Be More than Just a “Good Student”: Exploring Creative Ways for Successful Learning

Christine Lee
University of Florida

Achieving high grades is often a top priority for college students (Rothstein, 2009). However, as a psychology student, you are undoubtedly aware that many educational opportunities in psychological science (e.g., admission into a competitive graduate program, an offer for a research assistant position, a grant or scholarship) requires more than a solid GPA. In fact, studies show that to be a productive and an influential member in the field of psychology (e.g., being innovative, taking leadership, developing multicultural competence), it is simply not enough to earn high grades (Schmitt, 2012). Whether you are pursuing a clinical, counseling, academic, or another career path in psychology, success in the field requires strong creative problem solving skills (Sternberg, 2006).

Contrary to the popular belief that only a small group of geniuses are truly creative, research has shown that the processes and skills underlying creativity are widely distributed. Ken Robinson (2011) makes a compelling argument that creativity is an intrinsic capacity of humanity in his book, Out of Our Minds: Learning to be Creative. In addition, creative ability consists of a complex combination of a vast array of knowledge, skills, and abilities (Sternberg, 2006). Creative products or innovations can be expressed in unique ways across all different fields (not just in the arts!), including psychology. Finally, creative people are highly committed to their field, engaging in deliberate practice and training over time – rather than waiting in anticipation for a Eureka! moment.

I hope that you are at least humoring the idea that you are indeed a creative person and that the following tips will encourage you to take more initiative in pursuing your original ideas. Challenge yourself continually to consider unconventional paths and novel approaches in your work as student psychologists!

Generate and Ask Questions

Break out of the cramming and regurgitating information cycle that unfortunately characterizes the common practices of undergraduate studies. Psychology is a multidimensional field, in which the objective is rarely to arrive at a single correct answer. Rather, psychology offers endless possibilities to discover, describe, and better understand the interactions between multitudes of influences for any given phenomenon. Truths in psychology are often situated within specific contexts and vary from group to group or individual to individual. Develop a critical eye to assess information presented to you in lectures, textbooks, the media, and more. Maintain a curious disposition, and continuously ask the following questions that will help to create meaningful links between the information you are learning in class and psychology as it is manifested in the real world.

  • Research to practice: What are the implications or practical applications of this information? For example, how is this information applied in real world settings?
  • Critical discourse: What are alternative perspectives on this issue or topic? Which perspectives are being presented and which are being ignored? What other factors may explain these outcomes?
  • Personal reflection: How do my experiences support or challenge this information?

Then raise these questions in class, research meetings, and/or your professor’s office hours! It can be intimidating at first, but practice this explicit curiosity and make it a habit in your learning experiences within and outside of school. Raising questions that spark discussions and challenge others to think about a topic in more depth (beyond the presented facts) is a mark of a critical thinker. And, keep in mind that sometimes the best questions are simple, yet profound. Asking meaningful questions demonstrates your genuine interest and investment in a course and/or research project and will optimize your undergraduate learning experiences.

Re-Define Traditional Problems

When problems are presented to you (which can come in the form of an exam, essay, activity, group project, etc.), take the time to make the problem you are solving one that has personal significance, worthy of your time and effort to solve! Re-conceptualize your standard course assignments into opportunities to reflect on, apply, and synthesize the information you know with the information you are learning. For example, if you are asked to write a paper on topic X, instead of defining this “problem” by the number of required pages and references, or whether it is double- or single-spaced, focus your attention on more substantial criteria. For example, consider the following questions before tackling your task:

  • Impact of the problem: Why is answering the question important? Who will be affected? What are the implications of this topic?
  • Consider multiple approaches: In what ways can I go about solving this problem? What are the pros and cons of each approach?
  • Broad information search: What knowledge do I have about this topic? How does the particular topic relate to my courses and experiences? What does recent research say about this topic?

When completing an assignment, it may be tempting to take a linear and “safe” approach that is guided by superficial constraints and meets the bare minimum criteria. For example, writing a paper with the goal of hitting the word limit, dumping the first (which are usually the most common) ideas that come to mind, and paraphrasing information from references with little to no original thoughts or critical reactions are not optimal strategies. I once saw a movie in which a teacher sarcastically commented that she had to “go grade 40 identical essays on the Revolutionary War.” Unfortunately, this off-hand remark is the reality of many psychology professors. Surprise your professors by taking a risk and providing a fresh, critical, and unique perspective in your next assignment! Similarly, as a research assistant, don’t settle for simply fulfilling your scheduled hours.  Take the initiative to substantively engage in and contribute to the research project you are a part of by reading literature on related studies, taking notes of questions and ideas that arise as you complete your lab duties, and speaking up during the lab meetings. Breaking the monotony of grading and/or meetings is a great way to get you noticed by your professors.

Develop a Tolerance for Ambiguity and Go the Extra Mile

Creativity is a complex process characterized by intellectual tensions and obstacles. When you are faced with these frustrating moments (e.g., having a “writer’s block,” drawing a blank), identify them as an integral part of the creative process. Instead of giving up or taking an easier route to completing an assignment, embrace these creative tensions. Developing a tolerance for ambiguity is a hallmark of creative individuals. When the solution is not readily available, take the time and put in the effort to brainstorm more ideas. This process, identified as divergent thinking in the creativity literature, is believed to be a critical component of creative thinking (Guildford, 1950). Many high achieving college students are skilled analytic and convergent thinkers (i.e., able to identify the single, correct answer to a problem; Sternberg, 2006), but fewer students are consistently thinking ‘outside the box.’ These two thought processes are not mutually exclusive (people do not have to be either “smart” or “creative”). Innovators are both highly skilled in generating ideas AND evaluating which ideas are best suited for the problem at hand (Sternberg, 2006).  It will be uncomfortable, take more effort, and sometimes be very risky to diverge from the conventional manner in which things are done. But as Ken Robinson (2009) stated, “If you are not prepared to be wrong, you will never come up with anything original.”



Guildford, J. P. (1950). Creativity. American Psychologist, 5, 444-454.


Robinson, K. (2009). The Element: How finding your passion changes everything. London: Viking



Robinson, K. (2011). Out of our minds: Learning to be creative. Westford, MA: Capstone Publishing Ltd.


Rothstein, R. (2009). What’s wrong with accountability by numbers? American Educator, Spring Issue.


Schmitt, N. (2012). Development of rationale and measures of noncognitive college student potential.

Educational Psychologist, 47(1), 18-29.


Sternberg, R. J. (2006). The Rainbow Project: Enhancing the SAT through assessments of analytical,

practical, and creative skills. Intelligence, 34, 321-350.


Author Note

Christine S. Lee is a doctoral candidate in Educational Psychology at the University of Florida. She is teaching and serving as a research assistant on a NSF-funded research project, examining open-ended problem solving among engineering students. Her research interests include cognition, creativity, creative problem solving, and mixed research methodology. She can be reached at