Creative Synthesis

Living up to your full potential.

The Creative College Student

Develop and enhance your creative thinking in and out of the classroom.

Gleeful College Graduate
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Creative thinking and other soft skills are all the rage these days. A recent survey conducted by Adecco Staffing US found that of the ninety-two percent of 500 top executives who felt there is a job skills gap, over four in ten said that what is missing are soft skills such as “communication, critical thinking, creativity and collaboration.” Universities engage in a debate about how and even to what extent soft skills can be taught. Advice abounds both for employers as to what to ask in interviews to root out soft skills and for potential employees for how to answer interview questions so that soft skills rise to the surface.

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Where does this leave the college student who knows creative thinking is important but doesn’t have much room in her schedule for a course in creative problem solving or who goes to a college that doesn’t fully integrate soft skills in the curriculum? The good news is that unlike subjects such as calculus or international affairs, creative thinking is as much mindset and habit as it is information, and college students in particular have a valuable opportunity to develop their creativity in ways that will benefit them in and out of the classroom and for years after graduation. Here are three simple ways to start.

Go Deep

Historian, educator, and author Ken Bain reminds us that the “why” of learning can be as important as “how.” His book What the Best College Students Do differentiates between three types of learning: surface learning (doing enough memorization to get by), strategic learning (aiming primarily for high grades and honors), and deep learning (autonomous striving for meaning):

“To take a deep approach means to take control of your own education, to decide that you want to understand, to create something new, to search for the meaning that lies behind the text, to realize that words on a page are mere symbols, and that behind those symbols lies a meaning that has a connection with a thousand other aspects of life and with your own personal development. Such intentions are intertwined with motivation, growing out of an internal drive but also feeding it with an important fuel and direction.” Read More

Deep learning, according to Bain, can help us to be “adaptive experts” who, in addition to being able to follow convention and tradition, also “possess the ability and attitude both to recognize and even relish the opportunity and necessity for invention.” (You can listen to Ken Bain talk about his findings and suggestions in an interview on the Brian Lehrer radio show.)

Becoming a deep learner takes a certain amount of courage and may be extremely uncomfortable for students who are in the habit of hyperfocusing on grades to the point of recalculating their GPA after every quiz. Learning deeply might require finding a study partner willing to discuss the meaning of the assignment rather than simply trading flash cards, doing reading beyond the textbook to enhance one’s understanding, and paying attention to one’s own interests and questions instead of trying to anticipate what the teacher wants to hear. It may also require that Millennials try to explain to their parents that while they will certainly work hard to earn good grades, they now have a goal of understanding, intellectual risk-taking, and adaptability rather than perfection.

Refuse To Be Typecast

Have you ever been told you are right-brained and thus creative to the point of hopeless disorganization? Or left-brained and thus far too sequential and logical ever to hope of climbing outside that proverbial box?

Recent neuroscience suggests that the brain hemisphere model of creativity is a myth. The creative process is, according to cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, messy and involves several brain regions the interplay of which researchers are just beginning to understand, such as those “critical for daydreaming, imagining the future, remembering deeply personal memories, personal constructive reflection, making meaning, and social cognition."

What is the take-away for college students? Refuse to define yourself by narrow and outdated understandings of what it means to be creative. Think of your higher education career as a fresh start where you can use and develop aspects of your thinking and learning that others might have downplayed or criticized, which leads us neatly into the final way to be a more creative college student.

Grow Your Personality

When author and psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi studied the lives of over 90 people from a variety of domains and disciplines who were successfully creative, he found that they shared one very important trait: complexity. In particular, they had complex or dialectic personalities, meaning that they had aspects of personality traits that we tend to think of as being mutually exclusive, such as introverted and extroverted, playful and disciplined, or intelligent and naïve (read the full list here).

How do “dimensions of complexity” make us more creative? Introverts who never develop extroverted skills may never successfully share their creative writing, artwork, or inventions with anyone other than a desk drawer. Similarly, extroverts who never learn the power of solitude may talk about hundreds of creative ideas that they never sit down long enough to start. Someone who is disciplined but never playful may miss the innovative value of a seemingly silly idea, while someone who is always playful may have difficulty finishing creative tasks that require sequence and routine.

While we all probably lean toward one side or the other of his ten dimensions of complexity, Csikszentmihalyi suggests that we can consciously strive for more complexity by experimenting with new and perhaps uncomfortable ways of thinking and behaving, even for a short period. College is the perfect place and time for this, as students who may have been pigeon-holed as the smart ones, the funny ones, or the messy ones in their class or family can start anew and try on some new personalities for size.

Aiming for more creativity is a goal that any student can adopt right now, without special permission from a registrar and for the affordable price of initiative. Please share in the comments what helps you to be a more creative college student or worker.

Photo credit: Matt Hall

Lisa Rivero is the author of The Smart Teens' Guide to Living with Intensity and other education and parenting books. more...

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