Entrepreneurship Education: Theory or Practice?

Francesco Rullani, Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at LUISS University

The first time I was asked to prepare a syllabus for a course on entrepreneurship I stared at the blank sheet for a while. The main dilemma I had was how to teach it. While studying the topic, I encountered many ideas, theories, hints and cases, but in that moment I had to select the right pieces and compose a meaningful picture. Basically, I was uncertain of which teaching method to use, and more importantly, connecting it with the content I had to deliver.

I could have gone for a theory-based approach. The aim would have meant pushing students to develop mental models describing the relations among the main variables representing entrepreneurs’ traits, actions and contexts. But is this the knowledge my students needed? Could this really help them understand the importance of acquiring an entrepreneurial mind-set? Would this grow their urge to risks? Or even on a more practical level, would this provide them with the skills to make an informed leap towards realizing their ideas, and even their dreams?
Should I have applied a different approach, focusing more on practice-based learning?  I could have asked my students to generate their own ideas – many already had some – and move from there. I could follow their ideas, by asking ‘what’s next?’ and challenging them to think further into their would-be start-up. I could have provided them with tricks to create a convincing business plan and perfect their elevator pitch, or with information on how to carefully search for financial resources to get their venture off the ground. But again, is this the knowledge my students needed? Could this really help them act wisely in the face of adversity and extreme uncertainty that permeates any entrepreneurial process? Would this allow them to abstract from their specific context, create a mental model, learn more general lessons, and use the resulting knowledge to solve different problems, foster other ideas and possibly other start-ups?

To make my decisions even more challenging, a recent scholarly debate on entrepreneurship, born around the concept of effectuation, has been pushing the idea that the two paths of instruction are difficult to reconcile. Scott Shane’s recent research on genetic factors*  in entrepreneurship, for example, is difficult to convey via the practice-based approach described above. While on the contrary effectuation revolves very much around the concept of action**. Indeed, teaching effectuation using only a theoretical perspective, without involving students in the actual challenge of creating a new enterprise, can constrain the learning process and limit their takeaways.

Of course, much depends on the aim of the course and the type of students.  Policy-makers may be more interested than start-uppers in developing a theoretical understanding of entrepreneurship, and vice versa. However, while this may be true, policy-makers would understand entrepreneurs and their needs more clearly if they could experience entrepreneurship first-hand, and get a real-feel for the daily uncertainties therein. Moreover, start-uppers would be able to avoid many mistakes and adapt quickly to new situations if they had already spent some time developing mental models of entrepreneurial ecosystems, processes and traits.

As there are positives and negatives in each train of thought, it can be concluded that practice-based and theory-based learning should be jointly taught iteratively. We should engage students in learning-by-doing activities by introducing novel projects, and allowing them to discover not only what tools, skills and contacts they need, but also what kind of attitude, mind-set and perspective they will help them more successfully into their careers or ventures.

These are the moments in which a teacher’s guidance becomes crucial, moments where we can push students to abandon the elements specific to their case and move to a higher level of abstraction – adding new elements to the picture and framing the insights. Class discussions can help students generate a shared mental model that will allow them to apply their knowledge more widely and deeply than they could do otherwise. When such models do emerge clearly, the class can then be guided back to the reality of the individual cases, problems and uncertainties. The mental model should be continually challenged by ongoing confrontation with reality, and knowledge gained through experiences should seek to be extracted and applied in more general terms, to discover more over-arching lessons.

Designing courses in entrepreneurship educations by bringing theory and practice together to co-evolve is one good way of teaching entrepreneurship – at least that’s what I learned while preparing my syllabus that day.

*Nicolau, Shane, Hunkin, Cherkas & Spector, 2008. Is the tendency to engage in entrepreneurship genetic? Management Science , 54(1) 167-179
**Read, Sarasvathy, Dew, Wiltbank & Ohlsson. 2011. Effectual entrepreneurship, Routledge


Category : entrepreneurship education Posted : 14 March 2016 14:12 UTC
About the Author
Francesco Rullani, Assistant Professor in Entrepreneurship and Innovation at LUISS University


Professor Rullani's blog addresses a very valid dilemma on theory vs practice in entrepreneurship education. His message is clear: " practice-based and theory-based learning should be coupled in an iterative way". I just hope that in his next blog he will provide some examples on how to make it happen.
Prof. János Vecsenyi
Prof. János Vecsenyi 2016-03-14 14:14 Reply
Hi, in the UK Unis we use our national guidance from the Quality Assurance Agency. This offers thematic approaches that help educators to see potential ways of working... for example through stages of awareness, minder and capability development. Graduate outcomes may also be useful in this document.
Andy Penaluna
Andy Penaluna 2016-03-18 09:26 Reply
I, and I am sure colleagues, in the UK certainly faced similar issues in the past. The community of practice got together with stakeholders in 2010-11 and our Quality Assurance Agency in the UK worked with us to create this guidance document for our UK University sector. Initially we thought it might not gain traction, but now it is employed across the entire HE decor and beyond. Details here, it may possibly help other colleagues to know of it?
Andy Penaluna
Andy Penaluna 2016-03-14 16:42 Reply

Post a comment

Security code Refresh

Related Articles

We use cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Find out more here.

I accept cookies from this site: