14 Creative Ways to Engage Students

14 Creative Ways to Engage Students

Fostering creativity can range from simple team-building exercises to complex, open-ended problems that may require a semester to solve. An instructor that presents innovative and challenging prompts will encourage students to work creatively through a problem to a solution. These creative techniques must be done in a supportive course environment with appropriate time allocated for students to discover and develop creative ways to solve a problem. Here are 14 creative ways to engage students in discussions, problem-solving, critical thinking, and more:

Assumption Busting

Assumption busting is particularly effective when one is stuck in current thinking paradigms or has run out of ideas. Everyone makes assumptions about how the world around us, which in creative situations, can prevent seeing or generating possibilities. Deliberately seeking out and addressing previously unquestioned assumptions stimulates creative thinking.

How: List assumptions associated with a task or problem, for example, that a solution is impossible due to time and cost constraints; something works because certain rules or conditions; and people believe, need or think of certain things. Then ask under what conditions these assumptions are not true, continue the process of examination as old assumptions are challenged and new ones are created.


To solve a specific problem, students make sketches and then pass evolving sketches to their neighbors.

How: Students sit in a group of 6-8 around a table or in a circle. Questions or problems should be well explained and understood by each student. Each participant privately makes one or more sketches and passes the sketch to the person on the right when it is finished or when a brief set time has passed. Participants develop or annotate the sketches passed to them, or use them to inspire new sketches which are also passed in turn.


Brainstorming, a useful tool to develop creative solutions to a problem, is a lateral thinking process by which students are asked to develop ideas or thoughts that may seem crazy or shocking at first. Participants can then change and improve them into original and useful ideas. Brainstorming can help define an issue, diagnose a problem, or possible solutions and resistance to proposed solutions.

How: Define the problem clearly lay out any criteria to be met. Keep the session focused on the problem, but be sure that no one criticizes or evaluates ideas during the session, even if they are clearly impractical. Criticism dampens creativity in the initial stages of a brainstorming session. Ideas should be listed, rather than developed deeply on the spot; the idea is to generate possibilities. Accordingly, participants should be encouraged to pick up on ideas offered to create new ones. One person should be appointed as note-taker, and ideas should be studied and evaluated after the session.

Concept Mapping

Concept maps represent knowledge graphic form. Networks consist of nods, which represent concepts, and links, which represent relationships between concepts. Concept maps can aid in generating ideas, designing complex structures, or communicating complex ideas. Because they make explicit the integration of old and new knowledge concept maps can help instructors assess students’ understanding.

How: Create a focus question specifying the problem or issue the map should help resolve. List the key concepts (roughly 20-25) that apply to the area of knowledge. Put the most general, inclusive concepts at the top of the list, and most specific at the bottom. Build a hierarchical organization of the concepts, using post-its on a wall or whiteboard, large sheets of paper, etc. Revision is a key element in concept mapping, so participants need to be able to move concepts and reconstruct the map. Seek cross links between concepts, adding linking words to the lines between concepts.


Exaggeration includes the two forms of magnify (or “stretch”) and minimize (or “compress”), part of the SCAMPER heuristic. This method helps in building ideas for solutions. It is useful to illustrate a problem, by testing unspoken assumptions about its scale. It helps one think about what would be appropriate if the problem were of a different order of magnitude.

How: After defining a problem to be addressed or idea to develop, list all the component parts of the idea or if a problem, its objectives and constraints. Choosing one component, develop ways of exaggerating it and note them on a separate sheet.


The fishbone technique uses a visual organizer to identify the possible causes of a problem. This technique discourages partial or premature solutions and demonstrates the relative importance of, and interactions between, different parts of a problem.

How: On a broad sheet of paper, draw a long arrow horizontally across the middle of the page pointing to the right. Label the arrowhead with the title of the issue to be explained. This is the “backbone” of the “fish.” Draw “spurs” from this “backbone” at about 45 degrees, one for every likely cause of the problem that the group can think of; and label each. Sub-spurs can represent subsidiary causes. The group considers each spur/sub-spur, taking the simplest first, partly for clarity but also because a simple explanation may make more complex ones unnecessary. Ideally, the fishbone is redrawn so that position along the backbone reflects the relative importance of the different parts of the problem, with the most important at the head.

Kipling Questions or Preliminary Questions Method

This method simply asks the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? when problem-solving or decision-making.


Laddering or the “why method” involves toggling between two abstractions to create ideas. Laddering techniques involve the creation, reviewing and modification of hierarchical knowledge. In a ladder containing abstract ideas or concepts, the items lower down are details or sub-sets of the ones higher up, so one moves between the abstract and concrete. Laddering can help students understand how an expert categorizes concepts into classes, and can help clarify concepts and their relationships.

How: Beginning with an existing idea, “ladder up” by asking, of what wider category is this an example? “Ladder down” by finding more examples. Then “ladder up” again by seeking an even wider category (big picture) from the new examples obtained from step 2. Generally, “laddering up” toward the general allows expansion into new areas while “laddering down” focuses on specific aspects of these areas. Why questions are ladders up; so-what questions are ladders down.

Negative (or Reverse) Brainstorming

Negative brainstorming involves analyzing a short list of existing ideas, rather than the initial massing of ideas as in conventional brainstorming. Examining potential failures is relevant when an idea is new or complex or when there is little margin for error. Negative brainstorming raises such questions as: “What could go wrong with this project?” Reverse brain-storming is valuable when it is difficult to identify direct solutions to a problem.

How: After clearly defining a problem or challenge, ask “How could I cause this problem?” or “How could I make things worse?” As with brainstorming, allow ideas to flow freely without rejecting any. Evaluating these negative ideas can lead to possible positive solutions.


In most role-playing exercises, each student takes the role of a person affected by an issue and studies an issue or events from the perspective of that person.

How: Role plays should give the students an opportunity to practice what they have learned and should interest the students. Provide concrete information and clear role descriptions so that students can play their roles with confidence. Once the role play is finished, spend some time on debriefing.


SCAMPER is a check list that promotes ways to think about an existing product/issue/problem to create a new way to think about it. The method uses action verbs to stimulate ideas and creative thinking.

  • Substitute: What can you substitute?
  • Combine: What can you combine or bring together somehow?
  • Adapt: What can you adapt for use as a solution?
  • Modify/minify/magnify: Can you change the item in some way? What can you remove? What can you add?
  • Put to other uses: How can you put the thing to different or other uses?
  • Eliminate: What can you eliminate?
  • Rearrange: What can be rearranged in some way?

How: By providing a list of active verbs that may be associated with your problem and hence will create ideas. The verbs are about doing to get students to think about the action.


Post-up can gather ideas from large groups, numbering from the dozens to the hundreds. Participants are given slips of paper (or Post-it notes) and asked to write down ideas which are discussed or evaluated. Instructors may collect a large number of ideas swiftly and creates a sense of participation and/or ownership at the same time.

How: Each student is given a stack or note-pad of at least 25 small slips of paper or Post-it note pad. The pads can contain idea-jogging graphics or be designed so that ideas can be sorted and separated easily. A question or problem is read to the group (e.g., “How do we?” or “What would it take to?”). Students write down one idea per sheet, in any order. Once the writing begins to slow down students can post their ideas on a wall or flip-chart paper. Then, the students work as a group to discover and explore themes.


Storyboarding can be compared to spreading students’ thoughts out on a wall as they work on a project or solve a problem. Story boards can help with planning, ideas, communications and organization. This method allows students to see the interconnections, how one idea relates to another, and how pieces come together. Once the ideas flow, students become immersed in the problem and tag-team off other ideas.

How: Use a cork board or similar surface to pin up index cards or use Post-it notes on a whiteboard. Begin with a set of topic cards, and under each place header cards for general points, categories, etc. Under these, place sub-heading cards that will be contain ideas and details generated that support the headers. During a story board session, consider all ideas relevant, no matter how impractical they appear.


The reversal method takes a given situation and turns it around, inside out, backwards, or upside down. Any situation can be “reversed” in several ways. Looking at a familiar problem or situation in a fresh way can suggest new solutions or approaches. It doesn’t matter whether the reversal makes sense or not.

Example:  If a room is dark look for ways to make it lighter. Instead of looking for ways of adding light, look for ways to remove the dark — for example by putting mirrors or white paint in darker corners.


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