Problem-based learning and the case method

By Emma Simmons

PBL What does problem-based learning (PBL) offer in management education, and how does it relate to teaching with cases? Connect explores.

In the September 2015 Academy of Management Learning & Education, researchers and teachers at four US universities initiated a discussion on how PBL, as practiced in some medical schools, might provide a pedagogical approach to remedy certain perceived shortcomings in management education graduates. The article, Problem-Based Learning: Lessons From Medical Education and Challenges for Management Education identifies, in particular, the ‘call for greater emphasis on relevant skills’ as being often inadequately addressed by other teaching approaches commonly used at business schools, including the case method.

What is problem-based learning?

PBLAs the name suggests, PBL places working on a ‘problem’ at the heart of an active learning session (as opposed to passively listening to a lecture, for example). According to the authors: ‘The essential defining characteristic is learning structured around an ambiguous and complex problem in which the professor becomes a facilitator supporting and guiding students in their attempts to solve a real-world problem.’ At the heart of the methodology is the idea of integrating content knowledge with skills development applicable to real-life situations. They write: ‘The PBL process develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills, problem synthesis skills, imagination and creativity, information search and evaluation skills, ability to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty, oral and written communication skills and collaboration skills.’ To achieve this, students will typically work in groups, interspersing team time with their own independent investigation, reflection and feedback, all ‘guided’ and challenged by the instructor.

PBL is widely practiced in medical schools, though not in all; as in management education, debate continues as to which pedagogies produce the best professionals. The underlying rationale for those that do use PBL is that future patients of medical students will present with unique combinations of symptoms, and that before proceeding to diagnosis of the ailment(s), let alone proposing remedies, it is imperative that doctors know how to analyse competently, and be able to uncover, often in collaboration with other medical professionals, what is really going on, in all its complexity; ie identify the right problem(s). Accurate diagnosis will always be crucial for the eventual success of treatment, and in medicine, the stakes around ‘getting it right’ are some of the highest in society. To do this, the future doctor will need to be able to skilfully apply to his or her medical knowledge, based on the literature and best practice, the appropriate skills of investigative thinking, teamwork, and practical resource deployment.

Toni UngarettiThe authors suggest that it is useful to see parallels between the presentation of a sick patient and the unpredictable business situations that will, just as inevitably, present themselves to executives. There is a consequent need to develop teaching that will provide business students, too, with the necessary skills to deal effectively with new and real ‘problems’. We spoke with lead author, Toni Ungaretti, of Johns Hopkins University. For her, the questions business and management educators, like their medical counterparts, need to be asking are: ‘How do you maximise learning for students? How can we produce ‘authentic’ learning? How can we prepare our students for problems we don’t know?’

Keeping it in the family?

While Ungaretti and her co-authors suggest PBL as a powerful way to address these challenges, there are certainly similarities and parallels between both the objectives and practice of PBL, and that of case-based learning, which they refer to as PBL’s ‘better known relative.’ Many aspects are common to both pedagogies. A problem – frequently a ‘dilemma’ in cases – is the starting point for both, though in PBL students will usually delve deeper, back, into the analysis and understanding of the actual problem. The process of seeking a path towards possible solutions is, in both, participant-centred under the skilful guidance of the instructor - rather than being handed to them by the teacher. A true PBL experience is open to possible outcomes that are supported by evidence; the authors summarise: ‘CBL (case-based learning) provides cases that have solutions, whereas PBL provides problems that are yet to be solved’. Some case practitioners might take issue with this distinction, for example, when cases focus on rapidly evolving technologies or business models, when case subjects are composites or constructions rather than real companies, when cases present situations with deliberately uncertain outcomes, or, when a case class might decide that the outcome that really occurred in life was not, in fact, an adequate ‘solution’ at all.

Nevertheless, cases are often used to effectively develop many of the same desirable ‘real world’ thinking as PBL – if not actual ‘practical,’ real-world skills - including those of analysis, Safety netresearch, team-thinking, dealing with ambiguity and discussion, while allowing for relevant theory to be imparted alongside the process. The very point of a case class is for the instructor to create an environment in which exploration of ‘real’ or ‘quasi-real’ dilemmas can be carried out, but, in safety. But, also in this respect, the authors seek to distinguish the two pedagogies: ‘CBL provides a safe environment in which to take risks; whereas PBL provides a risky environment with a safety net.’ According to Toni Ungaretti, ‘the group work environment of PBL is less orchestrated and may appear chaotic, but it is in fact highly structured to facilitate the discovery of viable, evidence-based solutions.’

Indeed, the same skilful ‘orchestration and behind the scenes work’ she highlights can also be observed in a successful case instructor; their respective class preparation needs to be at least as detailed as that of each other. Ungaretti points out: ‘Physicians gradually assume more responsibilities as they grow in competence and their instructors develop confidence in their abilities to make independent judgements – they are creating the environment for students to construct their own learning.’ Just as with business school case teaching, this seemingly simple instructor process may appear effortless – even to the students. But it is highly skilled, and, in the view of Ungaretti and her co-authors, any teachers interested in using PBL for the first time will need support and collaboration to develop materials and to facilitate learning. New case teachers and writers undoubtedly also require support from their institutions and colleagues. One can also assume that both pedagogies may often find themselves competing for time in those academic environments where research output prevails as the number one objective set for faculty.

A perspective from history

David GarvinCould it be then, that PBL and case-based learning are in fact much closer ‘relatives’? In Making the Case, published in 2003 in Harvard Magazine, David Garvin provides a fascinating overview of the evolution of the case method at Harvard University, from its cradle at the Law School in 1870, through its adoption at Harvard Business School in 1920, to its introduction at Harvard Medical School in 1985. According to Garvin: ‘All professional schools face the same difficult challenge: how to prepare students for the world of practice ... how to diagnose, decide, and act. A surprisingly wide range of professional schools ... have concluded that the best way to teach these skills is by the case method.’

What strikes the reader of Garvin’s article is that although case teaching, originally modelled on the Socratic method, was separately deployed in each school, its incarnation has differed according to the interpretation of the requirements of each profession, with each school having ‘tailored the method to its own ends, focusing on distinctive aptitudes and skills’ – but, while still essentially remaining the case method. While the initial approach at the Law School ‘viewed law as a science and appellate court decisions as the “specimens” from which general principles should be induced’, the first programme of case writing at the Business School was ‘built around real business issues and yet-to-be-made decisions.’ At the Law School, the goal was to develop precise, analytical thinking (ie to learn to ‘think like a lawyer’); at the Business School, the goal was to cultivate persuasive skills and the ‘courage to act’.

medical studentsHarvard Medical School’s much later move towards ‘active learning’ was ‘designed to cement students’ understanding of basic science by linking it immediately to practical problems – typically, the case histories of individual patients.’ Here, the rigorous requirements of medical practice, and the outpouring of research (the sheer volume of published articles meant that keeping up with the latest findings had to be an ongoing activity), led the case method to evolve in new ways; ‘... discovery ... lies at the heart of the medical school’s case method. The cycle of case presentation, identification of a learning agenda, and independent study is repeated as additional segments of a case unfold.’ Cases ‘are springboards for self-study, not documents prepared in advance of discussion. Because the problem is presented before students have learned all of the associated scientific or clinical concepts, cases serve as catalysts for learning, not as the primary content.’ The classical medical case process, Garvin explains, ‘goes by the name of “problem-based learning”’ and he acknowledges its original development by some pioneering medical schools in the 1960s and 1970s, notably Canada’s McMaster University.

Achieving ‘authentic’ learning

While a discussion of PBL and case pedagogies provides interesting and valuable insights, at its heart lies the shared desire of educators to prepare their students as effectively as possible for the professional challenges they will face after graduation. We also spoke with David Garvin for this article. ‘A re-examination of PBL in a management education context responds to the valid concern that we need to better equip our students with the practical skills they will need through ‘real-world’ exposure,’ he observes. ‘Really strong management cases can get close to the actual experience of a real situation, , including such complex human elements as biased reasoning, political manoeuvring, taken-for-granted assumptions, incomplete or filtered information, and the like, but, they can be hard to identify – and the issues still get worked out in class.’ However, ‘PBL itself faces challenges in offering totally authentic problems to work on,’ he adds. ‘Companies can be reluctant to provide details of the full scope of the problem(s) they face, especially when they involve sensitive people issues, and, in many cases a company will already have a particular course of action in mind, so the genuinely open search for information leading to a ‘real’ solution by the students will be curtailed.’

wind farmThis raises the question as to whether ‘real-world’ learning can ever be adequately achieved in a classroom and Garvin observes that some proposed examples of PBL are, actually, closer to field, or consulting-based, student projects. He reminds us how, in 2008, Harvard Business School first conceived the FIELD Program, which, in one of its three component experiences, sees students spending at least two weeks, anywhere in the world, working on real projects in real environments. FIELD was created precisely to address the challenges of helping participants acquire and practise skills such as as giving and receiving feedback, developing self-awareness, global and integration intelligence, and research in a live business context. Since 2012, the program has become an established component of the Harvard MBA alongside the other largely case-based elements.

Ultimately, most instructors seem to agree that a mix of pedagogies, underpinned by clear and focused learning objectives, will be necessary to comprehensively equip graduates with the breadth of theoretical and practical skills they will need for a rich, meaningful and successful career after business school. As so often in discussions about different pedagogies, the bottom line turns out to be quality. As Toni Ungaretti and her co-authors put it ‘In short, we see the need for a blend of pedagogies .... The issue is not that one is better than the other, but how both can be done well.’

Our feature in the April issue of Connect will examine in more detail what skills employers actually want in business school graduates.

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Antoinette Mills Antoinette Mills
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