Digest No. 05 - October 2018

Measuring Students’ Capacities for Innovation

Selznick, B. S., and M. J. Mayhew. 2018. “Measuring Undergraduates’ Innovation Capacities.” Research in Higher Education 59: 744–764.


Innovation has become a buzzword in higher education, so much so that millions of dollars and resources have been allocated toward centers for innovation, minors in innovation, and innovation alliances. Private colleges and universities have joined the chorus, with innovation often driving strategic planning conversations, pedagogical reconsiderations, and even student learning outcomes. Despite all of the attention innovation is receiving, it remains an ill-defined concept and as a result widely misunderstood. Millions of dollars have been donated for innovations, but very few institutions have adopted a rigorous approach to their assessment. The purpose of this study was to provide institutions with a theoretically grounded and empirically validated measure of one aspect of innovation, students’ innovation capacities, defined by the authors as a set of attributes students can develop to better engage in all aspects of innovation.

Grounded in theoretical perspectives that include human ecology, entrepreneurship, and latent trait theory, the measure of innovation capacities purports to assess different dimensions of student development and how these dimensions come together to explain a student’s innovation capacity. Based on Kegan’s (1994) human development theory, the authors locate innovation capacities along three lines of development: cognitive (e.g., I frequently ask myself “what could I do to improve this situation?”), identity (e.g., I am confident that I can continue working on a problem until I have found a solution), and social (e.g., I am effective working as part of a group with people who have skill sets). In addition to these items, further grounded in entrepreneurship literature (see Shane 2003), the measure asks students if they know how to take an idea and roll it out to execution (e.g., I know how to develop a strategy to direct mine and others’ efforts toward realizing new opportunities, such as developing an action plan). This measure maintains high reliability and validity even across institutional contexts.


One of the most interesting findings from this study is that the measure is able to efficiently produce one innovation score for every student. Through a rigorous statistical process, the final measure of innovation capacities is efficient (only 42 items long) and easy for administrators to understand: Each student has one innovation score that assesses his or her own innovation capacity. That the overall score has such sound psychometric properties in terms of its reliability, validity, and distribution makes the measure an attractive option for administrators seeking to efficiently measure the efficacy of innovation interventions on campus.


The second result worth noting is how the measure effectively assesses its constituent constructs, including motivation, proactivity, innovation self-concept, networking, persuasive communication, teamwork across difference, creative cognition, intention to innovate, and risk-taking/tolerance. These dimensions can be examined as outcomes in their own right, as many employers are seeking to hire graduates who possess the type of knowledge, skills, and attitudes these constructs reflect.

Finally, the measure supports the idea that innovation can be taught and learned. As part of the validation process, the authors compared these innovation scores to personality items since the literature base is replete with examples of scholars who believe that innovation cannot be taught or learned but is a characteristic with which people are born or socialized into based on a family’s history with innovation and entrepreneurship. The authors then argue that personality and innovation capacities are distinct, with the former holding stable over the span of a person’s life and the latter something that can be developed and learned.


CIC member presidents who attended the 2018 CIC Presidents Institute know that its theme centered on innovation and resilience. Plenary presenters often addressed innovations occurring in the world (for example, regarding artificial intelligence) and those designed to meet distinctive campus goals. Common to these efforts was the idea that innovation is important to manage in the information age. Successful management requires assessing whether innovations are working on college campuses.
This study provides a theoretically grounded and empirically validated measure of innovation capacities to assess students’ ability to develop to better engage in all aspects of innovation. As one piece of the innovation puzzle, it offers educators a tool to determine whether their efforts to equip students for innovation are actually working.

About the Authors

Benjamin S. Selznick is assistant professor in the School of Strategic Leadership Studies at James Madison University.

Matthew J. Mayhew is William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Educational Administration with a focus on higher education and student affairs at Ohio State University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Council of Independent Colleges. 2018. Innovation and the Independent College: Examples from the Sector.

Kegan, R. 1994. In over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Shane, S. A. 2003. A General Theory of Entrepreneurship: The Individual-Opportunity Nexus. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing.