Killing innovation softly: grades

As universities offer more and more entrepreneurship courses in their curricula, their ambition to promote innovative thinking runs against one of the pillars of academic provision, namely the measurement of academic achievement. When its power as a signal of quality is too significant to ignore, it becomes an end in its own right. In the UK in particular, achieving less than an upper second class degree (2:1) can disqualify one from graduate jobs or further study. Students become invested in achieving a first class degree.

Measures of academic achievement are meant to signal relative standing based on the premise of their normal distribution. Their rigour is underpinned by quality-assurance processes that triple-certify the assessment and enforce its (normal) distribution through moderation, exam boards, and external examiners. In between the student fixation on grades and the imposition of the processes that produce them, innovation loses its punch.

For all the exciting activities that can be done in an entrepreneurship course to develop skills in creativity, experimentation, and design, if they are not graded students lose genuine interest to engage in them. If they are to be graded, two forces quickly deflate them. First, they have to be subject to certification, which makes the use of written or standardized assignments expedient for the transparency of their assessment. Second, these activities have uncertain outcomes and unscripted processes, which necessarily enshrines them in ambiguity and the risk of coming out empty handed. But such ambiguity is intolerable when students need a certain grade: they want to know what is to be done to achieve it. Model answers serve as anchors and effectively box in the outputs. 

Norms and normal distribution around them work for basic knowledge and skills, where achievements have clear boundaries. But the power of innovative ideas and entrepreneurial initiatives lies in their unbounded nature, in the long tail of outliers that arise naturally from unrestrained social processes of interaction and experimentation, fueled by innate purpose and curiosity. When these processes are defined by external purpose and restrained from the start through the instruments that measure their outputs, that power is lost.