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Creative Thinking

Fostering Creative Thinking: What Does That Mean in Veterinary Education?

At first blush, creativity in veterinary medicine, or any type of medicine, sounds like a scary proposition.  After all, none of us would like for a physician to be “winging it” when they deal with our personal medical problems. 


But that’s not what it means. In this blog, we have most often discussed ways of encouraging critical clinical thinking (aka clinical problem-solving).  But if you’ve been in the clinics, you know that we live, particularly in veterinary practice, in a world of incomplete datasets and sometimes, less than optimal resources and circumstances.


Given that, why wouldn’t we want our veterinary students to be practiced at creative thinking?


However, it goes beyond that. As an educator, I’ve experienced students who succeeded at doing well on an end-of-course examination, only to meet them again a couple of weeks later to discuss a clinical case on the exact same concept….and clear recognition of the content or even its relevance to the case, can be gone from the student’s conscious mind. So, what can we do about it? Orchestrate learning scenarios where they create longer lasting “hooks” to types of thinking and, ultimately, to relevant content.


A recent article by Dennis Pierce in THE Journal, noting the comments from neuroscientist David Eagleman at the 2018 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) meeting in Chicago, brings us toward a neurocognitive understanding of the learning process for students in today’s communications-rich society.


I particularly liked the following comment by Dr. Eagleman:

The unconscious brain is ruthlessly efficient…It is looking for the easiest path [to a solution]. You have to shake it off of that path.

What he goes on to say is that we are moving from an information society to a creativity society, and, for some time, creativity will be a human trait not easily achieved by a machine. Eaglaeman also said


...being innovative, flexible thinkers is the most important skill that students can learn.


Yet, creative thinking is hard to cultivate, because of the previously mentioned tendency of the brain to look for an easier path.  An example might be expecting answers to pure content-based questions, such as those where “Dr. Google” can provide a clear answer.


So, it is about asking students to de-construct knowledge, perhaps re-discover it, and put it back together.  This is why clinical case analysis can and should be encouraged at all levels of veterinary education.  And sifting through information on the web, judging its quality and relevance to a case…and old-fashioned reading!


Eagleman presents 5 principles for encouraging creative thinking, and I’d like to suggest activities relevant to veterinary education that might follow 4 of the most implementable principles for veterinary instruction.

  1. “Bend, break, blend”

Providing problems or questions that are formulaic and feeding slightly iterative problems back to students as questions is not as likely to allow a creative brain to grow as will asking a relevant question (e.g. on an issue posed by a clinical case) that requires the student to pull apart, for example, the pathophysiology, find some answers to questions they craft, and then re-construct their newly discovered knowledge.  At the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, we have used a multi-media writing platform called Scholar ( to pose such open-ended questions including asking the student to reflect on his/her own learning process during their analysis.

  1. “Challenge students to go deeper

Again, using examples of our own experience at Illinois, we have presented actual (but anonymized) clinical cases with all their confounding facts and inconsistencies.  We ask students not to make a problem list, but to make a problem list of the 3 most important (life-threatening) problems.  And, even before they have had anything but anatomy, physiology, histology and neurobiology, we ask them to explore the world of differential diagnoses based upon the problems they identify. Yes, we get complaints initially from students that, ironically, we were expecting them to become clinicians too soon, but we decided that addressing creative problem-solving needed to come as early as possible in the curriculum because, after all, these same first-year students had just spent 8 weeks IN our clinic!  So, how do the students do? They come up with, in general, amazingly insightful case analyses!

  1. “Develop a culture of exploration

Again, using first-year veterinary school case analyses as an example, we make it very clear that we don’t expect them to get the clinical aspects of diagnosis and treatment exactly correct. We are looking for their use of a process to leverage their basic science knowledge, and that they defend their conclusions with such knowledge and evidence they find.  And, as Eagleman points out "Failures are the portal to discovery.”  And indeed, students discover the underlying process of approaching a process, and yes, even make early links of clinical problems back to pre-clinical ones.

  1. “Build creative spaces

Changing the bricks and mortar of our teaching institutions is a costly and time-consuming process.  However, having said that, I’m encouraged to note that at the University of Illinois, and other veterinary schools, new small-group study spaces have been created to facilitate group learning.  Eagleman points out that "Your environment matters," and if we think about how we enrich the living environments of animals in captivity, veterinarians should instinctively understand this. Eagleman encourages us to “change things up,” in order to maintain “brain plasticity.”  Returning to our exercises in Scholar, we include multi-media writing, anonymous peer review and feedback, and the opportunity to respond to that feedback with improvement of a final draft of their analysis


In this case, the goal is for the affordance of the electronic environment provided by the Scholar platform to encourage the best work a student could produce.  Also, by having a multi-dimensional way of expressing their performance in real-time, students can see how they measure up against instructor expectations for effort, revision, use of multimedia, etc.  In fact, we use the Asterplot representation of this data to view an individual’s effort as well as that of the class as a whole (shown below).

Individual Asterplot in Scholar

In a previous blog post, I shared a video by a colleague and collaborator, Dr. Bill Cope, an education professor at the University of Illinois and the principal creator of Scholar’s platform,  who encourages faculty to not insist on the "equality of outcomes," meaning, rather than to seek a perfect bell-shaped grading curve, try to float everyone's boat as an instructor.  Notice that we haven’t yet come up with a perfect score for creativity, but don’t you think that the 3 anonymous peer reviewers (humans!) appreciated the appropriate use of multi-media in their colleagues' case analyses? We have surveyed them and know that they do, both the ability to community with multi-media as well as to review their classmates’ multimedia discussions.


That’s just one way to ask them to be creative.  Please share your ideas for changing things up for students.


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