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Case study Method v/s Experiential learning in MBA: 5 Key Differences

Case StudyDuring the global economic crisis of 2008, MBAs were everyone’s favorite punching bags. The financial meltdown was blamed on their arrogance, excessive competitiveness, and obsession with profits. Although profits should be the prime focus for a Business, other factors like impact on society and environment should also be considered. We disagree with branding everyone as dishonest because of a few black sheep, but an in-depth look at management education shows that something is missing. This led us to research into the most practiced teaching methodology - the case study, and another popular alternative learning tool – Experiential learning. Here is what we have found:

The Case study method

Pioneered by Harvard Law School in 1870, and taken up by Harvard Business School in 1920, Case Study Method is the most popular means of teaching at Business Schools across the world.  Case studies present complex real life business scenarios to the class with data such as market share, product differentiation, purchasing trends and overall market growth. Students have to analyze the scenario, and come to class with a detailed solution taking into consideration Business and market variables. The entire class would then debate their ideas and would eventually conclude with a feasible solution.

The experiential learning method

“..alumni such as local business leaders, who with suitable oversight and training by core faculty could help with team projects and experiential learning.”
Professor David Garvin, HBS, on how MBA schools could cover the gaps in MBA education.

In experiential learning, students handle real-life business decisions. It could be a ‘live’ project, being on the board of a company or even a business simulation. They provide students with ‘practical knowledge’ and focus on group dynamics as well as decision making in real-time. Most top Business schools deliver learning experiences with a wide range of electives across verticals and work experience across continents with International partner programs.

Here are the six factors that differentiate Experiential Learning from Case Studies

1) Time and cost

This is the biggest advantage of case studies. Students could debate two case studies a day. Over a two-year MBA course, it could mean covering thousands of cases. Once a case study is created, classes can reuse it over many years, at no extra cost. On the other hand, experiential learning is an expensive endeavor. It requires extensive planning, coordination between faculty members and partners across the globe and negotiation with company executives on projects that should be included for the learning experience. The execution of each project deliverables will take at least one week.

2) Decision based on Incomplete Data

Case Studies usually have well-defined problem statements, created by experienced professors and Entrepreneurs. The MBAs have to focus just on finding feasible solutions. But in real life, problems are not well defined and the information associated with each problem might not be complete. Businesses would also not have a team of highly talented MBAs to solve the problem. Most solutions in real life are usually based on the best possible compromise, a technique that can only be learnt by experience. What’s more, case studies determine the solutions based on measurable factors.  Factors like emotions, intuition, sustainability and happiness are never taken into consideration.

3) Responsibility

For a case study, a student can come up with solutions without worrying about the consequence. But in real life, business decisions influence not just the profitability but also employees, customers, and in some cases, society at large. Experiential learning helps MBA graduates to make responsible decisions after weighing in both the short-term and long-term impact of each solution. In Business community, reputation is as important as profit. The brand that you create is influenced by the aggregate decisions that you make. A solution cannot be considered in isolation. Entrepreneurs and CEOs have to adopt the solution after considering how it affects other aspects of the Business and the brand at large.

4) Emotional Quotient (EQ)

Emotional Quotient is a measure of your awareness about your customers, partners, employees and yourself. It enables managers to handle change and conflicts. The role of a Manager is not restricted to efficiently utilizing resources but also to improve the efficiency of the resources. It requires looking at team members from a different point of view. He should empathize, motivate and guide the team member in achieving the project objectives. When interacting with customers, the focus should be on defining the problem from a customer’s perspective and providing solutions that can bring true value to the customer. Although schools like NYU Stern has a specific focus on developing Emotional Quotient, case studies play very little role in developing this skill. Experiential learning forces students to develop EQ, which is required for the smooth interaction between all the stakeholders – customers, partners and employees.

5) Execution of Solutions

The fear of failure is the biggest roadblock to success. Through experiential learning, students have no other choice but to overcome it. The solutions that you provide in experiential learning are implemented, and the results monitored. With Case study, students have the luxury to brainstorm with peers and professors, and find the best solution. But the solutions are never tested. With experiential learning, the solutions are executed, and the results monitored. MBAs have to change the implementation or adopt a different strategy based on the results. This process enables MBAs to be agile and provide solutions in a more holistic way.

Case study v/s experiential learning is like comparing driving a car in a video game and driving one on the road. Both are effective, but only one prepares you for real life.

Learn more about the best mba programs for case studies and experiential learning.

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