The HBS Case Method – Effective learning or an effective marketing scheme?


The Harvard Business School (HBS) teaching approach is exclusively based on the case method (find out more on HBS website here or on youtube here). Before coming to HBS, I was a bit skeptical about it. How do you teach accounting using the case method? Turns out, it works. It’s even incredibly effective. And accounting has since become my favorite class. Here’s a detailed description of the process of a typical HBS case and class.

A typical case is about 20 pages long, half of them containing plain text and the other half filled with pictures and data. A written case looks something like this:

  • 1 page high level overview of the problem (“it’s early in the morning and John X, Vice-President of company Y, looks out of the window of his Manhattan. He is worried about the upcoming decision he has to make. Should he invest in this new technology or not?”)
  • An overview of the company’s background and, if relevant, of the main character in the case (“Company Y was launched in 1968 by 2 former farmers. They focused on high-quality products and services.”)
  • A more detailed description of the actual problem we are facing (“using a certain accounting method, the company was able to boost its revenues by $x million, however…”)
  • A set of exhibits and data sets for detailed analysis

Prior to class, students are required to read and prepare the cases up front. Discussion groups of 6 students are set-up at 8am in the morning to further analyze the cases for the upcoming day. Then class starts, with the professor cold-calling a (random) student. The student will defend his/her point of view, before the discussion is being opened to the rest of the class. Most classes end with a conclusion of the case, or with a summary of what actually had been done by the company. On some occasions, one of the persons involved in the case would come and address the class in person.

In a traditional teaching setting, students would be fed with theory which they would then try to apply to exercises. The case method forces students to look up the theory they need themselves, with a direct practical application to it. Moreover, the intellectual challenges of the different cases seem to keep students focused and interested. While very demanding, I believe the effectiveness of this teaching method is very high. It’s more than a HBS marketing scheme. I am a fan!

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