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The Case Method and Science

12 Pages Posted: 19 Mar 1999  

Michael C. Jensen

SSRN; Harvard Business School; National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI); Harvard University - Accounting & Control Unit


Postscript: This was written as part of the Harvard Business School Leadership and Learning effort, a wide-ranging review and evaluation of the HBS curriculum.

After submitting my earlier comments entitled Toughmindedness, Courage, and Change, to the HBS Curriculum Core Design Team, I had occasion to re-read Because Wisdom Can't Be Told, by Charles I. Gragg (1940). This discussion of learning and the role of the case method seems to serve as the basis of many of the ideas at HBS about learning. There is much in it that I agree with wholeheartedly. But there is a glaring omission that may be the source of some strain in our system over what the case method is, or should be.

Gragg (1940, p. 3) defines the objective of the business school and case method as follows:

The work of a graduate school of business consequently must be aimed at fitting students for administrative positions of importance. The qualities needed by business people in such positions are: the ability to see vividly the potential meanings and relationships of facts, both those facts having to do with persons and those having to do with things; capacity to make sound judgments on the basis of these perceptions; and skill in communicating their judgments to others so as to produce the desired results in the field of action. Business education, then, must be directed to developing in students these qualities of understanding, judgment, and communication leading to action.

Gragg leaves out a critical part of what must be a theory of learning in the case or any other method: that is the criteria to be used in deciding what is correct, or in his words the criteria to be used in making sound judgments. I believe the answer to this is scientific method, the process by which we state our theories of cause and effect relationships and by which we test whether they actually describe the way the world behaves. As pointed out in my earlier paper, all purposeful behavior requires the use, either explicitly or implicitly, of theories that define the relation between actions and outcomes. Thus, I conclude there is no other answer to the criteria for use in making sound judgments other than science. This simple addition to the notion of the case method preserves all its motivational and learning advantages, while providing a clear criteria or process that has been tested for centuries for eliminating error.

I think about the problem not as what the case method should be, but the problem of trying to discover the most effective ways to provide an environment in which students can learn. By learning, I mean a set of experiences that changes people's actions, gives them knowledge and behavior patterns that enable them to better run their lives (including their businesses), and to continue to learn outside of the classroom. This involves a theory of learning.

Keywords: case method teaching, theory of learning, scientific method and case teaching, Harvard Business School curriculum design, judgment

Suggested Citation

Jensen, Michael C., The Case Method and Science. Available at SSRN: or

Michael C. Jensen (Contact Author)

SSRN ( email )

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Harvard Business School ( email )

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National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) ( email )

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European Corporate Governance Institute (ECGI) ( email )

B-1050 Brussels

Harvard University - Accounting & Control Unit ( email )

Soldiers Field
Boston, MA 02163
United States

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