January 29th, 2015

Finding a Place for Creative Assignments in Your Course

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Can you teach students to be creative? Most of us would say no. It’s more like trying to teach for it—encouraging it, promoting it, acknowledging when it happens, and rewarding it. Despite the difficulties associated with teaching creativity, teachers shouldn’t be excused from trying to cultivate its development. Is there a profession where creative thinking isn’t needed? Is there a problem that wouldn’t benefit from a creative solution? The authors of the article referenced below ask the follow-up question relevant to those of us in higher education: “Where will students get the opportunity to learn and practice creative thinking if it is not embedded throughout the curriculum?” (p. 51)

We tend to associate creativity and the thinking that produces it with the fine arts and performing arts, those places in our colleges and universities whose mission it is to cultivate creative expression. But authors Reynolds, Stevens, and West teach in professional programs (business and education, specifically curriculum and instruction, and educational leadership and policy), and they’re promoting the use of creative assignments in those courses. “For students to be able to experience the power of their own creativity, the opportunity to do creative projects belongs across the curriculum.” (pp. 51-52)

Here’s a quick synopsis of the creative assignments used in a course where one wouldn’t expect to find them—a 400-level management course, which the syllabus describes this way: “The nature of this course will be learning through experience. There will be an ambitious amount of entertaining reading. There will be a minimum amount of lecturing. There will be a maximum amount of activity-based learning resulting in close to unlimited opportunities for positive class involvement, contribution, and self-development.” The final project in the course, worth 30 percent, including the presentation of the project and a written reflection describing what the student learned as a consequence of it, is a creative one. “Instructions are minimal; however, guidance is provided and opportunities to discuss options are plentiful.” (p. 54)

The Educational Leadership and Policy course is Introduction to Research Methods, which involves the study of research methods and the development of a research proposal. Graduate students in this course write a poem that they use to help them identify what they are really interested in learning through the research and how they can measure what they want to study. The poem is worth 5 percent of the grade, and students read them aloud in a special class session.

The creative assignment used in the Curriculum and Instruction Action Research course is called a “creative expression.” In it students “conceptualize their experiences in [the] course and create something that represents their experience learning action research. …” (p. 56) Here, too, students present their projects, in this case on the last night of the course, and prepare a written account of the processes involved in developing their creative expression. This assignment is worth 10 percent of their grade.

What the students involved in these three courses reported about the value of these projects provides convincing evidence, especially given that most of the students’ initial reactions to the creative assignments are negative. More than 35 percent rated the assignment as very valuable, and another almost 60 percent said it was valuable. In responses to open-ended questions, 25 percent said the assignment was most helpful in the new insights it generated and 23 percent made comments indicating that the creative assignment reinforced and deepened their understandings of course content. “This challenges the notion of some faculty that these projects pull students away from course content and do not contribute to student learning.” (p. 58)

To develop creative assignments, the authors relied on the American Association of Colleges and Universities’ definition of creative thinking. Their assignments “invited taking risks, encouraged innovative thinking, stressed connecting, demonstrated synthesis and transformation of course content.” (p. 51) There’s motivation for teachers to consider creative assignments too. These assignments are a lot more interesting to grade than most of the other kinds of work we have students produce.

Reference: Reynolds, C., Stevens, D. D., and West, E. (2013). “I’m in a professional school! Why are you making me do this?” A cross-disciplinary study of the use of creative classroom projects on student learning. College Teaching, 61 (Spring), 51-59.

Reprinted from Creative Assignments: Where Do They Belong? The Teaching Professor, 27.7 (2013): 6. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.