Blog post – What we learned by trusting students to come up with ideas

We thought we had these great ideas to engage students in problem-solving. We thought students would like the idea of being enterprising, thinking like entrepreneurs. In a course about innovation and leadership at a university that is all about creating change for a better world, solving complex problems as core assessment tasks seemed like a no-brainer.

We were wrong.

Not wrong in the overall philosophy, but wrong in how we translated the ethos of problem-solving and an enterprising mindset to our teaching and assessment practices.

In 2018 we designed a graduate level course, Engineering Innovation and Leadership, to engage students in problem-solving. We had this exciting idea and set students on a journey to think critically and creatively to offer innovative solutions – to apply their enterprising minds to a complex problem. Along the way, we provided relevant content to enrich their thinking. What happened? Students did the work but they never got excited, not as excited as we were. The discussions in class and their assessment did not show a level of sophistication – nothing we would expect of enterprising and innovative leaders.

We could have blamed the students. 'Rinse and repeat' of the course in the next year. But we were curious. We were frustrated. We were confused. We wondered what we were missing. We wanted to rethink our assumptions.

UQ has plenty of data to inform our teaching. SECaTs. Student demographics. We had the assessment tasks from students. While we drew on all these sources of information, we really needed to talk it through with an experienced, thoughtful colleague.

We sat down with Professor Lydia Kavanagh.

She shared her experiences of teaching and coordinating project-centred courses. She had not taught our exact course or even the same student cohort but she knew the teaching practices we were trying to facilitate in our course. She tried them in classes larger than ours. She also did not get things right on the first go, so could relate to our struggles in a genuine way. She listened as we talked through how the course was designed and the issues we faced. Of all the guidance, she stressed that we needed to ‘trust the students to take ownership of the idea’.

This clicked for us.

We had picked the idea for students – the idea for the innovation we wanted them to focus on. We assumed our excitement for the idea would translate into them being excited. But we took a key decision away from students. Because the students didn’t create the idea, they didn’t own it.

We radically rethought the course for 2019. Our ethos to give students a learning experience in entrepreneurial education was unchanged. But what we did change was who got to select the innovation idea to drive the problem-solving process in the course, and the language we used with students to talk about being an entrepreneur.

So rather than give them specific innovation ideas, students were instead given a specific context, a 'sandbox', for their innovative idea – in this case, a refugee camp on the Thai/Myanmar border. After coming up with an idea and pitching to their fellow students and the teaching team, the students then worked through the various components of the Business Model Canvas (see model here) that explores central concepts (e.g. value proposition, customer relationships, cost structures).

By trusting them to take ownership and presenting a clearer pathway for business model development we found there was greater buy-in. We also evoked a sense of competition and realism by aligning one of the assessment pieces with the Dow Centre Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Award (SISCA) where they had to pitch their idea for a chance to win real seed money. Three groups of students won prizes in SISCA of $2500 each to advance their ideas. But more importantly, we believe we’ve created a motivated cohort that’s not afraid to build on ideas and create change through entrepreneurship.

We adapted and improved the language which became more human interaction and needs focused due to the context of the sandbox. We still used some entrepreneurial jargon but the focus on solving a problem resonated with the engineers and softened the business focus.

We learned in the context of teaching entrepreneurship that student ownership of the entrepreneurial idea from its genesis is crucial. 

In any teaching context, we learned the importance of trusting students by sharing ownership for decisions in the curriculum that academics usually make for students instead of with students.


Shared by Associate Professor Simon Smart (below, left) and Dr Tony Heynen (below, right) who teach in the School of Chemical Engineering.

Associate Professor Simon Smart      Dr Tony Heynen


Last updated:
1 April 2019