Do academic success, creativity coexist in the classroom
November 18, 2016   //   By:   //   Achievements, Research and Academics

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Successful and intelligent students are not overly creative; those who are clever and creative have trouble maintaining good grades.

Those are strong observations and not necessarily accurate, according to Jean Pretz, associate professor of psychology and department chair, at Elizabethtown College.

Pretz has explored the concept of creativity versus academic success for 18 years, honing and focusing her study. Not only has she reached enlightening conclusions, she also has employed the knowledge of her research to better teach her students.

“I’m looking at how creativity is related to academic success, a student’s ability to come up with new ideas and their belief that they can do that,” Pretz said.

Creativity has a history of being undervalued in engineering education.”

For one of her studies, SAT scores were recorded, as were essays written voluntarily by College applicants. Accepted students in this group were evaluated at orientation, in their first semester and, again, in the last semester before graduation.

In addition to using the essays, creativity was measured through brainstorming and writing a caption for an ambiguous photograph; it was found that, although the students who did best in high school did slightly worse on creativity, this didn’t necessarily transfer over to college.

Junior psychology major Megan Kuczma worked alongside Pretz this past summer as part of the College’s Summer Scholarship, Creative Arts and Research Projects (SCARP) program. She had collected data in advance and ran the numbers after school let out in May.

“The main finding is that creativity is not related to academic achievement at all,” she said. Predictions based on the idea that those who are more creative are less likely to succeed in academics were not supported when comparing creativity to GPA in the students’ first semester. SATs were the best predictor of first-year GPA, but critical thinking was a better predictor of graduation GPA.

“Standardized tests scores don’t necessarily represent abilities,” Kuczma said, noting that writing an essay in place of SATs might be a more accurate representation for some.

Kuczma said she and Pretz are hoping to have their research published. “It would be nice to go into an interview and say ‘I’ve been published’,” she said of post-Commencement plans. Taking part in SCARP also counted toward one of Kuczma’s Signature Learning Experiences, a requirement for E-town graduation.

Sara Atwood, Department of Engineering chair, suggested that Pretz turn her research toward engineering students. Together, the two faculty members studied engineering students’ ability to envision new ideas and whether or not they believed they were creative people. The research spanned four years as the GPAs of first-year engineering students were compared with senior-year grades and graduation rates.

“As a technical field the role of creativity is sometimes discounted,” said Atwood. Especially in the first semesters, the concentration is on science and math. Unfortunately, “those students who thought of themselves as highly creative tend to leave the major” before exploring where creativity is applicable in engineering.

“Creativity has a history of being undervalued in engineering education,” said Andrew Kile, a senior psychology and philosophy double major who assisted in the research. Students entering the program don’t always think of engineering as a creative endeavor, he said.

Kile took part in SCARP in 2015 and presented the research in 2016 at the American Psychological Association conference in Denver, Colorado, he said. “I enjoyed the opportunity of turning something that is just numbers into a story to tell people,” he said.

Understanding that creativity is often skimmed over in regular academic classes, Pretz and Atwood said they have attempted to formulate creative projects for their students.

In Atwood’s Introduction to Engineering classes, students are expected to create a work of fiction that explores a specific engineering ethics dilemma. Additionally, in Pretz’s Introduction to Neuroscience class, students communicate information about neurological phenomena using a creative approach. For example, one student wrote a play with each part of the brain as a character in the story; another wrote a graphic novel about a person experiencing a psychotic break. Another student created a pop-up book depicting a tour of the brain as though the parts of the brain were animals in a zoo.

About the Author :

E.A. (Elizabeth) Harvey is the communications manager and news editor at Elizabethtown College. She has worked in the Office of Marketing and Communications since 2008, after more than two decades as a newspaper feature writer. She holds a bachelor's degree in corporate communication from Elizabethtown College.