Undergraduates Deserve Cases with Shorter and Topic-Specific Mini-Cases

Typical graduate business school (MBA) programs rely primarily on the case approach in most of their courses, but many undergraduate business students may not enroll in a graduate business program, or may work in industry for several years before returning for a graduate business degree, so they do not get exposure to this invaluable training model early in their higher-education careers, if at all.

If graduate programs have determined that case work is important to preparing their students effectively for responsible positions in industry, why do we find little, if any, case work in the curriculum at most undergraduate business schools? Is there a real-world application gap between most undergraduate and graduate business programs?

I believe there is a huge such gap for these reasons:

  • Available cases are unrefined, too long, and too complicated.
  • Undergraduate faculty are not able to devote enough time to grading and fielding questions.
  • Undergraduate student time commitment expectations must be heightened.

It is unfortunate that these barriers get in the way of undergraduates doing case work, as benefits in both the classroom and in the workplace are significant, including:

  • Creating true engagement and interest by applying academic content to real-world application.
  • Enhancing problem solving skills to become more strategic, creative, and resourceful. 
  • Enhancing written presentation skills, including effective consolidation of information using summary tables.
  • Enhancing and reinforcing vital Excel and Word skills.

Available Cases are Unrefined, Too Long, and Too Complicated

Approximately eight to 10 quality publishers have extensive online libraries of business cases, including Harvard Business School Publishing, Darden, and international publishers such as Ivey and ICMR. The cost of these cases is quite reasonable—typically about $5/student—and often is actually nothing, if the university is a subscriber. I am not a believer in “reinventing the wheel,” so, in preparing to teach an undergraduate, junior/senior level Marketing Management course, I spent days reviewing hundreds of these cases.

It became apparent that publishers locate content easily for cases, yet expend little effort on enhancing them to be ready for the classroom. Unfortunately, I found many generic shortcomings, whether the audience was undergraduate or graduate students, including:

  1. The answer keys were often not fully developed or not very helpful, if not grossly inadequate. In trying to find appropriate cases, it is not practical for professors to spend hours trying to solve a case just to assess whether the case may be a possible candidate for their class. I will never forget reviewing a Supply Chain Management case for hours. Even with the supposed key, I was unable to come close to the provided answers. My neighbor had worked in this field for years and I left it with him to see if he could figure it out. After spending considerable effort, he arrived at the conclusion that it involved applying regression analysis, to which the answer key had made absolutely no reference.
  2. Seldom are there logical, staged questions for students to answer that build on one another. Developing questions is rather time-consuming for faculty, and it is also easy to miss important areas the author intended the student to address.
  3. Many cases are outdated, having been written literally decades ago. When choosing cases I would be unlikely to include something 5 to 10+ years old that students, rightfully so, might challenge as irrelevant.
  4. Many publishers’ databases are not organized well enough for users to search effectively by topic, length, date, and whether an answer key is available. With the database management capabilities available today, it’s sheer negligence for publishers not to take advantage of current technology to make their databases easier to use.

In addition to these generic shortcomings, I found few, if any, cases that could be used for undergraduates; most were too long, required background in other disciplines, and/or were too complicated.

Publishers equate length with quality and rigor resulting in many cases being 15 to 25+ pages long. Too often, inconsequential backgrounds about people and companies took up unnecessary space and clouded the essence of a case. In researching available cases, it was not uncommon to find 15-page cases addressing only one aspect of a topic. Unable to find adequate available cases I developed “mini-cases” that focused on concisely addressing the learning objectives of the assignment.  For example a Pricing Strategies mini-case that was only four pages long, provided real-world application on the following topics: breakeven analysis, incremental revenue/profit contribution, price elasticity, cannibalization, and basic pricing methodologies (cost, competition, and value).  See Premium Attachment – Pricing Strategy Weekly Graded Assignment.

Many available cases require backgrounds in areas outside a specific course that an undergraduate student may not have. Marketing related cases, for instance, often included accounting or financial analysis that required having done higher-level course work.

The excessive length, additional disciplines involved, and confusing nature of write-ups result in these available cases being too complicated for undergraduates.

Devoting Enough Time to Grading and Fielding Questions

Research, publishing, presentations, and committee work are the priorities of the vast majority of today’s undergraduate faculty members. Instructing students usually comes after these priorities, which drive tenure, compensation, and day-to-day departmental recognition.

Assigning frequent case work requires a great deal of time to effectively grade and field student questions. Cases also often must be significantly modified, or replaced from semester to semester, for obvious reasons to protect against answers being passed from one year to another, as well as timeliness and relevance.  Unfortunately the low priority of student instruction compromises the huge benefits of effective case work as faculty simply can not devote the time required.

Undergraduate Student Time Commitment Expectations Must Be Heightened

Mini-case work I developed for various undergraduate business courses in marketing, hospitality, and information systems is targeted to take students four to five hours to complete on a weekly basis. When assigning such a work load, professors have to be prepared for student complaints to other faculty and administrators that can derail the current and future semester benefits of case work. Many universities “over-cater” to student feedback, which can result in faculty oversight not supporting the reasonable threshold level of time commitment and rigor necessary for students to achieve the benefits of case work.

Propelling Students to Achieve the Immense Benefits of Case Work

The following student email I received eloquently states the major benefits students achieve from completing frequent mini-cases including heightened engagement and the immediate benefit to our workplace.  To achieve these advantages, both faculty and student time commitment must increase significantly, and shorter, topic-specific mini-cases must be developed.

“I cannot express how much valuable, real-world knowledge I learned in Heller’s course compared to other management classes I have taken.  I work part-time at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.  Following our weekly class assignments on Gantt Charts and Request for Proposals, I approached my boss and explained that I had acquired new skill sets that might be valuable for some of our office projects.  She was immediately impressed by my knowledge and assigned me two new challenging projects. Students certainly value their education when they recognize that the knowledge they are acquiring is used in the business world.”

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