Suddenly thrust into the role of the CEO, you find yourself with your company’s most recent financial statements in hand. As you scrutinize them, you spot some issues that trouble you. You start taking notes, perhaps re-evaluating the financial assumptions, re-running the numbers, or comparing your company’s performance to the market. You prepare meticulously, anticipating an intense line of questioning. Investor call? Shareholder meeting? No, just another day at Darden, where you are preparing for a class session using the case method.
In the case method, my classmates and I are presented with a business scenario, usually drawn from real life, that consists of a narrative, (usually) several financial exhibits, issues to identify and resolve, and questions to frame the process. By working through these cases and issues they present, we labor through the same data, materials and scenarios faced by the characters in the case in their careers.
In the case method, we students actively participate in the discussion and learning that occurs in the classroom. As a result, and anticipating that involvement, we actually start thinking like the protagonist in the case, perhaps the CEO-with-troubling-financial-statements. As we prepare for the class, the facts are real, the preparation time is waning and the need to get a correct answer that you can defend in a public forum becomes vital.
In the case method, the experiences, careers and education of the students are some of the building blocks of learning. For example, in several cases involving energy companies (generation or trading), our two class experts volunteered their experiences, fleshing out our understanding of the industry. At other times, our international students were able to give us better cultural perspectives on cases that took place outside of the US. In our classroom, every case so far has touched on an area where at least one student has worked or studied. Thrilled with the connections to their lives, my classmates have risen to the opportunity to enlighten us with their experiences.
In the case method, in my ten-month experience in Darden classrooms, there is nothing routine when a case is being presented. There are no dry, one-way lectures here. No scripted presentations given by rote to generations of MBA students. Rather, like real life, we are called on to present, argue, defend, critique and resolve significant business issues.
Some professors favor the sneak attack by starting the class with a cold call, calling out a student by name to immediately step up to that role of that CEO. Other professors seed the field of contemplation with a gradual warm-up, presenting a few facts, or soliciting the classroom for stage-setting contributions. The best cases feature an interaction of ideas that rivet my class’ attention, compel contributions and build to a crescendo as the issues are resolved.
The experience can be intense, and the learning is enduring. We are challenged on our assumptions, by professors and by fellow students. I recall one time valiantly presenting my theory of a case, only to have another student refute it with a careful analysis of a financial statement I had too casually dismissed. Another time, I recall the flash of insight that popped into my head based on another student’s comments, and I was proud to share these thoughts with the class.
In the case method, with the adrenalin of the arena flowing in my veins, these instructional experiences have been etched into my mind. Indeed, some of the utterances by my classmates have become semi-legendary among our class due to the unique point of view, particular insight, or memorable phrasing. If you were there, the economic model described as the “dirty sandwich” would probably still make you chuckle.
Not surprisingly, these cases and their experiences have become the common vocabulary of my cohort. So memorable are these interactions that, ten months into the program, we routinely refer back – by name – to characters, scenarios and insights from cases we studied months ago. Through the case method, these lessons are as fresh today as they were months ago.
Peter Vanderloo is an in-house lawyer at a well-known tech company in the first year of the Executive MBA program at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. His previous posts at Poets&Quants for Execs: