It’s that time of the year again–the beginning of a new semester. Whether you are a prospective McIntire second-year who just submitted your application, a first-year in the midst of the prerequisites, or a high school student just curious about McIntire, you may be wondering about the courses at McIntire. How are they structured? Is there a lot of cold calling? How important is participation? And ultimately, how do McIntire students develop the skills and confidence to become leaders in their fields? I think the best way to answer these questions is by providing you with a concrete example of one of the learning techniques employed frequently by McIntire professors: the case method.
Before class, students are given a real-life situation in which a protagonist must make a decision. Cases may look different for different subjects, but each one places the students at the heart of a dilemma with given information. Each student must analyze this information and build an argument for a decision. Whether it’s deciding the issue price for an initial public offering, redesigning a prescription fulfillment system, or even trying to negotiate an actor’s salary for an upcoming film, each case forces the student to apply different skills learned in class.
To begin, each student reads the case thoroughly, drawing out key information about the stakeholders involved and the problem to be addressed. Next, the student analyzes the given information and builds an argument. This analysis could be modeling in Excel, drawing a process diagram, or applying whatever tool the student has to help answer the problem.
Next, students are often encouraged to discuss the case with peers. In this discussion, students challenge each other and provide different interpretations of the case. Ultimately, this discussion allows each student to develop a strong backbone for his or her proposal. Truthfully, this is often my favorite part.
Finally, it is class time, and the case day begins. Although the subject may differ, the nature of case days is often the same. You will participate a lot. You will need to apply what you are learning actively and on the spot. This means your perfectly crafted Excel model will change frequently. This is on purpose, because no one walks into the room with the complete answer. The professor will both moderate and propel the discussion by challenging students to defend their answers. After much back and forth, the class will converge on a decision.
Reaching this answer won’t have occurred in a straight line, and the end result may not be what actually happened in the real-life situation, but that isn’t the point. The point of the case method is learning by critical thinking and learning by application. From defining the problem to analyzing the data, you will make mistakes and learn from them. You will also learn from your peers. My finance teacher once remarked that although we may walk into case day confused, when we walk out, we have reached a higher level of confusion. And, ultimately, this wrestling with confusion brings more lasting learning.