Wrestling with Creativity as a Student Learning Outcome

Before the holiday break, I described the evidence from our overall IDEA scores that our students’ Progress on Relevant Objectives (PRO) scores had increased substantively in the past year.  It is clear from looking at our data that this didn’t happen by accident and I hope you have taken a moment or two to take pride in your colleagues.  Admittedly, it is gratifying to see that all of the effort we have put toward maximizing our use of the new IDEA course feedback forms pay off.  So in the spirit of that effort, I want to highlight one other piece of data from our most recent overall report – the low proportion of courses that selected “Developing Creative Capacities” as an essential or important learning objective – and to advocate for more emphasis on that objective.

Of the 12 different learning objectives on the IDEA faculty forms, “Developing Creative Capacities” was selected by only 16% of the courses offered during the fall term – the least common selection (by comparison, 69% of courses indicated “gaining factual knowledge” as an essential or important learning objective).  As you might expect, “developing creative capacities” was chosen almost exclusively by fine arts courses, seemingly reflecting a traditional conception of creative capacities as something reserved for artistic expression.

Yet, as a liberal arts college, it seems that “developing creative capacities” should represent a central element of our educational goals and the culmination of a liberals arts education.  The parenthetical description of “creative capacities” in that objective includes “writing,” “inventing,” and “designing.”  Of course, these skills transcend any specific discipline.  Every time a student tries to make an argument with language, portray a concept visually, solve a problem that doesn’t have a singular solution, or articulate the implications of multiple sources of information on a particular point, their ability to do so hinges on these skills.

Moreover, in the updated version Bloom’s Taxonomy, “creating” is the highest cognitive domain.  Not unlike synthesizing, creating requires each of the skills listed in the preceding levels of the taxonomy (remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, and evaluating).  It strikes me that this broadened definition of creating could apply to virtually all senior inquiry projects or other student work expected of a culminating experience.  For a more detailed discussion of creating as a higher-order skill, I’d suggest the IDEA paper that examines Objective #6.

So how do we infuse “developing creative capacities” more fully into our students’ educational experience?  I regularly hear faculty talk about the difficulty that many students exhibit when trying to synthesize disparate ideas and create new knowledge.  It’s complicated work, and I’ll bet that if we were to look back on even the best of our own undergraduate work, we would likely cringe in most cases at what we might have thought at the time was the cutting edge of genius.  Thankfully, this objective doesn’t say, “Mastering Creative Capacities.”  This learning outcome is developmental and will likely be something that most students miss at least as often as they hit.  But three ideas come to mind that I’d like to propose for your consideration . . .

  1. Students need practice.  This starts with simple experiences connecting ideas and deriving insights from those connections.  Students will surely be less capable of successfully wielding this key skill when it is needed if they haven’t explicitly been asked to develop it through previous courses and experiences.
  2. Students won’t take risks if they don’t trust those who ask them to do it.  Developing creative capacities requires learning from all manner of failure.  Students won’t take the kinds of risk necessary to make real progress if there isn’t space for them to fall down and get back up – and a professor who will help them to their feet.
  3. Eventually, you just have to jump.  If nothing else, we are experts at paralysis by analysis.  Although there is always a critical mass of information or content knowledge that students must know before they can begin to effectively connect ideas or form new ones, we sometimes get caught trying to cover more material at the expense of developing thinking skills in students.  Often, it is through trying to integrate and connect ideas without having all of the pieces that teaches the importance of seeking new knowledge and the awareness that there might be details critical to the development of an idea that we don’t yet know.

As you look at the role of your courses in the collective scheme of our students’ growth, I hope you’ll consider the possibility of adding this learning objective.  You may find that you are already doing many of the things in your course that make this happen.  You may find that you need to take a few risks yourself in the design of your course.  Whatever you decide, I hope you will consider the ways that you help students develop creative capacities as complex, higher-order thinking skills.  For our students to succeed in the world they will inherit, I would suggest that our collective future depends on the degree to which we develop their creative capacities to solve problems that we have not yet even seen.

Make it a good day,



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