Digest No. 08 - January 2021

Helping Students Learn to Be Innovative

Selznick, B. and M. J. Mayhew. 2019. “Developing First-Year Students’ Innovation Capacities.” Review of Higher Education 42 (4): 1607–1634.


Innovation has become more than a buzzword in higher education. One needs to look no further for evidence than the many ways higher education stakeholders have expressed their commitment to innovation. Coalitions across colleges (such as the University Innovation Alliance) have been created, innovation centers have been funded, majors in innovation have been established, and the theme for the Council of Independent Colleges’ (CIC) 2018 Presidents Institute centered on innovation. Given this emerging, sustained, and “well-resourced” interest, it is surprising that more empirical work has not been done to ensure that the primary target of these interests—students—are benefitting from stakeholders’ commitment to innovation.

The purpose of this study was to examine the institutional conditions and educational practices that help students develop their innovation capacities. The authors define innovation capacities as “a set of self-perceptions, skills, and abilities that individuals can acquire in order to better engage in innovation” (p. 1609). Results indicated that developing innovation capacities among first-year students was associated with “taking innovation-related coursework, having positive interactions with faculty, exposing students to assessments that encourage argumentation, and supporting students’ career trajectories” (pp. 1,607–1,608).


Can innovation be taught? Or is it an artifact of personality? Or of having a family history with entrepreneurial ventures? Central to this study’s premise is the assertion that innovation can be taught and that educators can engineer environments to maximize its development. Drawing from psychology and business, the authors provide a thorough review of the empirical work informing this study’s design, which not only accounted for potential confounding variables such as personality and family entrepreneurial history, but also included the elements needed to substantiate claims with confidence.

The authors designed a longitudinal, multi-institutional study that examined the innovation capacity development of 528 students enrolled at 14 institutions in fall 2015. Students were administered a theoretically-developed and empirically-validated measure of innovation capacity, which included items and scales designed to measure different innovation dimensions, including motivation, proactivity, self-confidence, persuasive communication, teamwork across difference, networking, creative cognition, risk-taking, and intention to innovate. These scales were then brought together to create an innovation score for each student at each point of administration (i.e., pretest and posttest innovation score). In addition to these scales, the authors collected a host of other information, either through institutional records (for example, gender, race, and grade point average records) or additional survey items (for instance, regarding personality or family history with entrepreneurship).

Results from this study were encouraging for educators interested in helping students develop as innovators. Although personality, demographic information, and the pretest innovation score explained 47 percent of the variance in innovation capacity at the end of the first year, certain curricular and co-curricular practices explained an additional and significant 7 percent.


Can innovation capacities be taught? The answer, in short, is yes—by encouraging students to double-major, take courses in innovation and entrepreneurship, and develop strong relationships with faculty members. For faculty, there also is a clear directive: have students design cases or make arguments that they then defend. Subsequently, assess them on their ability to provide a reasonable and thoughtful defense.

For career service specialists and faculty members who advise students, this study provides an empirical roadmap for developing students as innovators. Educators should: provide students with opportunities to discuss career paths with peers in and outside of the student’s major, make sure students have a point-person with whom they feel comfortable discussing career aspirations, and curate experiences that encourage students to consider starting their own organization (such as a business or nonprofit organization) as part of their career path.

Administrators should stop allocating resources toward innovation expressions without having a plan for ensuring that those expressions have a positive effect on students. Although it may be popular and easy to get behind innovation as something campuses embrace, doing so without a plan makes the innovation expression more of a fad—and sometimes a very expensive one—at best. Administrative staff and faculty members should consider including innovation capacity development as a learning objective that is articulated in a strategic plan or other managing document and assessed accordingly.

About the Authors

Ben Selznick is assistant professor of leadership studies and advisor to the postsecondary analysis and leadership concentration at James Madison University.

Matthew J. Mayhew is Flesher Professor of Educational Administration and program director of the Higher Education and Student Affairs Program at Ohio State University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

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

Kegan, R. 2009. “What ‘Form’ Transforms? A Constructive-Developmental Approach to Transformative Learning.” In Contemporary Theories of Learning: Learning Theorists…in Their Own Words, edited by K. Illeris, 35–52. New York: Routledge.

Mayhew, M. J., A. N. Rockenbach, N. A. Bowman, T. A. Seifert, and G. C. Wolniak. 2016. How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence That Higher Education Works (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.