the MBA program, the comfort of myself and family over the next two years was an important consideration. Therefore, I gave the maximum score to schools with a city size of under 1 million people.

In order to add these additional criteria the weighting of the original criteria must be reduced. This is fine because the reputation, selectivity, and placement scores suffer from measurement error and in some cases intentional rankings management. These are still good criteria, but should only account for about 50% of the total weighting for the following reasons:

Reputation – the US News reputation metric is based on a survey of MBA school deans and corporate recruiters. One drawback of this survey is the lack of a student perspective, which would provide some balance between the research ambitions of the deans and the teaching quality elements important to students. Additionally, corporate recruiters are concentrated on the first 1-2 years of employee performance, which favors more technical schools over the general management schools which are more focused on the long term horizon.

Selectivity – GMAT score and undergraduate GPA are the primary components of this category. From my conversations with professors and admissions staff, there is a fairly low correlation between these scores and a student’s performance as an MBA student. In fact, some admissions directors have expressed that students with the highest GMAT scores tend to have weaker essays. Admissions offices are constantly confronted with the moral dilemma of maximizing selectivity scores to improve the schools ranking vs. selecting the best student body.

Placement – this category is generally dominated by the average starting salary and bonus of graduating students. This metric can be further broken down to show that the mix of industries students pursue significantly impacts the placement score. In 2007, Darden students who accepted consulting and investment banking positions received about $21,000 more in first year compensation then the students who accepted general management positions. Thus, the placement category often reveals more about career interests of the student body then the schools overall placement effectiveness.

Tips for Visiting Darden

These are some tips for prospective students preparing to visit Darden. Given the unique teaching method at Darden, the class visit will probably be the most important part of your trip to Charlottesville. If you still need to register for a class visit, there are instructions on the Darden admissions webpage.

The following tips are based on my own experience visiting Darden and my experience hosting perspective students (about 5 students to date).

Use your student host as a resource – You will be paired with a first year student host for your class visit. Since most student hosts applied to several schools and were accepted to multiple MBA programs, they can provide some advice on how to choose between schools. Don’t be shy about asking your host which other MBA programs they considered and why they choose Darden. Some of us have really great stories on why we came to Darden.

Class visits are non-evaluative – As a student host, I can confirm that your class visit is not evaluative. Of course, if a prospective student does something completely outrageous (use your imagination), word could get back to admissions. But I’ve never heard of this happening. Having non-evaluative class visits allows prospective students to more naturally and openly engage with Darden students.

Participate in the section norms – Each Darden section has its own way of introducing guests. In my section we ask guests to introduce themselves (name, job, where you live) and tell an embarrassing story. Another section asks guests to select a piece of paper from a cup and then answer the question on the slip. Whatever the section tradition, participating will give you a flavor for Darden.

Class discussion is not a good indicator of student aptitude – Before coming to class, students work through the case individually and then with their learning team. The purpose of the class discussion is to validate individual analysis and resolve any confusion on the concepts. Students generally come to class with less than a 100% understanding of the case, as it is generally more efficient to tackle 80-90% of case issues in learning team and then rely on the class discussion to reach the 100% level. Therefore it’s expected that many students will come to class with questions on the case and concepts; this is efficiency not aptitude.

Be cautious about participating in case discussion – Learning how to productively participate in the case method takes time. Over the last three months, my section has evolved in how we discuss cases and some individuals have entirely changed the way they engage in the class discussion. If you have a question or something to add to the case, it’s probably safer to bring it up with your host after class.