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Iowa State University

Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching

Fostering creativity

Faculty can foster or encourage creativity in many ways, from course design to assignments to establishing a classroom atmosphere. One of the simplest ways to encourage creativity (or any other kind of learning, in fact) is to signal approval through verbal responses, physical responses (moving, raising one's voice), and responding with appropriate energy. Giving quick, specific feedback is also essential. Examples of specific ways to encourage student behaviors appear in the Virtual Classroom Visit with Professor Michael Clough.

Another simple way to encourage creativity is to tell your students about, and perhaps offer extra credit for participation in, out-of-class groups and activities that reinforce learning and thinking in your course. Some well-known examples are the Block & Bridle Club, the Society of Automotive Engineers, and the Society of Chemistry Undergraduate Majors (SCUM). There are many more registered student organizations at Iowa State University which may be useful partners in promoting student creativity.

A central means of fostering creativity is through your course planning. Consider what your students need in the area of declarative knowledge (facts, concepts, terminology), and what they can gain by practicing procedural knowledge (inquiry, reasoning, and metacognition) (Kurfiss). Plan with the end in mind (Wiggins & McTighe). That is, think first of what you want students to know and be able to do at the end of the course, then design toward those goals. Do you want your students to be creative at synthesizing their knowledge, extending it, explaining it to others? Are you after elegance in design, efficiency, speed, or some combination of these? Some other course outcomes linked to creativity include recognizing and solving problems (or opportunities), managing ambiguity and uncertainty, and feeling comfortable with change. For more, see this chart of courses and course content for the Entrepreneurial Studies Minor.

Once your course design is complete, build assignments that permit students to develop their procedural knowledge and especially to practice the elements of metacognition (drafting and practicing, trying out, assessing and revising) (Quallmalz & Hoskyn). These can range from simple team-building exercises to complex, open-ended problems that require a semester to solve.

Level of challenge

Chart of Flow

To make the most of student's creativity, plan assignments and activities that challenge students but do not overwhelm them. Generally, learning is "inhibited by threat and enhanced by challenge" (Caine, xvii). Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's pioneering work on the concept of "flow" persuaded him that that seemingly effortless creative state occurs when high levels of ability and high levels of challenge. For Csikszentmihalyi, achieving a state of "flow" requires that the actor (or learner) have clear goals and expectations, a degree of skill and chance to focus on practicing the skill, and direct and immediate feedback.


Heuristics are techniques for creative thinking and generating ideas. Commonly used heuristics include brainstorming, making sketches, forming analogies, and freewriting. Other heuristics often used in education include

  • The Journalist's Questions (Who, What, When, Where, Why, How)
  • SCAMPER, or
    Put to other uses
    Reverse or rearrange

Examine both sides of a topic or argument
Find and identify points of agreement, disagreement, irrelevance
Take account of other people's views
Label items in an argument with plus, minus, or interesting; discuss

There are many websites offering techniques for creative thinking and divergent thinking. A detailed but very long (77 slide) PowerPoint, Infusing Creativity into Academic Content offers a variety of heuristics and how to implement them in class. Many examples are from primary and secondary education but can also be applied to college-level learning.