How college can develop innovators (opinion)

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Substantial attention continues to be paid to the role of college in developing innovators, an especially true reality as institutions consider their next moves in light of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Universities themselves are increasingly encoding innovation and transformation into their strategic plans, even if delivering on such promises can prove challenging.

Our own research has sought to generate insights on what works and why to develop innovators in college. We’ve found, broadly speaking, that not getting straight A’s, pursuing a double major and being a transfer student can all be predictors at the student level of innovators in the making.

But what about growth over a longer period of time—say, four years of college? Are there certain experiences that are stronger indicators of students being on an innovation trajectory through college? And do these findings hold across personality types and other individual differences? In other words, who becomes an innovator? Answering such questions would be useful to colleges, sure, but also to employers.

New research by our team set out to answer such questions. So what did we find?

Background

Before answering, a brief background on our effort. This work represents a longitudinal study in which we survey sampled undergraduate students at nine institutions in North America (eight in the U.S. and one Canada) at three time points: the beginning of their first year, the end of their first year and their senior year. In addition to collecting information on important characteristics such as personality traits and family background, we also surveyed students using a comprehensive measure of innovation capacities that looked at intrapersonal (e.g., intrinsic motivation), social (e.g., networking) and cognitive (e.g., creativity) dimensions. After the data were collected, we sought to identify the characteristics of students who had a robust innovation trajectory and those who did not.

Core Insights

Across our sample, we found two groups of students: the first, larger group (87 percent of the sample) demonstrated relatively no change in their innovation capacity scores during four college years. The second group (13 percent of the sample), while starting out pretty much the same as the first group, demonstrated notable and significant growth.

What determined whether a student was in the 13 percent?

Providing continuing support to existing ideas that personality counts, our study adds evidence that two key traits—being extroverted and being open to new experiences—were associated with someone being about 2.5 to three times more likely to fall in the innovation group. Does personality matter? It does.

But that’s not the whole story.

The single biggest predictor of being in the innovation group had little do to with who you were and more about what you did during college. Specifically, students who had many opportunities for cocurricular learning during college were—and this is not a typo—nine times more likely to fall in the innovation trajectory group.

To unpack this a bit, this set of survey questions asked students the extent to which their out-of-class experiences did the following: had a positive influence on intellectual growth and ideas; had a positive influence on personal growth, attitudes and values; provided opportunities to translate knowledge and understanding in the classroom into action; and helped connect what was learned in the classroom with real-life events. So, in plain terms, when students scored highly on all four items, those same students were much more likely to develop innovation capacities during college.

What This Means

We see many practical takeaways from this study that can shape current and future conversations about the roles of colleges in innovation. To begin, our core results hold across students’ majors, races/ethnicities, genders and family histories with entrepreneurship. These findings also held after considering students’ innovation capacities at college entry—it was not the case that existing innovators were more likely to engage in cocurricular learning.

Additionally, being an innovator is not strictly limited to a certain group of individuals with specific personality traits; while these matter, they are not absolute. In fact, we wonder whether faculty and staff members interested in innovation might consider ways to more intentionally engage introverts—especially given new research suggesting that introverts may demonstrate greater resilience when confronting setbacks.

We also see many considerations here given the outsize importance of cocurricular learning experiences, but let’s focus on two big ones. One way we interpret this finding is being an indication of the importance of experiences—whether we call them applied, active, experiential or hands-on—that more directly engage students in the learning process. Such experiences make full use of college, both in and outside the classroom, for supporting innovation development. Experiences that closely connect knowledge to the real world not only support the learning proclivities of Gen Z students, but they provide space in the undergraduate experience for safe risk taking, persuasive communication and proactivity—all innovation capacities included in our survey measure.

Moreover, such a finding provides renewed insight on the true importance and value of out-of-class time in undergraduate settings. As colleges consider how COVID-19 responses and policies will (or will not) affect campus life and activities in the years to come, we hope that colleges seeking to promote innovation will continue to value and emphasize (and fund!) those social and community-based experiences that provide students with unique opportunities to apply new knowledge to their lives during this highly developmental time in their lives. Intriguingly, while curricular experiences matter in the first year, what really sets students up for four-year innovation growth is what happens beyond the classroom.

A question that has guided our research for roughly a decade now has been: Can colleges develop innovators? Through this new study and its insights, we continue to find evidence for answering: yes.

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