Increasing Creativity Through Course Design

by Jackie Wickham Smith

Part of the mission of the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern is to “support the needs of working professionals to enhance their skills and take on new challenges.” Online courses can achieve this mission by including course activities designed to enhance students’ creativity. Though there are many definitions of creativity, this post will focus on Amabile, Barsade, Muller, and Staw’s definition: the production of new and useful ideas or solutions to problems (2005).

This blog post will explain three constructs–diversity of tasks, working on a team, and competition–that faculty can use in their courses to increase creative output from students and suggest ideas to incorporate each into an online course.

Diversity of Tasks

Chen, Chang, and Chang (2015) found that people with proactive personalities exhibited higher levels of creativity when allowed discretion in choosing a task to work on. Likewise, Lewis and Elaver (2014) reported higher creativity when students worked on open-ended problems without a clear definition.

To incorporate diverse tasks into their course, faculty can:

  • Allow students input in designing course assessments: Faculty can provide a skeleton framework for an assessment, but allow students to choose a topic to work on.
  • Provide several choices for course activities: Faculty can ask students to choose one of a group of assignment prompts to complete.
  • Give options for submission format: Depending on the topic, students can be allowed to submit assignments as videos, audio recordings, text, a presentation, etc.

Working in a Team

In his 2010 book “Where Good Ideas Come From,” Steven Johnson points out that breakthrough ideas are highly likely to occur from multiple people’s “slow hunches” coming together. Lewis and Elaver take it a step further and suggest that business breakthroughs occur when multiple teams collaborate. Chae, Seo, and Lee (2015) suggest that sharing knowledge between team members increases each member’s individual creativity.

When asking students to work in teams, faculty can intentionally design the process to foster creativity:

  • Assign teams to maximize diversity: assign students from different professions or geographic areas to work together.
  • Build a group brainstorming phase into the project process.
  • Provide shared design guidelines to teams. Lewis and Elaver suggest the following: no ownership (once an idea is provided, it becomes the group’s idea); give it your all, even if it’s not your idea; far-out is good; funny is good; focus on the positive; communicate by whatever means necessary.


Tjosvold, Johnson, Johnson, and Sun (2006) define constructive competition as competition occurring when competitors effectively complete their tasks, feel supported and capable, enjoy competition, desire participation, and interact positively with other competitors. This type of competition increases intrinsic task motivation, which, according to Lewis and Elaver (2014), increases creative output.

Faculty can incorporate constructive competition into their course in several different ways; and many of them work well with the above suggestions for providing diverse tasks or working in teams.

  • When teams are participating in project design, the professor can select a “winning” idea.
  • In projects where the team is proposing a solution to a problem, faculty or outside clients can choose the winning bid.
  • Faculty can highlight the most creative or interesting student submission–whether it’s a weekly discussion post, a paper, or a multimedia submission.

According to a 2010 IBM survey of 1,500 CEOs, creative thinkers are the most desired employees. Using the strategies above can help prepare your students for their next career step. If you have questions about how to incorporate any of these suggestions in your course, please contact me at


Amabile, T.M., Barsade, S.G., Mueller, J.S. and B.M. Staw. “Affect and creativity at work”. Administrative Science Quarterly 50 (2005): 367-403.

Chae, Seongwook, Youngwook Seo, and Kun Chang Lee. “Effects Of Task Complexity On Individual Creativity Through Knowledge Interaction: A Comparison Of Temporary And Permanent Teams”.Computers in Human Behavior 42 (2015): 138-148. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Chen, Ming-Huei, Yu-Yu Chang, and Yuan-Chieh Chang. “Exploring Individual-Work Context Fit In Affecting Employee Creativity In Technology-Based Companies”. Technological Forecasting and Social Change 98 (2015): 1-12. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Johnson, Steven. Where Good Ideas Come From. New York: Riverhead Books, 2010. Print.

Lewis, Mark O., and Richard Elaver. “Managing And Fostering Creativity: An Integrated Approach”.The International Journal of Management Education 12.3 (2014): 235-247. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Tjosvold, Dean et al. “Competitive Motives And Strategies: Understanding Constructive Competition.”.Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice 10.2 (2006): 87-99. Web.


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