How The World’s Top Business Schools Teach Their MBAs

by on November 22nd, 2012

Think Harvard Business School and you think the “case study” method of teaching. It’s as likely a pair as Lennon and McCartney or Kermit and Miss Piggy.

But you would be hard pressed to think of a similar pairing between a single business school and good old-fashioned lecturing, or for that matter, a school and experiential learning.

So if you’re keen on a particular way of learning, how do you match up your interests with a top business school? Not to worry. Every top business school in the world was most recently asked to estimate the percentage of “teaching method” deployed in their MBA programs. They reported the results to Bloomberg BusinessWeek when the magazine collected its data for its 2012 MBA rankings project.

The results, collected here in one place so they can be easily compared, are fascinating look at the teaching cultures of the world’s best business schools. If you’re a natural extrovert, there’s no question that a case study school is the way to go. If fighting for air time in a classroom filled with ambitious, over-achievers isn’t your idea of a good time, you probably belong in a school where lecture still looms large.

What the results show is that most schools deliver about a third of their MBA learning via case study (or at least that’s the median for the top 35 schools for which we examined the data). Stand-up lectures with professors at the head of the class are still surprisingly dominant. Team project and experiential learning, meantime, have come on really strong in recent years, with some schools claiming that as much as 25% of the MBA work is given that way.

Harvard Business School remains the number one case study school

Harvard is indeed number one when it comes to case study teaching, estimating that 80% of all the teaching over the two-year program is delivered via cases. This is despite recent curriculum changes that for the first time diminished the amount of learning provided through cases. The changes have put more team project work and experiential learning into the mix. It’s still low in comparison to case study, but Harvard is now estimating that 10% of its learning is through team projects and 5% through experiential learning.

The other top case study schools? The University of Western Ontario’s Ivey School and the University of Virginia’s Darden School reported that about 75% if their MBA programs are taught by case study. IESE Business School in Spain put the percentage at 70%, while UC-Berkeley’s Haas School and North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School both reported that half the content in their MBA programs are delivered via case study.

As a general rule, schools whose dominant teaching method is case study tend to boast the best teachers in the classroom. The reason: case study teaching requires deep engagement and challenge. Professors who are one-way educators won’t survive long in a case study environment. And the available research that identifies the schools with the best teaching faculties lines up pretty well with the schools that require the most case study teaching, such as Virginia, Harvard, and North Carolina.

Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School tops the list for lecture-based teaching

Even so, the good old fashioned lecture-based class is very much alive and well. The school that claims the highest percentage of learning delivered via lecture is not surprising: it’s Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business, which estimates that 50% of all the teaching is via lecture. The University of Southern California’s Marshall School is a close second, with 48%.

Those two schools are followed by a trio of institutions which say that 40% of the learning in their MBA programs is by lecture: UCLA’s Anderson School, Vanderbilt University’s Owen School, and Oxford University’s Said School. So if you like to sit back and hear a professor go on about a subject, these are the five schools to put at the top of your list.

And what about team project and experiential learning? For all the talk about team work at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, it’s somewhat surprising that the school says that team projects account for roughly 25% of the teaching at the school. That’s exactly the same amount claimed by Wharton for team projects.

Eight schools, including Kellogg and Wharton, say team projects account for 25% of MBA learning

In some cases, of course, there is a lot of overlap between these categories. Experiential learning can very well be defined as team projects. And these are rather imprecise estimates, anyway, that are based on the three top teaching methods at each school. That’s why the data fails to include numbers for each teaching method at a school. Simulations, which also account for a smaller percentage of teaching at many business schools, goes unreported as a result.

Some eight schools, nonetheless, reported that a quarter of their learning is delivered by team projects today: Kellogg, Wharton, Duke’s University’s Fuqua School, Georgia Tech, SMU’s Cox School, New York University’s Stern School, Georgetown University’s McDonough School and Oxford Said.

The school claiming the highest amount of learning delivered via experiential learning–30%–is Vanderbilt’s Owen School. That compares with only 5% at Harvard or 15% at Michigan’s Ross School. Think about that. Owen is claiming that it gives MBA students six times the amount of experiential learning in the Harvard MBA program or twice as much as Michigan, which has long claimed to be the pioneer in action-based learning, another way to describe the experiential method. Ross students put the core curriculum to work in the Multidisciplinary Action Project (MAP) course, combining analytical tools with teamwork and leadership development on a consulting project with an actual firm or organization.

For MAP, students are assigned to five-person teams and then lent to a company and a project that starts in the third week of January. There are 150 possible projects to choose from, with a bewildering array of global companies, for the 500 first-year students. This isn’t part of a course and the experience is not optional, as it often is at other business schools. It’s mandatory, intense, all-consuming, and occupies your complete time for seven straight weeks. Each team has two faculty advisers who act as coaches on the project. Given Ross’ emphasis on action-learning, it’s actually surprising that team projects and experiential teaching doesn’t account for a larger part of the MBA program there.


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