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Limitations of using Case Study as a teaching tool in Higher Education

Are you sick of one case study after another in your graduate business program? The use of case studies in higher education is quite common. While they have their merits, as an educational tool in undergraduate studies, their value is highly limited for graduate studies where students are looking for real world skills to apply in their work. When we look at many of the stated outcomes for graduate business programs, such as an MBA, many universities state problem-solving skills for the workplace. A critical mind might ask: How do universities show such an outcome as a skill? And how are they measuring the improvement of such a skill


Countless business programs use case studies to help students develop analytical skills for a given situation. Unfortunately, businesses today need leaders with much more than analytical skills in theory. The use of case studies in higher education has four major problems.

  1. The real world is far from words in a case:  When students review a case study, they analyze a problem given to them, in writing, by someone else. In the real world, no one is going to give you a problem written in words. To reach a solution,  individuals need to determine a problem from their personal experiences, talk to various stakeholders, and connect the systems that influence an outcome, recognizing that the context can change the dynamic content issues before them. None of this exists in the current use of case studies. With globalization, the complexity of problems calls for perspective from multiple stakeholder groups.  It is a leaders’ responsibility to see the full picture of a given situation and not only the surface issue. This requires identification of key stakeholder groups as a process, as well as engagement of these groups in problem identification. All of this requires specific leadership and process creation skills. When facing a real-world problem, wise leaders perceive the problem from a multiplicity perspective. Case studies, no matter how well written, do not provide the environment for students to gain such skills.  
  2. Theory application is often too theoretical: When students conduct the analysis of a case study, they only read what’s written. Further questions concerning the case study are limited to what the professor may be able to theorize or glean from the case study’s notes. When students analyze and create solutions based on academic concepts or theories, a professor provides the feedback. The effectiveness of the students’ solutions remains unknown. The sad part is that many professors have their own biases in what a solution should look like, regardless of the current real-world possibilities. With many university professors, practical experiences from consulting engagements are also limited. For example, a marketing class had a cruise company as a case study. A student submitted a creative solution that has not been done in the past and received a C on the case analysis. In a second submission, this student submitted the solution based on exactly what the professor taught and received an A. The professor’s bias towards a certain perspective is very clear. Far too often, student creativity is stifled within the traditional hierarchy. Students have no ability to see how their ideas may or may not function in the real world. Case studies maintain a closed and theoretical system of learning. 
  3. Environmental consideration is limited: When students analyze a written case and create solutions, the real world will likely have very different environments. Especially with globalization, the environments vary substantively from one organization to another. Unique organizational cultures, individual, group, and national cultures, and political climates can differ from a case study that was written in the past and, often, from a different environment. Especially for students in developing nations, analyzing a case study that was written about a company in the US or UK offers very limited insights for these students. The real world requires leaders to consider the unique situation with the cultural preferences of the people involved, the economic conditions, and the political environment both within the organization and external to the organization 
  4. Implementation of a solution is not an option: The best ideas, if not implemented, are worthless. The traditional case study in a business class has no option to develop this skill. What good is any solution if it cannot be implemented? As people graduate from universities, their lack of implementation skill leads them toward the common management practice of driving decisions downward with significant resistance and cost. By not knowing how to implement a solution to a problem, the great ideas are lost on paper. Some of the best consulting companies leave great ideas for their clients; without implementation success, they’re worthless. 

Being aware of the above problems in the case study method of learning is critical, especially considering the integrity of a student-centered learning approach. Transcontinental Institute chooses to use a much more integrated process of learning, rather than isolated case studies. Using concepts from the knowledge creation spiral and organizational, educational and positive psychology, Transcontinental’s students engage with local businesses to identify real world issues from a multiple stakeholder’s perspective. Within the knowledge creation spiral, students’ tacit knowledge of their environment such as issues in local businesses is the starting point of learning, rather than case studies. Theories and professors’ expertise build on students’ tacit knowledge in the process to create new knowledge for the students. With professors who are also renowned consultants, students co-create solutions with implementation strategies for local businesses. They learn to create metrics to understand the impact of the various parts of the solution and adapt to environmental changes locally. This completes the knowledge creation spiral and furthers students’ tacit knowledge. As a spiral, this process enables them to develop the full range of skills needed to be effective leaders in local and global organizations. 

Higher education should be an integrated system of learning well beyond a textbook, case studies, and professors. Universities can design curriculum that engage the real world to find and solve existing problems in organizations within the respective communities of the students. If you’re enrolled in or thinking of enrolling in any graduate level business course, ask the university how they assure outcome learning for the students. This will help you make a better-informed decision on where to spend significant time and money. Don’t waste your time stuck analyzing case studies that have no relevance to you.

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