Darden Home - University of Virginia

The Role of the Student in the Case Method Classroom

Robert F. Bruner (Copyright © 2000, Robert F. Bruner)

Some years ago, I designed a coffee mug to help raise funds for the Darden student charity, "Christmas in April, 1994" and to promote reflection on the student-centered learning philosophy at Darden. The quotations on this mug help one reflect on three questions:

  • What is student-centered learning?
  • Why is student-centered learning valuable?
  • What does student-centered learning require of the student?

You might take a moment to ponder the quotations on the mug before reading my reflections on them, which follow.

Quotations on the Mug
"All knowledge begins with a question." (Neil Postman) "The answers worth getting are never in the back of the book." (Jeff Millman) "Every case is as different as the people to whom it happened." (Abby Hansen) "The important thing is not to stop questioning." (Albert Einstein) "A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's Earth." (Alfred North Whitehead) "Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." (Benjamin Franklin) "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment" (Walter Wriston) "A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned to your advantage." (Edwin Land) "Success is never final." (Winston Churchill) "In dialogue, people become observers of their own thinking." (Peter Senge) "Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more." (Confucius) "It's not what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you know that just ain't so." (Satchel Paige) "We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart." (Martin Luther King, Jr.) "Don't find fault. Find a remedy." (Henry Ford) "Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress." (Mahatma Ghandi) "Be sincere, be brief, be seated." (Franklin D. Roosevelt) "Be daring; be first; be different." (Anita Roddick) "Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way." (Booker T. Washington) "I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it." (Thomas Jefferson) "Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it and work at it until it's done and done right" (Walt Disney) "I can tell you that there's something you need to know and I can tell you that with my help you can probably learn it. But I cannot tell you what it is in a way that you can now understand. You must be willing therefore, to undergo certain experiences as I direct you to undergo them, so that you can learn what it is that you need to know and what I mean by the words I use. Then and only then can you make an informed choice about whether you wish to learn this new competence. If you are unwilling to step into this new experience without knowing ahead of time what it will be like, then I cannot help you. You must trust me." (Donald Schön) "History does not teach fatalism...people get the history they deserve." (Charles de Gaulle) (Copyright Darden School © 1994)
Reflections on Student-centered Learning

"All knowledge begins with a question." (Neil Postman) A student once asked me why a case discussion typically begins with a cold-call? When I pressed her for an alternative, she suggested using a mini-lecture that would present a framework for the case analysis, and you know, warm the students up so that they would naturally volunteer to start the discussion. My reply was that the cold-call absolutely replicates professional work--one rarely starts with a framework and looks for a question; rather, one starts with a question and borrows whatever framework is available and necessary to answer it. Also, questions make the student the protagonist in the educational process rather than the professor--the learning is student-centered, not professor-centered. Learning to teach one's self is good training for professional life where there are few professors available to give answers. Cold-calls are good training for future managers. Neil Postman, an author and Professor of English Education at New York University, has been a steady critic of teacher-centered education in America.

"The answers worth getting are never in the back of the book." (Jeff Millman) Students who are new to the case method naturally suspect that every case has an answer, THE answer. They ask for reference to readings to textbooks in the belief that case solutions are to be found there. From this perspective, a case is nothing more than a gigantic textbook problem, for which the solution exists in the back of some book. Such is rarely true; instead, students must invent an original solution. This is excellent training for professional life. Jeff Millman is creative director at the Leo Burnett advertising agency.

"Every case is as different as the people to whom it happened." (Abby Hansen) Case instructors often say, "there is no right answer to a case." What is more accurate to say is that there might be many right answers. Business administration can be quantitatively rigorous. But no matter how refined is one's quantitative analysis, it must always be filtered through the human mind and personality. What is a sensible interpretation and recommendation to one person, may seem outrageous to another. Thus, one must anticipate the possibility of different perspectives on a case, and different "right" answers.

"The important thing is not to stop questioning." (Albert Einstein) Postman, Millman, and Hansen present a counterintuitive view of learning, and ultimately of professionalism: though answers matter, you don't find them by looking for them directly or with narrow focus. As Einstein suggests, you find good answers by artfully framing good questions. The ability to ask good questions is the first attribute of an excellent professional. The classic illustration of this is the manager who focuses not only on where to locate a plant, but also on whether a plant should be built at all, and what the long-term effects will be of the new plant. Of course, Einstein's dictum is important in another sense: learning should not stop with graduation. It should be life-long. Thus, what one should aim for in professional education is to build the habits of self-education. Student-centered learning does this explicitly.

"A merely well-informed man is the most useless bore on God's Earth." (Alfred North Whitehead) The second-most important attribute of a good professional is the ability to harness information usefully. Simply "crunching the numbers" or "getting an answer" to the case is insufficient: one must learn to transform analysis into a point of view, and the point of view into practical recommendations. There are many financial analysts who can present the minutest operating data about a company but yet not foresee the company's bankruptcy, or suggest steps to avert it.

"Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn." (Benjamin Franklin) The lecture method of instruction ultimately trains students to take notes, and to repeat the substance of those lectures on an exam. The half-life of this kind of learning is extremely short. In contrast, the case method trains students to develop out recommendations to realistic problems through direct engagement with those problems. You are your own best teacher: having to invent solutions to practical problems trains you in the objective knowledge necessary to confront the problem, and also in the arts of problem solving and invention. My only issue with Ben Franklin is the imperative tone of his statements: they seem to suggest that involving the student is the professor's responsibility. The student has a large role in this too. In my experience, the students who do best at Darden show an enthusiasm for involvement with the cases and the learning process, and for teaching themselves.

"Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." (Walter Wriston) The greatest value-added in professional training is in the growth of judgment, as opposed to growth of objective knowledge such as terminology, formulas, etc. Wriston, the former CEO of Citibank, rightly argues that good judgment cannot be taught, it can only grow through experience. Thus, professional training should have a significant experiential dimension. Book learning isn't enough.

"A mistake is an event, the full benefit of which has not yet been turned to your advantage." (Edwin Land) Land, the inventor of polarizing film and former CEO of Polaroid, builds on Wriston's idea with a radical suggestion: mistakes (or bad judgment) are not merely to be "corrected," they are to be exploited to one's advantage. Like many other R&D champions, Land had a special gift for turning laboratory failures into successful products. So it should be in the classroom "laboratory."

"Success is never final." (Winston Churchill) One of the most important contributions of the case method is to help students develop a sense of irony about "success." Yesterday's technology is obsolete today. Today's clever innovation is tomorrow's commodity. Solving one case is no guarantee about your success with the next. Rules change constantly. The future is a moving target. One prospers in these conditions by developing good process skills, and a personal ability to adapt rapidly to change. The case method, with its steady change of issues from day to day, helps develop this capacity to adapt.

"In dialogue, people become observers of their own thinking." (Peter Senge) Organizations that survive and prosper in this turbulent world are organizations that learn. The capacity to learn depends crucially on the ability of an organization to have a dialogue within itself, because it is through dialogue that thinking is critically re-evaluated. The case method of instruction models dialogue, and builds the skills of students to participate in it. Peter Senge is a professor at M.I.T., and has propounded the concept of a learning organization.

"Without knowing the force of words, it is impossible to know more." (Confucius) The case method not only builds one's capacity to verbalize ideas, it strengthens the student's ability to present them well. Confucius offers the compelling idea that words have force. Knowing the right words is not sufficient in professional life. One must know how to present them; how to exchange them; how to think on one's feet, how to have a true dialogue rather than an entrenched bombarding of ideas. Thus, Confucius says that the failure to master the art of dialogue is a barrier to deep learning.

"It's not what you don't know that hurts you, it's what you know that just ain't so." (Satchel Paige) A hallmark of the professional is an openness to surprise, anomaly, and to the possibility of being wrong. Stubbornness in the face of Truth is no virtue. Knowingly or not, students gain versatility in the case discussion process. One's growth as a professional depends crucially on acquiring this versatility; yet it is a slow and sometimes painful process. Satchel Paige was one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.

"We must combine the toughness of the serpent and the tenderness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart." (Martin Luther King, Jr.) Toughmindedness is certainly one of the hallmarks of practical business people. Case analysis builds toughmindedness. But toughmindedness is not the same as toughheartedness. One needs to cultivate the ability to present toughminded perspectives in respectful ways, otherwise dialogue breaks down, and potential for learning disappears. Maintaining a tough mind and a tender heart in case discussion requires enormous self-discipline.

"Don't find fault. Find a remedy." (Henry Ford) Case discussions inevitably contain error. The point should not be to keep score of these errors, but to find practical solutions to problems. It is easy to criticize someone else's thinking; but it is much harder to present your own original solutions. Skilled case students advance the discussion by building on the comments of others. Through the process of building, we arrive at solutions.

"Honest differences are often a healthy sign of progress." (Mahatma Ghandi) The evidence is that a group of decision-makers who think differently make better decisions than a group who think alike. The only difficulty is that decision-making among people who don't think alike takes more effort. In striving for managerial excellence, we must cultivate patience with which to endure the unexpected twists in a decision-making process among a diverse group of people. The case method classroom explicitly models this experience, and deepens students' capacity to deal with "honest differences."

"Be sincere, be brief, be seated." (Franklin D. Roosevelt) "Be daring; be first; be different." (Anita Roddick) "Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way." (Booker T. Washington) How should the student achieve effectiveness in the case method classroom--or better yet, in managerial settings after Darden? These three quotations offer sensible guidelines. Roosevelt's classic advice suggests "Get to the point! Don't drone on." Roosevelt also uses the word, sincere: say something because you believe it, and not because you think someone else wants to hear it. Also, little is gained by repeating what someone else has said in the same discussion--Anita Roddick calls for a distinctive contribution. But it is not necessary to go overboard in pursuit of the distinctive statement: Washington suggests that excellence in class participation may be attained in relatively simple ways such as explaining a complicated idea simply and clearly, or courageously taking a difficult stand in class, or mediating a disagreement with understanding and objectivity. The common thread among all three statements is respect for one's colleagues as embedded in the virtues of sincerity, succinctness, sensible distinction, and simplicity.

"I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it." (Thomas Jefferson)
"Get a good idea and stay with it. Dog it and work at it until it's done and done right" (Walt Disney
) Pre-eminent among the qualities that student-centered learning instills is a strong work ethic. This is no surprise. It is the student who makes the daily discoveries (rather than the professor on behalf of the student). To do this requires harnessing ideas, resources, and colleagues; it requires managing one's time carefully; and it often sacrifices some sleep. Sooner or later each student develops personal techniques for working harder by working smarter. These techniques prove to be invaluable in one's career. But work ethic is more than a mastery of techniques; it is also inner commitment to the completion of the task.

"...You must trust me." (Donald Schön) Donald Schön, a professor of English education at New York University, spoke these words to a group of graduate students in architecture at Queens University in describing how studio masters teach what it means to "think architecturally." He concluded that professional understanding simply could not be told; instead the student has to trust the professor to lead him or her through a set of experiences to build that understanding. One needs to be a very thoughtful consumer in making a decision about which MBA program to attend. But having made that decision, one must leave at the door one's consumerism, cynicism, or impatience to have education on one's own terms. Rather, trust is the indispensable sidekick for the case method student.

"History does not teach fatalism...people get the history they deserve." (Charles de Gaulle) In welcoming incoming classes of MBAs, I have encouraged the students to suspend their preconceptions about learning, and to let the educational program unfold in its own way. My words might be misunderstood to advocate passivity or fatalism toward the program. Instead, I mean something quite different: one must try not to resist the flow of ideas and challenges that the program gives. At the same time, one must engage these ideas and challenges proactively. In the case method environment, the student is actually the author of his or her own experience. As de Gaulle might say, "students get the education they deserve."

In Conclusion
I hope you find these reflections to be enriching. If you have some favorite quotations that reflect on student-centered learning, please share them with me!

Most recent update: 9-16-99