What are the barriers to teaching effectuation in the entrepreneurship classroom?

Teaching entrepreneurship or enterprise education in Higher Education can mean a range of things to a range of teachers and students. As effectuation is recognized as the method employed by expert entrepreneurs when evolving their projects to businesses it would seem natural to bring it into the classroom. If our students can practice effectual ways of decision-making and working in a safe environment then surely this ‘training’ will make them better prepared to become entrepreneurs, if that is a choice they make, or even as intrapreneurs in the companies they are employed in. So in process or ‘through’ courses it would make sense for teachers to bring effectuation into the classroom as a powerful means to move students towards entrepreneurial action. However drawing on findings from our case study, described below, we found that there were three distinct barriers to using effectuation in the classroom.

Process courses and student-centered learning

Process courses are very different from the traditional type of courses taught at universities. Traditional courses lay responsibility heavily on the teacher to deliver – a good lecture – knowledge in ways that the students can understand and are able to re-produce. Here the roles are set, teacher as expert, student in a role as receiver and reproducer of knowledge. Even though some university courses have shifted towards active learning with students working in groups with activities which are put in place that engage students in a range of ways, the process course is a different category of teaching. The process course requires that students understand that the balance of responsibility for learning has shifted and that the onus of responsibility is weighted towards themselves. As far as the teacher is concerned there is a shift, not only in who has responsibility for learning, but that new roles have to be undertaken e.g. as facilitator, mentor, role-model etc. For entrepreneurship education the ‘through’ course is about a process and about student-centered learning.

The case

Drawing on findings from a case study of a thirteen week process course with 142 undergraduate students we noted how students struggled with effectual decision making logics. Initially the students were positive and excited about the course being ‘different’ from the traditional delivery of knowledge in lecture based courses. The students were expected to work in teams, find a common area of interest, identify a challenge, develop ideas, research the particular context and develop a business model for their potential market. The course was carefully constructed to combine effectuation and design thinking elements to facilitate development of creativity, ideas, finding potential stakeholders and to elicit learning through. Beginning with the students’ own means, competences, skills and resources in the form of networks, was the first step in the effectual process. The process was carefully facilitated by the teachers.


Three barriers were identified for students in the process course based on effectuation as a method. These were i) noviceness, ii) school project versus real life, and iii) perceived lack of legitimacy of teachers and process. We will elaborate on them in the following.

Being a novice

Novices are people who lack experience and are new to a particular field. Undergraduate students may be regarded as novices in a number of ways – as people, as students and as team players. The students are novices as people having a young age and lack experience of life in general and work in particular. They have not yet had the chance to build up a range of life experiences or to have built up diverse networks that extend beyond close family and friends. Furthermore these students were often unable to articulate their own skills and competences beyond what qualifications they had received from schooling/education. The bird-in-hand principle requires the student to understand their own potential, their networks and to draw on resources available to them. Many of the students were quick to look at other people’s challenges and had difficultly bringing themselves into the equation. They are also novices as students having been schooled in particular ways of learning  – and that there is only one right answer. Moving to a different way of working where the outcome is unknown was extremely difficult caused much concern and frustration. The students often linked this frustration to the exam and what they were going to be asked about. This conflicts with another principle of effectuation – the pilot-in-the-plane – where there is control over the project and commitment to the outcomes in the team. Being team players caused anxiety for many students who had come to the course not knowing the other students. The teams were randomly put together by the teachers so the students had to work hard to get to know each other, find out what resources there were in the team and to understand how the others worked. Instead of understanding other team members as potential resources or access to resources they felt uncertainty, insecurity and concern about ambitions and level of commitment.

School project versus real life

Once the initial excitement with the course had died down the students began to express doubts about the authenticity of the project. Was this just another school project to be completed so that they could get a good grade in the exam at the end? Was this a real life project that could become a business in reality that would have markets and a product? Was this a project that was ‘pretend’ for real? These underlying concerns influenced the (lack of) commitment the students made to varying degrees which in turn affected the connections they made to stakeholders outside of the project. This conflicts with the crazy quilt principal.

Legitimacy of the teachers as experts

The teachers sought to set themselves up as role models, facilitators, innovators, by validating their expertise. However the students were suspicious of the teachers in these roles and articulated uncertainty about entrepreneurs working using effectuation. Instructions were ignored e.g. in the brainstorming process and students went straight to their pre-agreed ‘good idea’ and fixed on that. They were therefore not open to take in surprises and leverage contingencies from the process.

What can we learn from this study about using effectuation in the classroom?

As effectuation starts with the means of the students and brings their experiences into play there is both the potential for an opportunity and a threat for the entrepreneurship classroom. Being able to acknowledge the importance of noviceness (in all its forms), the school project/real life project and the legitimacy of the teachers means allowing for insecurity, uncertainty and suspicion on the part of the students. These are signifiers of an important missing element in the classroom – the element of trust. Trust can only be built up over time and in an environment where insecurity, uncertainty and suspicion are acknowledged and articulated. Students are confronted with a real fear of failure and feel threatened. The threat is a personal one, to their identities as people and to their roles as a ‘good students’.  The fictive nature of the project invokes uncertainty about how much to believe, how far to go and who to involve. A disconnect between what they are expected to do as ‘good students’ and what they should achieve ‘as potential entrepreneurs’ creates tension. Not only do we as teachers have to become adept at picking up on these signifiers but we are pushing our students towards new identities and new roles by exposing them to effectuation. It is therefore important that trust is built between the teacher and students and between the students themselves establishing new roles and an environment where it is acceptable to not know the answer or outcome and where there is room to experiment with new identities. If we can build trust we might succeed with teaching effectuation; if not we will certainly fail.

Sarah Robinson and Franziska Günzel-Jensen

Authors: Sarah Robinson is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Teaching Development and DIgital Media in the Faculty of Arts at the Aarhus University and Franziska Günzel-Jensen is an Associate Professor at the Department of Management in the School of Business and Social Sciences at the Aarhus University. The blog post is based on their paper “Critiquing Effectuation in Entrepreneurship Teaching with Undergraduates” that won a Best Paper Award at the 3E 2014 Conference in Turku, Finland on 9-11 April 2014.

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