30 Creative Thinking Skills

April Ring


What you’ll learn to do: define creative thinking and its role in your education

A person at a pottery wheel creating a bowl out of clay

Everybody has a creative potential and from the moment you can express this creative potential, you can start changing the world.

—Paulo Coelho, author and lyricist

By the end of this section, you will be able to identify the value of creative thinking in education and describe the role of creative thinking skills in problem-solving.

Creative Thinking in Your Education

Learning Outcomes

  • Identify the value of creative thinking in education

It’s common to think of creativity as something used mostly by traditional artists—people who paint, draw, or sculpt. Indeed, artists are creative, but there are other fields in which people think creatively in their approach to situations and problems. The famous heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley didn’t have an exact model when he first implanted an artificial heart. Chemist Stephanie Kwoleck discovered life-saving Kevlar when she continued work on a substance that would usually be thrown away. Early US astronauts owed their ability to orbit and return to Earth based on creative uses of mathematics by people like Katherine Johnson. Inventor and actress Hedy Lamarr used diagrams of fish and birds to help aviation pioneer Howard Hughes produce faster airplanes. Indeed, biomimicry, an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies, is now a huge field of study. This list could go on and on.

See caption for appropriate alternative text.
Denton Cooley (Credit: Texas Children’s Hospital/Public Domain), Stephanie Kwolek (Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation/Attribution 3.0), Katherine Johnson (Credit: NASA/Public Domain), and Hedy Lamarr (Credit: MGM/Public Domain). These individuals employed extensive creativity in the fields of science and math, leading to significant discoveries and accomplishments.

Some people naturally seem to think more creatively than others, but we all have the capacity to create and devise. Do you enjoy rearranging furniture or organizing your closet? If you already think, “I could make that so much better!” as you walk through shops or events, you’re on the right track. Do you tinker with wood, paper, yarn, or dirt? Are you a doodler? One way to enhance your creativity is to track your ideas. You can keep a running list on your phone, jot down ideas on index cards you can later sort into categories, or keep ideas flowing in a paper journal. Some creative people design storyboards to visualize goals or projects using pictures from magazines or online seacrh engines for creative inspiration. Play around with ways to keep up with ideas you may be able to incorporate in various aspects of your life.

Try It


Creative Thinking in Education

College is a great environment for enhancing creative thinking skills. During your time in college, you will be presented with many opportunities to use creative thinking. In a lot of cases, for instance with essay prompts or open-ended assignments, there will not be one set of correct answers. You may need to use your creative thinking skills to answer an essay prompt or take a new perspective on a problem that you’ve been having difficulty solving. You may need to think creatively for your school work, in your social life, or in your work roles. Thinking creatively can help you find new solutions to old problems, and help you take unconventional approaches to familiar tasks and responsibilities. The following are some college activities that can stimulate creative thinking. Are any familiar to you?

  • Design sample exam questions to test your knowledge as you study for a final.
  • Devise a social media strategy for a club on campus.
  • Propose an education plan for a major you are designing for yourself.
  • Prepare a speech that you will give in a debate in your course.
  • Create a pattern for a costume in a theatrical production.
  • Arrange audience seats in your classroom to maximize attention during your presentation.
  • Arrange an eye-catching holiday display in your dormitory or apartment building.
  • Participate in a brainstorming session with your fellow musicians on how you will together write a musical composition.
  • Draft a script for a video production that will be shown to several college administrators.
  • Compose a set of requests and recommendations for a campus office to improve its customer service.
  • Develop a marketing pitch for a mock business you are developing.
  • Develop a comprehensive energy-reduction plan for your cohousing arrangement.

Creative Process Example

Creative processes should include a plan that considers the goals of the project and provides opportunities for brainstorming and feedback. The steps in this table may not work for everyone, but you can use them to think about what is needed in a process of your own. See the student resources for a blank version you can adapt.

Creative Process Applied to a Sample Campus Activity
Creative Process Step Description and Notes
Problem to Solve or Item/Work to Create Create a new logo for our Commuter Student Association
Requirements and Needs
  • Will be used on Insta/Twitter, merch, print
  • Must incorporate school colors but be readable in grayscale
  • Must be understandable at large and small sizes (computer/phone)
Parameters and Limitations
  • Cannot look like other logos on campus
  • Cannot use photos-illustration only
  • Timeline: 7 weeks (in time for next year’s college catalog)
  • Budget: $450
Inspiration and Ideas
  • Look at Commuter Association logos from other colleges.
  • Look at city and state transit logos.
  • Go to library to look at our school’s old yearbooks.
  • Graphic design
  • Copyright info (consult student govt)
  • Market research
Dissemination and Brainstorming
  • Create a survey for all our commuters.
  • Launch a contest for ideas and submissions?
  • Share drafts with advisor for approval.
  • Talk to graphic design club?
Implementation Plan
  • Samples needed in 3 weeks. From there
  • 1 week for survey feedback
  • 1 week for improvement
  • 1 week for additional feedback on final candidates
  • 1 week for finalization and approval
Reflection and Revision
  • Ask all new club members in fall for feedback.
  • Consider improving logo during spring semester next year.

How to Stimulate Creative Thinking

The following video, How to Stimulate the Creative Process, identifies six strategies to stimulate your creative thinking.

  1. Sleep on it. Over the years, researchers have found that the REM sleep cycle boosts our creativity and problem-solving abilities, providing us with innovative ideas or answers to vexing dilemmas when we awaken. Keep a pen and paper by the bed so you can write down your nocturnal insights if they wake you up.
  2. Go for a run or hit the gym. Studies indicate that exercise stimulates creative thinking, and the brainpower boost lasts for a few hours.
  3. Allow your mind to wander a few times every day. Far from being a waste of time, daydreaming has been found to be an essential part of generating new ideas. If you’re stuck on a problem or creatively blocked, think about something else for a while.
  4. Keep learning. Studying something far removed from your area of expertise is especially effective in helping you think in new ways.
  5. Put yourself in nerve-racking situations once in a while to fire up your brain. Fear and frustration can trigger innovative thinking.
  6. Keep a notebook with you so you always have a way to record fleeting thoughts. They’re sometimes the best ideas of all.

You can view the transcript for “How to Stimulate the Creative Process” here (opens in new window).

Remember, creative brainstorming doesn’t just happen. You need to set aside specific times to work with others to flesh out ideas and think through obstacles. And then you’ll need some more time alone for the ideas to gel. Sometimes the creative answers to problems come to you at odd moments once you have laid the groundwork—be ready to capture the ideas in some form of note when your lightbulb goes off.

A Brainstorm of Tips for Creative Thinking

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. —Linus Pauling, double Nobel Laureate, chemist, biochemist, and peace campaigner

Below are some additional tips to help you tap into original and creative thinking in your college assignments and endeavors:

See the caption for a link to the appropriate alternative text for Tips for Creative Thinking.
You can access the text only version of this infographic here.

Additional Tips for Creative Thinking

  • Change  your interpretation of an event, situation, behavior, person, or object.
  • Allow ideas to incubate.
  • Develop ideas and expand their possibilities.
  • Avoid using clichés or overly familiar responses to questions or problems.
  • Use mind-mapping to capture ideas; start with a key concept and write it in the center of your page; use connecting lines, radiating from the central concept, and write down any connected or related ideas that come to you.
  • Create pictures or drawings of situations (“rich pictures”) to show them in a different way.
  • Find ways to demonstrate your personal investment in projects.
  • Gather knowledge and conduct research.
  • Have more fun learning!

Resources for Creative Thinking

Solving Problems Creatively

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe the role of creative thinking skills in problem-solving

Problem-Solving with Creative Thinking

Creative problem-solving is a type of problem-solving. It involves searching for new and novel solutions to problems. Unlike critical thinking, which scrutinizes assumptions and uses reasoning, creative thinking is about generating alternative ideas—practices and solutions that are unique and effective. It’s about facing sometimes muddy and unclear problems and seeing how things can be done differently—how new solutions can be imagined.[1]

You have to remain open-minded, focus on your organizational skills, and learn to communicate your ideas well when you are using creative thinking to solve problems. If an employee at a café you own suggests serving breakfast in addition to the already-served lunch and dinner, keeping an open mind means thinking through the benefits of this new plan (e.g., potential new customers and increased profits) instead of merely focusing on the possible drawbacks (e.g., possible scheduling problems, added start-up costs, loss of lunch business). Implementing this plan would mean a new structure for buying, workers’ schedules and pay, and advertising, so you would have to organize all these component areas. And finally, you would need to communicate your ideas on how to make this new plan work not only to the staff who will work the new shift, but also to the public who frequent your café and the others you want to encourage to try your new hours.

We need creative solutions throughout the workplace—whether board room, emergency room, or classroom. It was no fluke that the 2001 revised Bloom’s cognitive taxonomy, originally developed in 1948, placed a new word at the apex—creating. That creating is the highest level of thinking skills.

A diagram illustrates the revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy by showing a comparison between “The Old Version” versus “The New Version.”
Bloom’s Taxonomy is an important learning theory used by psychologists, cognitive scientists, and educators to demonstrate levels of thinking. Many assessments and lessons you’ve seen during your schooling have likely been arranged with Bloom’s in mind. Researchers recently revised it to place creativity—invention—as the highest level

“Because we’ve always done it that way” is not a valid reason to not try a new approach. It may very well be that the old process is a very good way to do things, but it also may just be that the old, comfortable routine is not as effective and efficient as a new process could be.

The good news is that we can always improve upon our problem-solving and creative-thinking skills—even if we don’t consider ourselves to be artists or creative. The following information may surprise and encourage you!

  • Creative thinking (a companion to critical thinking) is an invaluable skill for college students. It’s important because it helps you look at problems and situations from a fresh perspective. Creative thinking is a way to develop novel or unorthodox solutions that do not depend wholly on past or current solutions. It’s a way of employing strategies to clear your mind so that your thoughts and ideas can transcend what appear to be the limitations of a problem. Creative thinking is a way of moving beyond barriers.[2]
  • As a creative thinker, you are curious, optimistic, and imaginative. You see problems as interesting opportunities, and you challenge assumptions and suspend judgment. You don’t give up easily. You work hard.[3]

Is this you? Even if you don’t yet see yourself as a competent creative thinker or problem-solver, you can learn solid skills and techniques to help you become one.

Creative Problem-Solving: Fiction and Facts

As you continue to develop your creative thinking skills, be alert to perceptions about creative thinking that could slow down progress. Remember that creative thinking and problem-solving are ways to transcend the limitations of a problem and see past barriers. It’s a way to think outside the box.

Creative Problem-Solving: Fiction and Facts
1 Every problem has only one solution (or one right answer). The goal of problem-solving is to solve the problem, and most problems can be solved in any number of ways. If you discover a solution that works, it’s a good solution. Other people may think up solutions that differ from yours, but that doesn’t make your solution wrong or unimportant. What is the solution to “putting words on paper”? Fountain pen, ballpoint, pencil, marker, typewriter, printer, printing press, word-processing . . .?
2 The best answer or solution or method has already been discovered. Look at the history of any solution and you’ll see that improvements, new solutions, and new right answers are always being found. What is the solution to human transportation? The ox or horse, the cart, the wagon, the train, the car, the airplane, the jet, or the space shuttle? What is the best and last?
3 Creative answers are technologically complex. Only a few problems require complex technological solutions. Most problems you’ll encounter need only a thoughtful solution involving personal action and perhaps a few simple tools. Even many problems that seem to require technology can be addressed in other ways.
4 Ideas either come or they don’t. Nothing will help— certainly not structure. There are many successful techniques for generating ideas. One important technique is to include structure. Create guidelines, limiting parameters, and concrete goals for yourself that stimulate and shape your creativity. This strategy can help you get past the intimidation of the blank page. For example, if you want to write a story about a person who gained insight through experience, you can stoke your creativity by limiting or narrowing your theme to “a young girl in Cambodia who escaped the Khmer Rouge to find a new life as a nurse in France.” Apply this type of specificity and structure to any creative endeavor.


creative problem-solving: a practice that seeks new and novel solutions to problems, often by using imagination rather than linear reason


  1. "Critical and Creative Thinking, MA." University of Massachusetts Boston. 2016. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  2. Mumaw, Stefan. "Born This Way: Is Creativity Innate or Learned?" Peachpit. Pearson, 27 Dec 2012. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  3. Harris, Robert. "Introduction to Creative Thinking." Virtual Salt. 2 Apr 2012. Web. 16 Feb 2016.
  4. Ibid.


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Creative Thinking Skills Copyright © 2023 by April Ring is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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