Creativity in higher education

Invention, or the synonymous “innovation” or “creativity”, is a tremendous contributing factor in the advancement of society. One thing that characterises all great thinkers, musicians, scientists, writers and artists is that they have mastered multiple components of knowledge pertaining to their respective domain, and have then reshaped and experimented with that knowledge to solve problems. Often, it can be unexpected and through errors in design or research that the epiphanies arrive, but without the base knowledge and the culture of experimentation to begin with, invention of note rarely occurs.  

The key then in higher education is to cultivate this sequence of learning to ensure that students don’t just receive content, but as a minimum are expected to apply what they know to new contexts. But also, there should be opportunity and prompts and support for students to consider new and interesting ways of thinking about those applications.   

Central to this sequence is the need to develop layers of knowledge. Newton’s iconic ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants’ is suitably apt here, and reinforces what is in fact an intuitive understanding that you can’t think about things you have no knowledge of. One thing that university certainly provides is access to higher order knowledge, so it seems this aspect of the sequence is covered. But at times, the need to get through a significant amount of content can dominate learning activity, offering little chance for students to extend that base.

An obvious solution to this is to re-evaluate the amount of content and adjust/reduce it to fit in explicit moments of application accordingly, but that is not so easy to do, and often requires a change that can have implications for whole programs. The other solution is to utilise the blended context that almost all university courses now find themselves a part of.

If you build it, they will come

The blended context utilises a Learning Management System (LMS) to support the delivery of content, but it can also be used to help students not only secure knowledge via retrieval practice, but also deepen understanding through discussions and activities that promote critical and creative thinking about the content. Carefully crafted activities that incrementally develop and cultivate connections to existing knowledge can then be leveraged to prompt new ways of thinking about the connections. Posing questions and seeking discussions that extend the thinking of students will help to stimulate creativity. Not every student will then take on the challenges presented, but those with an interest in the topics most likely will. It is these students who may go on to research and create and invent solutions to problems that benefit society. The thing about this though is that there will be students who pursue the challenge who ordinarily wouldn’t have without the prompting. It’s kind of a case of if you build it, they will come.  

Application in major final assessment is too late

Whilst a recent push to include application type questions in major assessment is an improvement in assessment pedagogy, if it is the only time that application is available then it is not likely to lead to much creative application. In certain types of assessment, particularly exams and high stakes assessment, students are less likely to see opportunities for creative application of the knowledge because they are more concerned about and absorbed by spending time trying to supply a correct answer. Even if they do creatively apply their knowledge to solve the presented problems, they are less likely to remember what they did for later use, because that is not what they are paying attention to. The consequences of Willingham’s statement, ‘you remember what you think about’ ring true here.  

The solution then in creating a culture of exploration and creativity is to provide opportunity for creative application during formative and during mid-course assessment. Both of these work in conjunction with the extension activities in the LMS.

High expectations

There is an abundance of evidence that points to the influence of the teacher/lecturer, either positively or negatively, in creating a culture of learning. Presenting to students as passionate and interested in exploring new ideas, and someone who not only offers such interactions but engages in them consistently, will raise expectations and ultimately encourage more students to think creatively about the topics at hand. Of course you can’t spend enormous amounts of time engaging in discussions etc, but keeping your eye on them and encouraging trains of thought will be enough to keep students motivated in deepening their thinking.

Another low hanging fruit strategy is to pose challenging questions during lectures. This exploits the natural distribution of students in your cohort. Most students will simply be trying to keep up with the content while some will be able to think more as they find the processing of the content quite manageable. The end of each natural chunk in a topic presents a wonderful opportunity to pose questions to check for understanding, and the natural extension of those questions is to increase the difficulty to satisfy those interested in creatively thinking about the topic. Knowing how to verbally ask higher order questions however is not a given, and some thinking about what types of questions will evoke deeper higher order thinking is worth exploring and mastering. Reposing these questions in the discussion board in the LMS will encourage the partial stimulation in the lecture to fuller deeper thinking as students can spend longer amounts of time to consider their point of view.

Fostering creativity in higher education needs explicit design. But when that design is well crafted and implemented, the resulting potential output from students is not only something to be excited about, but something that society needs.

I’m Paul Moss. I’m a learning designer at the University of Adelaide. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger

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