'Entrepreneurial skills allow you to still take action in an uncertain situation'

What is entrepreneurial education, and why do we need it at the university?

Learning to deal with uncertainty is one of the most important entrepreneurial skills. How do teachers help their students develop this skill? Rianne Poot, programme manager of the UU Centre for Entrepreneurship, talks about entrepreneurial education at Utrecht University and UMC Utrecht. I see a lot of great initiatives around me. Meanwhile, every faculty is involved in entrepreneurial education in some way.

About this series

Our university educates students to become critical world citizens with an eye for the importance of the open society, says rector magnificus Henk Kummeling. An entrepreneurial mindset is essential to this. It is not necessarily about starting your own business. It is about learning to look at things differently. What opportunities do I see? Can I take action on them?

In this interview series, the Centre for Entrepreneurship introduces you to the people who can help take your idea further, or make that possible. In the left-hand column you will find the other articles in this series.

Entrepreneurial education - what do I learn?

Rianne Poot, programmamanager van het Utrecht University Centre for Entrepreneurship
Rianne Poot

If I ask you what entrepreneurial education is about, you probably think of starting a business. That is certainly an important part of this type of education, but in recent years a shift has taken place and entrepreneurial education is understood much more broadly. Not only at Utrecht University, but throughout higher education.

Education aimed at starting up a business is now referred to as 'narrow'. Broad entrepreneurial education encompasses much more. You can see it as a spectrum, where teachers start with the development of entrepreneurial skills. You then help students to notice societal problems that they encounter in their discipline and how they can contribute to an innovative solution. If they turn out to have something with great potential, this can then be translated into a business model.

Why is this type of education needed at the university?

Students learn to do research very well here. There is a lot of uncertainty in the research process - after all, you don't know the answer yet - but that uncertainty is reduced as much as possible. You keep searching until you have a certain answer you can publish; only then you take actual action.

What I would also like to offer the students is that every now and then, you disrupt the research process a little. Can you already take a few action steps during the uncertain period, to see what happens? Or quickly test something out and then adjust my hypothesis? This way, you can make decisions much faster during the process.

Entrepreneurial skills are mainly about taking action in the face of uncertainty. And students seem to find this extremely scary, but you will also have to do this a lot in your working life.

How do you simulate uncertainty and the desired entrepreneurial attitude in a course?

There are several methods you can use to make students act more entrepreneurial, such as Design Thinking, Effectuation Theory and Prototyping.

The good thing is that you can look for that uncertain context in every assignment. One possibility is to leave completely open which product students have to hand in. Or to ask a question so broad that students must choose for themselves how they interpret it, in the hope that a student will reason: 'this is what I know from my own discipline and this is what my fellow students bring to the table, so using this we can find a first opportunity to answer the question.'

How do you, as a teacher, ensure an objective assessment?

That is interesting, because this is difficult. Fortunately, at the UU Centre for Entrepreneurship, we are not the only ones looking beyond the knowledge test. We learn a lot from interdisciplinarity and co-creation, and there are also a number of other movements, such as challenge-based education and community engagement learning, that are also looking at how they can pose an authentic question to students.

The assessment is being adjusted accordingly. Less knowledge exams, more focus on the output and the process that students have gone through. Together with the universities of Wageningen and Eindhoven, we are working on an action-oriented assessment model to see if we can better incorporate the process that students go through in the assessment. 

The danger is that you say 'we'll give you complete freedom, enjoy the uncertainty but we do want a finished product in ten weeks'. Then you end up teaching-to-the-test again, because students will try to take fewer risks. Whereas it would be wonderful if you could assess the process and see that students have really tried a lot, even though it may not have worked out.

Students learn to do research very well here. What I would also like to offer the students is that every now and then, you disrupt the research process a little. Can you already take a few action steps during the uncertain period, to see what happens?

Rianne Poot, programmamanager van het Utrecht University Centre for Entrepreneurship
Rianne Poot
Programme manager UU Centre for Entrepreneurship

So you can still pass, even though your product 'failed'?

Absolutely. You see the same thing with entrepreneurs. A business is started and it doesn't work out. And neither does the next one. But company number three is successful. That would only have been possible if company one and two had also been there.

Is this already possible at Utrecht University?

Certainly. I see many wonderful initiatives around me. And I notice that many lecturers are looking for more room to experiment. The Faculty of Law, Economics and Governance, with its Entrepreneurship section, has been strongly committed to entrepreneurial education for years. Meanwhile, every faculty is involved in entrepreneurial education in some way.

Entrepreneurial education in Utrecht

As a student or professional you might want to explore your entrepreneurial side, but don't know where to begin. Learn about the entrepreneurial education on offer at Utrecht University for Bachelor's, Master's and PhD students and professionals, or browse through the information on co-curricular activities on entrepreneurship.

To the overview

How does the UU Centre for Entrepreneurship help teachers towards entrepreneurial education?

We do this in different ways. With course audits, we help lecturers who are already engaged in entrepreneurial education and wonder where the course can be improved. We provide workshops on pitching, the Business Model Canvas and the Effectuation Theory, for teachers or as guest lecturer.

We also like to be involved in the development of new education, right from the start. We are now working on a number of larger faculty USO projects for entrepreneurial education in the Master's phase, at the Psychology department and at the Science Faculty.

With the Special Interest Group (SIG) Entrepreneurship Education, we organise activities for lecturers interested in this type of education. Together with our alliance partners from Eindhoven and Wageningen, we also facilitate the Entrepreneurial Education Network, which brings professionals together in the field of entrepreneurial learning. Four times a year, we organise an online network meeting around a theme, such as serious games or intellectual property rights for students.

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