Encouraging Student Creativity

On November 7, 2022, the Duke Office of Assessment hosted a panel discussion on Nurturing Creativity in Undergraduate Education.  Hosted by the Director of the Office of Assessment, Jennifer Hill, the panel included:

  • Professor Charlie Cox, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Chemistry, who studies creativity in the natural sciences
  • Professor Aaron Dinin, Instructor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, who teaches a course called Learning to Fail
  • Professor Tamar Kushmir and Graduate Student Gabriela Fernandez, co-instructors of a Psychology course on Imagination.

Defining Creativity

Jennifer Hill kicked off the session by asking the panelists their thoughts on a definition of creativity.  While the panelists agreed that creativity is an abstract concept that can be difficult to absolutely explain, they interpret creativity in terms of creating new, novel solutions to problems based on prior knowledge and experience.  

Charlie Cox called it “an expanding ability to apply knowledge from one situation to a more unique situation.”  He uses research on creativity from the field of psychology, on areas such as spatial reasoning, to inform his work with students and improve student learning, showing them where years of research in organic chemistry has created known boundaries and where the frontiers in research are that are testing and going beyond those boundaries.

Aaron Dinin noted that although “thinking out of the box” is something of a cliche, it is an important part of his thinking about teaching students entrepreneurship.  “Thinking outside the box in entrepreneurship isn’t so much about creativity as understanding there are parameters and barriers that are set for us that we don’t realize they exist,” he said.  “Creativity is learning to think outside those boundaries and see around to see new opportunities for innovation.”

Tamar Kushnir explained how imagination is connected to creativity.  In examining how cognition develops in childhood, imagination is used to think about things other than the “here and now” – the past, the future, or ruminating on options in the present.  This process leads to considering new possibilities and creativity.

Gabriela Fernandez Miranda said that imagination and creativity aren’t something that decays or disappears as we grow older.  When we are children, we might produce art, for example, but we continue to imagine and create to put together pieces to solve everyday problems or predict the future, something that children start doing around the age of twelve.

Barriers to Creativity in Learning

Jennifer then asked the panelists what the barriers are for Duke students in using creativity.

The panelists pointed to fears of failure and perceptions of how one looks among peers as common barriers to creativity with most people, making them less likely to take chances and face possible failure.  Tamar noted that concerns about reputation develop early in childhood, with research showing that most children become aware of how they look to other people at age five or six.  In her lab, they study areas such as moral development, where following rules and cooperating with others can be helpful, but is a disincentive for experimenting with new ideas.  The key for educators is separating the intellectual domain from the moral domain to encourage creativity.  Her research is exploring how subtle communication about failure at an early age can have impacts on underrepresented groups, overcoming stereotypes about who is more likely to pursue or not pursue an interest in STEM sciences.

Aaron said that the incentive structure of grades is one of the main barriers to experimentation and creative thinking by students – the pressure of getting high grades to enter medical or graduate school or to pursue a career discourages students from trying and failing.  In his classes, he assigns challenges to students to give them an opportunity to fail and experiment and examine what did and did not work.  He related that the one assignment his students hate the most is requiring them to convince another member of the class to take a selfie with the student for their Instagram feed – students balk at having this curated public image of themselves interrupted.  But it provides a valuable lesson on emotional barriers to creative thinking.

Charlie noted that, in his Chemistry classes, he tries to break down barriers so that students don’t feel like they are competing with the person next to them.  He uses no curve in grading his classes, focusing more on group work and collaboration, including two-stage exams where one stage is done in a group setting and the other is completed by the individual student.  “Creativity grows when people are working together instead of working in isolation,” he said.

Examples from the Panelists’ Courses

Throughout the conversation, the panelists shared some of the ways they encourage creativity in their courses.

Charlie has his students work on big problems that don’t necessarily have easy solutions, like ocean acidification.  With those assignments, the point is on presenting evidence, analyzing the problem, and offering solutions based on what they know, putting a focus on the process of scientific inquiry rather than coming up with a “right” answer.

Tamar discussed tapping into the research and experience of creativity in other disciplines.  In a seminar course, she spends a week discussing creativity, having students bring in examples from their own life experiences – those might be pieces of art or personal stories.  She said that athletes often offer examples about creativity in sport and there is a great deal of research in sports psychology on the relationship between thinking and doing, believing something is possible and going out and achieving it with creative solutions.

Aaron discussed how previous experiences can be essential to coming up with novel solutions in entrepreneurship.  While many students might graduate thinking they “know everything,” research shows that most entrepreneurs are successful in their late 30s or early 40s – experience is really needed to understand where needs and problems are.  In his classes, he tries to offer rubrics and frameworks to help students to explore and understand what they don’t know.

Charlie, relating that idea to Chemistry, helps students understand that there are exceptions to every model and encourages students and groups to analyze what those exceptions are and why they exist.

Prompted by questions from the online audience, the panel discussed methods of forming groups in their classes.  Aaron always tries to find ways to point out to students that diverse groups help them see past “blind spots” in their own experience to accomplish more with their work.  He assigns exercises to demonstrate that everyone in the room has something to contribute.  Charlie, who regularly teaches classes with 100-200 students, uses randomly generated groups, while others sometimes use assigned groups or let students choose their own.  

What can Duke do?

Finally, the panelists were asked for their opinion on what Duke should do more broadly to encourage students to be more creative and take chances in their classes.  Charlie said that departments should encourage more project based learning rather than traditional exams and identify where new types of assessments can encourage deeper engagement.  Garbriela noted that faculty should put more emphasis on the process, rather than the end product – the product itself might not be great, but most of the learning happens by engaging in and reflecting on the process.