Straight A Students May Not Be the Best Innovators

by Matthew Mayhew, Associate Professor of Higher Education, New York University, and Benjamin S. Selznick, Ph.D. Candidate, New York University

Originally published February 19, 2016 in The Conversation


Demand for innovation is at an all-time high. Innovation is now recognized as being key to economic growth strategies in the United States, Canada and countries in the European Union.

As a result, there is an increased need to understand what drives innovation. Certainly traditional research and development, funded by both the private and public sectors, continues to remain a primary source of new ideas and products. But innovation demands innovators.

So where do innovators come from? And how do they acquire their skills?

One place – perhaps among the best – is college. Over the past seven years, my research has explored the influence of college on preparing students with the capacity, desire and intention to innovate.

In this time we’ve learned that many academic and social experiences matter quite a bit; grades, however, do not matter as much.

What influences student innovation?

Our ongoing research, an example of which can be found here, has surveyed over 10,000 full-time undergraduate and graduate students in four countries – the United States, Canada, Germany and Qatar.

Our sample includes a wide diversity of students: those in fields of study often associated with innovation and entrepreneurship (e.g., business, engineering) as well as more traditional majors (e.g., arts, humanities, education); those from differing races/ethnicities and gender identifications; those from different socioeconomic and political backgrounds; and those from families that already include, or do not include, entrepreneurs.

To learn more, we asked students about their innovation intentions and capacities, their higher education experiences, and their background characteristics. We also administered a “personality inventory” to address the question of whether innovators are born or made.
We conducted a series of statistical analyses that allowed us to isolate the influence of any one individual attribute (e.g., classroom experiences, GPA, personality, gender, etc.) on our innovation outcomes.

Here is what our analyses have revealed so far:

  • Classroom practices make a difference: students who indicated that their college assessments encouraged problem-solving and argument development were more likely to want to innovate. Such an assessment frequently involves evaluating students in their abilities to create and answer their own questions; to develop case studies based on readings as opposed to responding to hypothetical cases; and/or to make and defend arguments. Creating a classroom conducive to innovation was particularly important for undergraduate students when compared to graduate students.
  • Faculty matters – a lot: students who formed a close relationship with a faculty member or had meaningful interactions (i.e., experiences that had a positive influence on one’s personal growth, attitudes and values) with faculty outside of class demonstrated a higher likelihood to be innovative. When a faculty member is able to serve as a mentor and sounding board for student ideas, exciting innovations may follow.

Interestingly, we saw the influence of faculty on innovation outcomes in our analyses even after accounting for a student’s field of study, suggesting that promoting innovation can happen across disciplines and curricula. Additionally, when we ran our statistical models using a sample of students from outside the United States, we found that faculty relationships were still very important. So, getting to know a faculty member might be a key factor for promoting innovation among college students, regardless of where the education takes place or how it is delivered.

  • Peer networking is effective: outside the classroom, students who connected course learning with social issues and career plans were also more innovative. For example, students who initiated informal discussions about how to combine the ideas they were learning in their classes to solve common problems and address global concerns were the ones who most likely recognized opportunities for creating new businesses or nonprofit social ventures.

Being innovative was consistently associated with the college providing students with space and opportunities for networking, even after considering personality type, such as being extroverted.

Networking remained salient when we analyzed a sample of graduate students – in this instance, those pursuing M.B.A. degrees in the United States. We take these findings as a positive indication that students are spending their “out-of-class” time learning to recognize opportunities and discussing new ideas with peers.

Who are the innovators?

On the basis of our findings, we believe that colleges might be uniquely positioned to cultivate a new generation of diverse innovators.

Counter to the Thiel Fellowship, an initiative that pays individuals to step out of college in order to become entrepreneurs, our work supports efforts by colleges and universities to combine classroom learning with entrepreneurial opportunities and to integrate education with innovation.

One of our most interesting findings was that as GPAs went down, innovation tended to go up. Even after considering a student’s major, personality traits and features of the learning environment, students with lower GPAs reported innovation intentions that were, on average, greater than their higher-GPA counterparts.

In short: GPA was associated with innovation, but maybe not in the direction you’d think.

Why might this be the case?

From our findings, we speculate that this relationship may have to do with what innovators prioritize in their college environment: taking on new challenges, developing strategies in response to new opportunities and brainstorming new ideas with classmates.

Time spent in these areas might really benefit innovation, but not necessarily GPA.

Additionally, findings elsewhere strongly suggest that innovators tend to be intrinsically motivated – that is, they are interested in engaging pursuits that are personally meaningful, but might not be immediately rewarded by others.

We see this work as confirmation of our findings – grades, by their very nature, tend to reflect the abilities of individuals motivated by receiving external validation for the quality of their efforts.

Perhaps, for these reasons, the head of people operations at Google has noted:

GPAs are worthless as a criteria for hiring.

Somewhat troubling, though in line with concerns that plague the entrepreneurship community, women were less likely to demonstrate innovation intentions than men, all else being equal.

This is a problem, especially given jarring statistics that venture capitalists are funding males – specifically white males – more than any other group.

Such findings also speak to the need for higher education to intervene and actively introduce the broadest range of individuals to educational experiences and environments that spur the generation and implementation of new ideas. Fresh and creative ideas, after all, are not restricted to any one gender, race or family background.

As we say in our forthcoming paper’s finding on gender:

Imagine the explosion of new processes and products that would emerge in a world where half the population was socialized to believe that it could and should innovate.

Imagine indeed.