Digest No. 06 - June 2019

Developing Undergraduates’ Innovation Capacities and Curricular Interventions

Mayhew, M. J., B. Selznick, L. Zhang, A. Barnes, and A. Staples. “Examining Curricular Approaches to Developing Undergraduates’ Innovation Capacities.” The Journal of Higher Education. November 2018. doi:10.1080/00221546.2018.1513307.


College campuses nationwide are striving to develop innovators, as the skills and abilities generally associated with innovation (such as creativity, teamwork across difference, and persuasive communication) are in increasingly high demand among both students and employers. Yet, few studies to date have sought to investigate the effects of curricular interventions specifically designed to promote such capacities (namely, beliefs about self, social skills, and cognitive abilities theoretically associated with being an innovator). Using an instrument detailed in the October 2018 issue of the Digest of Recent Research, “Measuring Students’ Capacities for Innovation” (No. 5), this study investigated undergraduates’ development of innovation capacities by employing a pre-test/post-test design across three course conditions at one institution.

The first condition was a “full dose” semester-long course titled Leadership and Innovation (n = 11). The second was a “partially dosed” set of courses that received a single-session curricular intervention led by the same facilitator, an expert on the research and teaching of undergraduate innovation (n = 22). The third was a “no dose/control” group that received no intervention (n = 16). It is important to note that students were randomly assigned into either the partially-dosed or the no-dose conditions. In addition, the sample included students from business and STEM majors as well as the social sciences, arts and humanities, and other fields of study.


After accounting for age (which proved to be the only relevant student background characteristic), pre-test score, and the possibility that students’ course selection could bias the results, the study expectedly found that when compared with students in the no-dose group, students in the full-dose course (Leadership and Innovation) made gains in innovation capacities. Intriguingly, results suggested that even greater gains were made by students in the partially-dosed group; that is, students who only received the short-term single-session intervention.

As the authors summarize: “The results of this study support the claim that targeted, innovation-specific curricula influence the development of undergraduate students’ innovation capacities” (p. 15). Reflecting on these efforts, the authors find support for the continued importance of promoting the development of innovation capacities among all students, not only those pursuing business or STEM fields. They also consider the importance of both using reliable, valid metrics to understand the effectiveness of educational efforts and considering how the theoretical underpinnings of metrics could productively guide pedagogical strategies and curriculum building.


The results of this study have three implications for campus leaders who are in charge of sustaining and supporting innovation efforts on their campus. First, the findings emphasize the importance of clearly defining and measuring innovation capacities as a collegiate outcome while also offering quantitative mechanisms for examining the effectiveness of innovation-related efforts. Having a definition and a measure is a far better starting point for innovation conversations than beginning with an open-ended request for stakeholder input. Second, the results highlight the efficacy of short-term, low-cost interventions. Often with innovation, it can seem like much is getting spent, but little is actually getting done. This study offers solutions for reversing this trend to ensure that valuable resources are generating more, not less, return. Finally, it provides evidence that locating innovation within the academic curriculum, rather than only the co-curriculum, can provide opportunities for more students to access these vital knowledge bases and leave college prepared to thrive in the global knowledge economy.

About the Authors

Matthew J. Mayhew is William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor in Educational Administration at the Ohio State University.

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

Lini Zhang is a postdoctoral research associate for the Interfaith Diversity Experiences & Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) at the Ohio State University.

Amy Barnes is clinical assistant professor and EdD program director, Higher Education and Student Affairs, at the Ohio State University.

Ashley Staples is a PhD candidate in the Higher Education and Student Affairs program at the Ohio State University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

McMurtrie, B. 2019. “No Textbooks, No Lectures, and No Right Answers. Is This What Higher Education Needs?” The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 10.

Wagner, T. 2012. Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. New York: Scribner.