Which teaching method will suit you best? Martin Thompson investigates

On the surface, MBA courses can seem very similar in the methods they adopt. But it is worth finding out how they balance theory and practice to reflect the realities of the business world. Do you dream about being Bill Gates? You may get the opportunity to put yourself in his shoes as you and your cohort of fellow MBA students debate the issues raised by a case study of Microsoft's rise to global success. The question on the table is - how can Bill Gates retain the innovation and spirit of a small company in a rapidly expanding business environment? For 90 minutes, the fate of Microsoft will be in your hands.

This is one of thousands of examples of the case study approach to teaching the MBA which originated at Harvard Business School in the 1920s. Today, 80 per cent of the Harvard course is based on this traditional classroom-based method which has since been adopted by business schools all over the world. The idea is that by analysing and discussing a blow-by-blow account of the pain and pressure points that a company has faced, under guidance of a faculty member, students can assume the role of the executive in the hot seat. They then have to decide what they would have done in his or her position had they been running the company at the time. Exponents of the case approach point to the fact that, on returning to the world of work, MBA students should be better equipped to make tough decisions in a leadership role.

Spain's IESE, based in Barcelona, is one business school which enthusiastically follows the Harvard example, with much of its MBA course given over to analysing case studies in group seminars. IESE's Professor of Managerial Economics, Franz Heukamp emphasises the communal learning benefits that flow from this method. "Managers need to be trained through well-prepared and selected simulations of real business situations. The case study does exactly that. It makes the personal experience and background of each individual participant a source of learning for all students who take part." This is echoed by Conor Neill, a recent graduate of the IESE MBA. "Having your decisions tested in front of 70 other students allows you to contrast the impact of different solutions to the same business problem."

Many business schools, on this side of the Atlantic in particular, favour an approach to learning that takes students closer to the coalface. At the University of Strathclyde Graduate School of Business, in addition to studying old cases, MBA students work extensively with live business issues. As director Colin Eden explains: "We bring in senior managers who often expect help to resolve their companies' immediate problems. This enables students to track a real-life business situation over a period of time and to add value to an ongoing analysis. It's the 'noise' that surrounds a strategic issue in any business that is important to explore as much as the issue itself. A 10-page case study can only give a very restricted view."

Although the case study-based approach remains an important arrow in the MBA quiver, in the majority of schools students will be exposed to a mixture of learning methods.

The growing trend for one-year, full-time MBA courses means that time spent away from the school is at a premium. Despite this, many MBA courses blend the "dry-run" case approach with a chance to experience a company from the inside via a brief consulting project. This gives students crucial exposure to the fast-changing business scene and the opportunity to relate the experience back to their theoretical learning.

"At Manchester Business School, we believe that management education should not be confined to the classroom but should develop managers who can actually get things done," explains Tudor Rickards, Professor of Creativity and Organisational Change. This has resulted in an action-learning, project-based approach, known as the Manchester Method. "The difference between studying business cases and taking part in the Manchester Method is rather like the difference between visiting the zoo and going on safari," says Professor Rickards. "With the Manchester Method you become involved in real-life cases. This is what makes it more like an expedition or adventure. You will have a partly planned route, although you are never quite sure what you will find yourself and where it might lead. At the end of it, you'll have accomplished something outside your everyday experience and you will have learnt a great deal about the business environment, yourself and how you relate to others."

Whereas MBA students can arguably benefit as much from this commercial exposure as they can from textbooks or case studies, the quality of the overall learning experience will inevitably depend on the standard of the teaching faculty itself. Two key questions you should ask on visiting a school are: just how up to date is the knowledge imparted on the course, and how strong are its connections to the real world of business? There is reassurance to be gained from the fact that many institutions insist that their faculty members become involved in ground-breaking research and in consultancy projects with local and multinational companies.

In a highly competitive marketplace for MBAs, schools strive hard to gain the seal of approval that comes with accreditation from professional bodies, the Association of MBAs and EQUIS in Europe and the American-based AACSB. Part of the rigorous process of accreditation involves gathering feedback on the performance of faculty from students themselves. If a school to which you are considering applying has one or more of these accreditations against its name, this will represent a good yardstick of teaching quality. Students who have paid thousands of pounds for their once-in-a-lifetime MBA experience tend to be a highly critical breed.