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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

The Business of Teaching

November-December 2006

Harvard Business School (HBS) classes are taught interactivelyby the case methodand by the professors themselves, who also do the grading, following a strict 20-70-10 curve. Moreover, the first-year M.B.A. curriculum is prescribed for all students; typically seven or eight professors form a teaching group for each course, with each faculty member conducting the class for one of the student sections, while jointly striving for consistency in what all the students learn. Adding to the challenge, less than half the HBS faculty now come from business-school backgrounds; a majority have degrees in other disciplines, and so encounter case-method teaching cold.

As HBS differs from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) in curriculum, student experiences, and the teaching demands placed on professors, so its new Christensen Center for Teaching and Learning (established in late 2004) differs from FASs similarly named Bok Center. Staff from the Christensen Center, building on an existing four-day orientation to the school and case teaching for new faculty members, now regularly meet with professors, when asked, to review their teaching plans, attend and videotape a class, and then discuss the tape and their observations together. About 130 of HBSs 230 teaching faculty have gone through the process so far, according to center director Willis Emmons 81, M.B.A. 85, Ph.D. 89, a senior lecturer with deep knowledge of the school.

The center is developing a repository of tapes on best practices to help faculty members teach better. This coaching library enables professors to see how peers start a class, make a cold call on students, deal with difficult material, or wrap up a session. Annual symposiums focus on a teaching challenge: executive education last year; this year, how to grade and provide feedback to students. Caselets on such topics use the case approach to teach the teachers themselves. Written outlines cover essentials of conducting a case class and how to observe a class effectivelya critical skill, because senior-faculty evaluations of teaching are required in HBS promotions. None of this is high science yet, Emmons says, but the center is extending its research in hopes of better serving HBS and, ultimately, other Harvard professional schools using the case method.

The center is not the woodshed. Its not the remedial place to go because you are having trouble, nor a basic-skills venue for teaching fellows (a core Bok Center activity). Emmons sees the center becoming a complement to and not a substitute for faculty teaching development, to which HBS already devotes significant energy and effort.