MBA students speaking in a group at a business analytics case competition
November 2, 2016
John Simons

Business schools are moving away from the case-study method -- the long-held standard of business education -- and asking students to resolve actual corporate dilemmas in real time.

Nowhere is that shift more evident than at University of Iowa's Tippie College of Business, where Dean Sarah Fisher Gardial has spent the last few years urging faculty to drop the traditional method of case studies in favor of "live" cases -- business challenges presented by corporate partners, nonprofits and alumni. Dean Gardial says she pushed for the change after employers told her they wanted M.B.A.s capable of handling "messy, real-life problems."

"What we had to do was rebalance the amount of curriculum that was learning versus doing -- or applying," Dean Gardial says, adding that "the classic case is many years old by the time it gets to our students."

Tippie requires that nine of a student's 60 M.B.A. credits include coursework that has some experiential learning component. But because many professors increasingly rely on live cases, the majority of graduates in recent years have exceeded those requirements. Some 40% of students entering Tippie's two-year full-time program in the fall of 2015 signed up for experiential-learning classes, compared with just 5% in the fall of 2014.

The changes at Tippie reflect a broader rethink of business education during the last decade, says Jeff Bieganek, executive director of the MBA Roundtable, a consortium of 162 M.B.A. programs worldwide focused on modernizing curricula.

"The majority of leading programs are using experiential [projects]. Employers want it, and it speaks to a more global and diverse student population better than a 1972 Harvard Business Schoolcase," Mr. Bieganek says.

For smaller programs such as Tippie, which enrolled 56 full-time new M.B.A. students this fall, a curriculum with more experiential learning helps attract applicants and employers, Mr. Bieganek says.

Arizona State University's W.P. Carey School of Business, University of Denver's Daniels College of Business and the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management are among the small-to-medium sized programs that have substantially increased their experiential offerings in recent years, according to Mr. Bieganek.

In most of Tippie's required marketing, economics, accounting and finance courses for M.B.A.s, lecture halls no longer feature "the sage on stage," Dean Gardial says, referring to professors. Faculty now provide their lectures in videos intended for students to view outside of class as supplements to textbook readings. Class time is reserved for problem-solving exercises and team projects that sometimes include live casework.

As part of a real-time case in the fall of 2014, medical-technology firm IDx, LLC asked a team of five students to put together a private placement memorandum that featured a business description and financials for private investors.

The Iowa City-based company's retinal imaging technology captures high-resolution images of the back of the eye and analyzes them for markers of diabetic retinopathy, glaucoma and cardiovascular diseases. Students spent several months putting together a competitive analysis, assessed the company's risks and helped IDx structure its equity offering.

IDx CEO Gary Seamans says the company used the document the Tippie students composed "as written" for the funding round, which ended up "oversubscribed" with angel investors. "What they put together was as good as anything I've seen in my career done by professional big-name entities," he says.

Typically companies that partner with the school on projects pay the college of business to sponsor one of the school's consulting programs. Students receive credits toward their degrees.

Thomas Rietz, a Tippie professor of finance who teaches a managerial finance course for first-year M.B.A. students, says his pupils are less focused on getting the right answer than on problem-solving in real time, grappling with issues such as making important decisions when certain data isn't readily available -- issues that don't come up in regular case discussions.

Aside from recording videos and preparing lecture materials, Mr. Rietz says "students are in my office a lot more; they're asking more questions." The professor, too, says he's more engaged "because I have to think about how they solve the problem."

Maureen Tierney, a recent Tippie graduate, said a live case that required data-analytics work for a startup helped focus her career interests. During the project, Ms. Tierney discovered she truly enjoyed "going out and interviewing real customers," something she looked for in her first job out of business school.

The 27-year-old started working as a digital-marketing strategist at office supplies wholesaler Essendant in Deerfield, Ill. shortly after receiving her M.B.A. last May.

"I speak directly with customers and sales reps about their needs, opinions of our services, and I take that and synthesize it into the overall marketing strategy," she says.