Tag Archives: creative thinking

Teaching Creative Thinking: 1. How can I teach my students to be creative when I’m not sure I am? (RB)

Creative thinking is a skill that faculty members are often nervous about teaching. If a suggestion is made that they incorporate instruction in it into their classes, they are likely to respond with (or at least to think) the title of this blog.

An easy way to integrate creative thinking into teaching is to include some idea generation activities in class. The most familiar activity of this type is brainstorming, in which participants come up with as many ways as they can to answer an open-ended question or solve a problem. Following are some illustrative brainstorming prompts.

List possible

  • ways to verify a [calculated value, derived formula]
  • ways that could be used to determine a physical property or variable [with no constraints, with no required instrument calibrations, as a function of one or more other variables, involving a stuffed bear]
  • uses for [any object, something that would normally go to waste]
  • ways to improve a [process or product, experiment, computer code]
  • real-world applications of a [theory, procedure, formula]
  • safety and environmental concerns in this [experiment, process, plant]
  • flaws or possible problems in a proposed [design, procedure, code, grading rubric]

Consider conducting a brainstorming activity for active learning groups in class. Tell the students to organize themselves into groups of 2–3, ask a question or pose a problem, and give the groups 2–3 minutes to come up with ideas. Then stop them and collect ideas on the board. (If you’re not sure how small groups would work in a large class, take a look at our introductory active learning tutorial at www.ncsu.edu/felder-public/Tutorials/Active/Active-learning.pdf.)

Tips for brainstorming exercises[1]

  1. Focus on quantity. The goal of the idea-generation phase of problem solving is to generate as many ideas as possible, be they good, bad, ridiculous, or illegal. The more ideas there are, the more likely the best one is to occur.
  2. Welcome unusual ideas. A seemingly absurd idea can serve two vitally important purposes. It can move the idea generation process in a new and unexpected direction, possibly leading to good ideas that otherwise might not have come up. In addition, it can lead to laughter (approving, not mocking) and possibly serve as an incentive to come up with an even more far-fetched idea. Eventually the ideas may start flowing as fast as anyone can write them down.
  3. Build on the ideas of others. The power of brainstorming lies in the fact that hearing ideas often stimulates people to think of related but different ideas.
  4. Withhold criticism. Creative ideas flow best in a relaxed environment, and nothing kills a sense of relaxation more than trashing ideas as soon as they are raised. Once people start worrying about being criticized, the flow of ideas shuts down. If you think an idea is bad, don’t criticize it—just come up with a better one.

Answer to the blog title question. Yes, you can teach creative thinking without being creative yourself. The brainstorming activity described above provides a good illustration. You can ask students to brainstorm a list of anything, and evaluate the quantity, variety, and originality of their ideas, without having a trace of creativity. The fact is, though, that most faculty members—probably including you—are more creative than they give themselves credit for.

Additional reading on teaching creative thinking

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, pp. 222–230. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fogler, H.S., LeBlanc, S.E., & Rizzo, B. (2014). Strategies for creative problem solving (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Additional reading on active learning

Felder, R.M., and Brent, R. (2016). Teaching and learning STEM: A practical guide, Ch. 6. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


[1] Osborn, A.F. (1963). Applied imagination: Principles and procedures of creative problem solving (3rd ed.). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.