If students are to show original or creative thinking in your course, their projects, tests, and assignments must be designed to encourage this. Conditions for stimulating creativity include 1) a solid foundation in the discipline, 2) open-ended and flexible projects, tests, and assignments, and 3) time to create. Creativity generally begins with a solid understanding of the knowledge base upon which it flows (e.g., learning about aerodynamics precedes redesigning the tail assembly of a 787 jet ). The greater the student’s knowledge about the discipline, the more capable (s)he is in creating with it. Generally, this requires that students learn facts, concepts, and generalizations before they venture into creative projects. Moreover, you may need to determine if these building blocks of creativity are in place at the beginning of your course. A simple, teacher-made diagnostic test may uncover students’ knowledge gaps and signal the need for you to review essential elements leading to student mastery of basic principles. Be sure, however, by focusing on foundational material early in a course not to give students the impression that creativity is not important. Look for ways to allow student creativity early in a course to set the stage for later creative work.
A second necessary condition for student originality and expressiveness is the freedom to experiment (5). Even without a deep knowledge base, students can benefit from “discovery” activities (6, 7) that require the development of plans of action, strategies for investigating new ideas, and the creation of plausible explanations for observed phenomena. Designing open-ended projects, tests, and assignments, as well as establishing a classroom climate that accepts trial and error and consciously takes steps to build students’ self-confidence accomplish the purpose of allowing freethinking without penalty. Students should not feel pressured to adopt a specific viewpoint or be stifled by too much control over their creative work. Although we often show models or demonstrations of expected student products in order to further learning, when creativity is our goal, the display of previous outstanding projects may inhibit student creativity, either by blinding them to think only along the lines of the example or by intimidating them with a “perfect” model.
Time is another important condition if student creativity is your priority. Students must explore various approaches, interpret and analyze materials, and experiment with various schemes of organization. Because this may take weeks, our challenge is to stimulate creativity over the course of the semester. Students might develop multiple drafts of a project or complete it in segments, followed by feedback. Because writing often shapes our thinking, encourage students to write out their plans where appropriate, as a draft, journal, log of activities, or 3 x 5 card update, often followed by peer-group discussions. It may be possible, under special circumstances, to assign creative work without the foundation of basic knowledge. For example, in an introductory course in photography, students might be given cameras and asked to document campus life. This task might provide a pre-measure of native composition and subject selection skills and as the course progresses, students could revisit the original assignment to make changes and improvements, thus documenting their progress and developing sophistication. In other fields, there may be fewer opportunities for such work, but there will always be chances to engage even beginning students in creative activities such as brainstorming possible solutions to problems or devising work plans.