A balanced approach that includes case studies and problem-based learning is best for motivating students, experts say Business schools rely on a variety of teaching strategies, from case studies and lectures to experiential learning, presentations, field trips and group projects. Under the widely championed case study method, students are placed in the role of decision-makers. They read through a situation - known as a case - before class and try to identify the problems involved. The next step is to analyse the situation by examining the causes and considering possible courses of action. Then they try to come up with a set of recommendations, often working in small groups. 'They should have access to the same information - including misinformation - that the manager has. They should only know what he or she knows, and they should make a business decision based on that,' says Kathleen Slaughter, associate dean of the Richard Ivey School of Business (Asia). 'This means having to deal with ambiguity, incomplete information and incorrect information. They have to come up with a decision, and then defend it.' A key element of the case method is that the students do most of the talking. The professor's role is to act as facilitator, guiding the conversation with occasional observations or questions. The students are expected to come up with their own solutions; they learn by doing, rather than by listening to lectures or reading textbooks. The emphasis is on learning how to solve problems rather than the acquisition of knowledge. The case study method was developed at Harvard University, where it accounts for about 80 per cent of what happens in class, according to BusinessSchoolAdmission.com. The Richard Ivey School of Business is also a champion of the case method approach, adopting the strategy across the curriculum. Students in its MBA programmes - whether in Hong Kong or western Ontario - usually have analysed about 360 business situations by the time they graduate. At the other extreme is the lecture-based approach. Under this method, students are presented with theories and concepts by the professor. Of the 25 US business schools surveyed by BusinessSchoolAdmission.com, only two admit to spending more than half of class time on lectures. Both Yale and Carnegie Mellon say that about 60 per cent of class time is devoted to lectures. Proponents of this approach believe that students go to school to learn, not to play games. The overwhelming majority of business schools - including those in Hong Kong - adopt a mixed teaching approach. Just as Harvard devotes about 15 per cent of class time to lectures, Yale and Carnegie Mellon devote roughly one-third to cases. Most schools strike a balance somewhere in between. 'I would think that, in reality, most people take a blended approach,' says Mark Hirst, director of Hong Kong programmes, the Australian Graduate School of Management. 'The standard class might involve a brief lecture introducing the basic concepts, framework and theory, and then a case would be introduced to illustrate the underlying theory.' Gerard Prendergast, MBA course director at the Hong Kong Baptist University, agrees. 'An MBA must have a balance between theory, usually learned through lectures, and practice, usually learned through practical applications such as case studies,' Dr Prendergast says. 'MBA students come to the classroom with a richness of working experience, and this must be shared in the classroom as a teaching resource.' According to Andrew Chan Chi-fai, director of EMBA programmes at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, lectures have a valid place in the MBA curriculum. 'We rely more on lectures in the first year, when students are learning the basic stuff, and use more cases in the second year,' Professor Chan says. 'After they've acquired the basic skills they can apply what they've learned to real-life examples.' The Graduate School of Business at the Polytechnic University of Hong Kong (PolyU) favours what it refers to as problem-based learning. While similar to the case method in that the professor facilitates rather than lectures, there is one key difference. In the case method, students are given all of the information from the start, while in problem-based learning the professor releases the information in stages, inviting students to first identify problems, and then releasing more information as they work things through. 'The case method is closed while problem-based learning is a more open system,' says Warren Chiu Chi-kwan, associate professor and programme director (MBA), PolyU. 'It challenges students to learn. Students work in groups to solve real-world problems. They take a more active role, and this motivates them to learn better.'