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How case studies assist me in teaching the MBA

MarkArticle written by Mark Graham.

About twelve years ago, I was asked to teach the Accounting module on the MBA programme at UCT’s Graduate School of Business. This module comprises about 30 hours of face-to-face time and approximately 60 hours of non-classroom work (i.e. preparation for class, reading and group work). The challenge with teaching Accounting on an MBA programme is that it competes with subjects that are far sexier – strategy, business analysis, leadership, finance and marketing. Furthermore, most students, and especially those that have done some accounting before, approach accounting with a negative perception as a result of bad teaching in schools or from being exposed to a formulaic bookkeeping approach to the discipline. I needed to do something different.

I have always believed that accounting is essentially a language, and should be taught as such. There are essentially two ways in which to learn a language, you can either work in great detail through all the many rules of grammar and other complex nuances, or you can simply expose yourself to the language by either reading or immersing yourself in it. The second approach is often far more effective and is also far less tedious. I have experienced this first-hand. Even though I took Afrikaans all the way through school and received a reasonable mark for the subject in matric, I was certainly not competent in the language and could certainly not hold a conversation in Afrikaans. I only picked up the language and became fluent in it a few years later when I spent time in an Afrikaans environment.

I used this thinking to develop the way in which my team from the College of Accounting and I present the Accounting module on the MBA. Of course students need to be exposed to a few key words and some very basic grammar of a language before starting to read the poetry or literature that has been written in that language, so too with accounting. We cover the basics (i.e. accounting equation, the elements, balance sheets, etc.) in a lecture format, but the major learning takes place through case studies. The case studies that I give the students are simply the Annual Financial Statements of listed South African companies – this is the poetry of accounting! The students spend their time doing a financial analysis of the financial statements, and in that way are exposed to accounting issues. So for example, if they discover Goodwill on a Statement of Financial Position, they need to try to understand what this is by using the various resources (e.g. textbooks, online discussion forum, online tutor, etc.) that have been made available to them. Some of the accounting issues will then form the basis for further discussion in class. Five of these case studies are undertaken by the students in groups of approximately 5 to 7 during the module, and a case study also forms the backbone of the mid-term test and final examination.
This format has proved to be very successful with the MBA students at UCT, and many of the students who dread the Accounting module find that this case study format made the discipline much more understandable. More importantly, they leave the MBA with an ability to use their knowledge of accounting to understand financial statements, which in turn will hopefully enable them to run their businesses more successfully.

The case study approach to examining a student’s knowledge is therefore not entirely new to us here at UCT, and is certainly not as daunting as it may be to those that have not been previously exposed to this format of examination. The many lessons that we have learnt by using case studies for all these years on the MBA have been fully incorporated into the UCT APC Professional Programme. These lessons include; the effective use of groups, correctly scaffolding the case studies (i.e. easier/less complex cases first and subsequently introducing complexity), selecting and preparing case studies, providing online assistance; and finally the marking of the case study. So, although 2014 will be the first year in which case studies are being used to examine trainee accountants, it is something that we have been doing for years at UCT, on our MBA programme.