Fostering Undergraduate Innovation

graphic of a paper airplane

by Kristen Mosley

Higher education institutions can foster innovation and innovative skills in their undergraduate populations, producing a rippling, positive impact on society’s future. As a facilitator of undergraduate students, you may wonder how you can foster the development of such important skills in your own course. Today’s post examines a recent study – largely composed of undergraduate students in education – to add insight to this curiosity.

“Today’s undergraduates are tomorrow’s employees; as such, they are one of the major sources of future innovations in organizational settings.”1 Innovativeness is most often associated with the understanding that an individual who is innovative has a palpable “willingness to change.”2 However, being innovative is more than merely the ability to change. To be innovative requires one to introduce and apply new ways of being or doing in an intentional way that benefits the processes, products, or procedures at play.3 At the undergraduate level – where the academic setting is the workplace and the workplace behavior in which innovation would occur is studying and actively participating in academic environments – there are many ways that the ability to be innovative can support a student’s academic and personal growth. 

A student’s ability to innovate has implications not just for their skill development but also for their psychological health, as research suggests a positive correlation between an individual’s innovative ability and their overall well-being.4 Given the reality that innovation doesn’t always produce net-positive outcomes for the task at hand (e.g., failed experimentation), it’s important to examine how the development of this skill set may nevertheless support the one employing it. Prior studies have found that the process of thinking in expansive, innovative ways can support students’ autonomy, adaptive abilities in times of changing work requirements, and coping capacity in high-stress situations.5 So, how does a professor support undergraduate students in developing these important innovative skills?

In a study of 78 undergraduates, 61% of whom were studying education, the necessary inputs hypothesized for student innovation (autonomy and cognitive demands) were examined at two timepoints—fall of students’ first and second undergraduate years. Overall, the tested models, which included students’ area of study, self-reports of autonomy and cognitive demands, and measured innovative behavior, explained 24% of the variance in innovative behavior at Time 1 and 56% of the variance in innovative behavior at Time 2.1

Regarding the impact on innovative behavior of students’ self-reported autonomy and cognitive demands, findings varied by time point. After controlling for students’ majors, student self-reported autonomy at Time 1 and Time 2 was positively and significantly predictive of their innovative behavior at Time 1 and Time 2. Moreover, innovative behavior at Time 1 (which were spurred by feelings of autonomy at Time 1) also explained a significant proportion of innovative behavior at Time 2. While unpredictive of innovation at Time 1, when student self-reported cognitive demands were measured at Time 2 they also proved to be significant, positive predictors of innovative behavior at Time 2.1  

Prior studies have identified autonomy as central to students’ innovative behavior,5 and findings from the above detailed study reiterate the importance of students’ sense of autonomy in their learning environments. Autonomy was a significant predictor of innovative behaviors at both time points and was the main predictor of innovation at Time 1. This study also extended the research on student innovative behavior by finding partial support for how innovative skills can support students in coping capacity.1 Cognitive demands at Time 2 were a significant, positive predictor of innovative behavior at Time 2, which could signal that placing appropriately rigorous cognitive demands on undergraduate students can positively contribute to their development of innovative skills over time.

In short, research supports the understanding that prioritizing student autonomy and engaging students in cognitively demanding coursework should provide fertile ground for their development of innovative behavior. If you’re curious about how your own course design can best facilitate student autonomy and stimulate cognitive demands, our office would be excited to support you in these endeavors!

1. Martín, P., Potočnik, K., & Fras, A. B. (2017). Determinants of students’ innovation in higher education. Studies in Higher Education42(7), 1229-1243.

2. Hurt, H. T., Joseph, K., & Cook, C. D. (1977). Scales for the measurement of innovativeness. Human Communication Research4(1), 58-65.

3. West, M. A. & Farr, J. L. (1990), Innovation and creativity at work: Psychological and organizational strategies (pp. 63–80). John Wiley & Sons.

4. Dolan, P., and R. Metcalfe. 2012. The relationship between innovation and subjective wellbeing. Research Policy, 41, 1489–1498.

5. Anderson, N., K. Potočnik, and J. Zhou. 2014. Innovation and creativity in organizations: A state-of-the-science review, prospective commentary, and guiding framework. Journal of Management, 40, 1297–1333.

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