When I first began the process of applying to graduate school, one of my biggest questions was how the work I did during my undergraduate years would compare to what would be expected of me in a graduate program. Many of my fears surrounded how difficult the homework and projects would be or how much time I’d have to spend in the library. Instead, what I found was that it wasn’t the subjective difficulty of a course or the number of hours I put into an assignment that was so different, but the overall shift in thinking we were being asked to make.
In the first few weeks of the M.S. in Commerce Program, my classmates and I were tasked with learning the language and tools of business quickly. And, in no better way was this achieved than through the case-based approach taken by our professors.
What is the case-based study method?
The case-based study method is a learning tool that allows students to read about a company and discuss their approaches to solving a presented problem faced by the firm. While this method is widely used in MBA programs, McIntire employs it across all of its programs at both the undergraduate and graduate level to challenge its students to apply practical business skills and course concepts.
How is it utilized in the classroom?
During the fall semester in the M.S. in Commerce Program, every class you take in the core curriculum will involve discussions of cases. Although the Strategy course taught by Professor Ira Harris will tackle the largest number of cases, every class from Accounting to Marketing will ask you to think critically about a real-life case whether in your small groups or as part of a larger class discussion.
So, why is the case-based approach used at McIntire, and what can it do for you? Here are five tangible benefits I’ve seen from this method that I believe give M.S. in Commerce students an advantage in the marketplace.
1. Discuss real-world scenarios
One of the most important learning objectives of the case-based study method—and, perhaps, the most obvious—is the practice with real-world scenarios. Professor Andrea Roberts, who teaches Cost Accounting in the fall semester, equates studying cases as the next best thing to actually placing students inside a real company. Many of the cases we are assigned are based on companies you may have heard of or have a personal experience with such as Trader Joe’s, Delta Air Lines, Peloton, and Wawa.
The emphasis on the real is even more clear in our Accounting classes, as we’re tasked with sifting through and interpreting actual financial statements taken directly from company reports. Roberts says one of the main objectives of these cases is to allow students to practice gathering information and figuring out what is relevant or even correctly stated. During our Cost Accounting class this semester, the case project we completed on the Alltel Pavilion was based on a real outdoor arena and included checking the financial reports for errors before calculating the answers. Although we are assigned some textbook problems to nail down the basic concepts, Roberts says it’s important to have experience with problems as they appear in practice—not nicely formatted or easily interpreted.
2. Learn from your peers
The deep level of diversity present across the program provides many opportunities for students to learn as much from their peers as they do from the professors. Phil Choi, a Business Analytics concentrator, said, “I actually do think that the M.S. in Commerce is really diverse. It’s not just a marketing thing; it actually is. The case approach takes advantage of that because you get to hear other people—their diverse experiences, whether that’s internships, whether that’s undergrad majors, or cultural diversity.” During in-class case discussions, students are encouraged to speak about their unique perspectives, since there are often many ways to look at the problem at hand. Choi said the case approach helps students who may be more reserved become comfortable with speaking their mind, as well as helps outspoken classmates learn to value other points of view.
3. Become comfortable with ambiguity
While many students may be used to finding the one best answer to a problem, in many of the cases we discuss, there truly is no perfect or “right” solution. Roberts describes this process as becoming “comfortable with the uncomfortableness.” While this change may be shocking to some students, it’s one of the most helpful lessons to learn before entering the workforce because your employer will not have an answer key to evaluate you with, nor will you be given all the necessary information in a neatly organized problem. The uncertainty pushes you to become more creative and look at all the options before deciding. As Harris teaches in Strategy, you cannot always make the right choice, but you can make an informed one.
4. Practice applying course concepts
Besides giving students real-world practice, one of the main objectives of studying cases is to practice applying the analytical tools and course concepts from class. For example, the case Harris calls a kind of “mid-range capstone” was the Delta Air Lines case we discussed after learning about benchmarking. Not only did the case cause us to discuss what makes successful versus failed benchmarking strategies, it also pulled together many of the concepts we had learned earlier in the semester. The connection between each case and a specific concept is also made clear, because we often discuss a new concept for the first part of class and then apply it to the case in the second half. This study method ultimately serves as a great way for students to test their overall understanding and ability to use the concepts taught in class when faced with a real issue.
5. Improve critical thinking and decision making
Last, but not least, cases are one of the main ways the M.S. in Commerce Program improves your ability to think critically and make informed decisions. In Roberts’ opinion, “Everything that you learn in M.S. in Commerce is providing information and tools so that you can make a decision.” Harris echoed that sentiment when he said, “When we talk about analytical thinking, when we talk about problem solving, it almost always is the use of a few different tools in order to gain some sort of a better understanding and to solve something that a company is facing.” At the end of the program, these cases will have served to improve your gut instincts and your ability to think quickly in future decision-making situations—a skill that you will need in everything from job interviews to your future day-to-day work.
What can prospective students do to prepare for this method of learning?
Harris recommends that prospective students begin familiarizing themselves with real-world business cases as soon as possible in order to gain a surface-level understanding of some of the key concepts and vocabulary that will come up in your McIntire courses. This is as easy as subscribing to and reading some of the world’s most popular business press such as The Wall Street Journal or Financial Times. Some of your current institutions may even give you free access to these sources.
If you’re interested in learning more about the case-based study method and how it’s influenced my education, feel free to reach out to me, or any of the student ambassadors, via a coffee chat session or by requesting to speak with one of us directly.