It’s that time of year: mid-term exams. Anxiety is in the air, for students and for faculty. In the exam results, the teacher sees what didn’t get learned, and confronts the possibility of his or her incompetence. At case method business schools, some teachers (and some students) are prone to ask, “Why don’t we (they) just tell them (us) what they (we) need to know?”
This delicious question gets to the heart of the case method and to the larger point of graduate business education (or in fact ANY education.) Some fairly exercised people have pitched this question to me over the years. Telling students what they need to know is probably a more efficient use of the teacher’s time. The alternative is asking, guiding the students through questions to arrive at an understanding of insights they need to gain. Four reasons explain why it is better to ask than tell:
1. Simply “telling” is incomplete and a low return on the students’ investment of time, effort, and money. “Telling” surely conveys names, dates, formulas, mechanics—the stuff of knowledge. One needs to master knowledge as a foundation for life. But a great university education entails much more than knowledge: it should also include the acquisition of skills and growth in wisdom. One gains skills and wisdom better through experiential learning than by being talked at.
2. Asking promotes meaning. We’ve all had the experience of intensive memorization (or cramming for an exam), followed by equally rapid forgetting of what was memorized. Research suggests that we forget because we’ve absorbed someone else’s structure of knowledge, one that has little or no meaning to the learner. The lessons are only permanently learned when knowledge is reframed in ways that are meaningful to the learner. In blunt terms, “Figure it out for yourself!” is excellent advice because it implies that you will cast someone else’s knowledge in ways that make sense to you (whether you like the ideas or not.) The case method is tremendous because you learn best that which you teach yourself.
3. Asking—not telling—better approximates the real world. Every case study is an exercise in confronting the ambiguity of life. Data are abundant, but often conflicting or inconsistent. Distractions are plenty. The stated problem may not be the real problem. And so on. Across hundreds of case studies, one develops a method for getting to the heart of the matter. This is excellent preparation for professional life.
4. Asking—not telling—models for others some attributes of leadership. You can train people to be order-takers by relentlessly telling them what to think and how to think. Alternatively, you can train people to lead from where they are by asking them to identify problems, frame a vision and strategy for dealing with those problems, enlist others, and develop a bias for action. Case teaching empowers the learners, and indeed, delegates responsibility to them. Elsewhere, I have argued that you can actually manage a company the way we teach by the case method—by asking, not telling. No manager is all-knowing. Senior leaders need employees up and down the organization to figure things out for themselves, to lead from where they are. Asking questions—not telling—helps to train others to take action.
What does asking, not telling, imply about exams?
The faculty should develop exams with a view to exercising the strengths of case learning. A great exam: is a case study; has a protagonist (a decision-maker) who faces a dilemma and has something at stake in the outcome; raises some urgency to the dilemma so that the decision-maker cannot just kick the can down the road (i.e. by hiring a consultant to figure things out); should require action and recommendations; should offer information sufficient for the student to display mastery in terms of knowledge, skills, and wisdom; should be constructively ambiguous and have no single “right” answer (but lots of wrong ones); should be do-able in the allotted exam time; and should be gradable in reasonable time. Finding a case that meets all of these criteria is a tall order. Mother never said it would be easy.
To students, I would say that if your instructor follows my advice, the best preparation is as follows:
1. Find a place free of distractions to think and write. If the case is loaded with constructive ambiguity, some of the most important decisions you will make during the exam entail where not to go. The ambiguities in the case may be tantalizing and distracting. You don’t need more distractions from outside the case. If you are a variety-seeker or one whose mind is prone to wander, get rid of everything in your environment that invites you to wander.
2. Get in the “zone.” Ideally, you would find a sense of flow or total engagement with the case. A little anxiety or sense of pressure is OK if not good, but too much will get you out of the zone. Just remember that your teacher is likely to give you a challenge that you have seen before. If you’ve kept up with your case preparation through the course, you should be able to recognize the core problem in the case and envision a way through it. The “zone” is a place where you feel that you’ve been before and have some confidence and even enjoyment in working through the case. A good night’s sleep helps to get in the zone, as does some sensible nutrition.
3. Address the question or problem in the case. Many case teachers will give you explicit exam questions to address. Answer them. The commonest distraction of an exam-taker is to get too wrapped-up in the elegance of some calculation and to ignore its implications. Based on your analysis, what does the protagonist need to know or do? Make a recommendation! To do so is to show that you can move from book-learning to “useful knowledge” (as Thomas Jefferson put it) and from analysis to wisdom.
4. Write about what leaves you uneasy. Perhaps the case invited you to make some heroic assumptions that seem unrealistic. This should raise red flags for you. And indeed, it may be the real problem in the case. Your ability to discuss uncertainties and risk will demonstrate a more sophisticated view of the dilemma. The ability to think critically about facts, analysis, and one’s own recommendations really separates the top performers from the rest.
5. Balance your allocation of time between analysis and writing. Setting a target or timer, helps to prevent becoming so enamored of your analysis that you forget to write about it.
6. If you run out of time, let the reader know where you would go next in your analysis and discussion. This “road map” dispels any impression that you’re just floundering and builds confidence in the teacher’s mind that you know what you are doing. And don’t get frantic if you’re running out of time. You aren’t alone; a number of your classmates will run out of time too. Stay calm and in the zone.
7. Work independently. Absolutely abide by the rules and honor code. The spirit of an exam is to demonstrate that you can “figure things out for yourself.” Respect the spirit and letter.
8. And keep some perspective: it’s just an exam, not a judgment about your life. Jack Ma, the founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba Group wrote, “I flunked my exam for university two times before I was accepted by what was considered my city’s worst university, Hangzhou Teachers University. I was studying to be a high school English teacher. In my university, I was elected student chairman and later became chairman of the city’s Students Federation.” Jack Ma failed a couple of exams but arguably succeeded in his career.