Teaching Students to Think Creatively about Problems, not just Answer Them

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Casey Finnerty, Civil and Environmental Engineering

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2020

As a GSI, I learned that if I wanted my students to think creatively, I had to be creative in the way I taught. During the 2019 Spring semester, I became the GSI for Water Systems of the Future (CE 110) in the Civil & Environmental Engineering Department. Although it was the second time this course had been taught, it was the first time the course would have discussion sections. Despite the autonomy I was given by the teaching team to conduct discussions however I wanted, I decided to play it safe and pattern my discussion section to be like those from when I was an undergrad. Heavily influenced by my educational background in engineering, the organization of these discussions was fairly straightforward: pass out a worksheet, allow students time to work through the problems, and then work through the problems together to come to a final answer. It wasn’t until the midterm that I realized that this problem-answer mentality that I was reinforcing in discussion was stifling the students’ creativity in problem solving. Although students did well on close-ended questions that required a simple calculation or rote memorization, they struggled with open-ended questions that asked for their perspective and opinions. I had unintentionally taught my students to think that every question had a specific answer, which — especially when it comes to our water systems — is rarely the case.

Determined to infuse creative thinking into my discussion sections, I sent out a mid-semester survey to get my students’ perspectives on the matter. Based on the results of the survey, the class conveyed that they wanted to “connect concepts from lecture to broader ideas” through “interactive activities and group discussions”. This feedback helped me identify that my teaching approach was the problem because worksheets and board work weren’t allowing the class to interact with the material in new ways. Needing to get creative myself, I ditched the worksheets to develop activities that allowed the students to get a hands-on understanding of the complexities that vex our water systems. For example, one week I gave students sticky notes with steps of the water treatment process drawn onto each. Their task was to assemble the sticky notes in order and justify the decisions. Although the order matters for some key steps, this activity showed students that there’s actually some flexibility for other steps, which is why not all water treatment plants are designed exactly the same. Another week, I assigned groups of students a resource recovery technology to research during the class period. Through this research, they needed to provide operational specifications (e.g. energy consumption, processing rate, and input requirements) and prepare a two-minute pitch. At the end of the class we discussed how context-specific factors influence which technology best suited for a given application. As activities varied significantly each week, I took an anonymous poll at the end of each section where students would rate how effective that week’s activity was on a scale of 1 to 5. This helped me figure out what was working and what wasn’t so that I could tailor future activities to be even more effective.

When it was time for the students to take the final, I was proud to see an average increase in scores from the midterm of 8% (almost a whole letter grade!). Their essays acknowledged the nuances and complexities of the problems faced by our water systems. Not only did they provide relevant facts and statistics, but they also voiced their opinions about how water systems could be improved. Although understanding that problems don’t have a specific answer was a key takeaway I wanted for my class, I found that this idea applies to teaching overall! I put this concept into practice by trying something new each week and relying on student feedback to guide my discussion throughout the semester. I hope this open-ended approach will help next year’s GSIs as they both teach students and learn for themselves that not all problems have a specific answer.