Fostering Creativity in Higher Education: the Case for Religious Studies

By Stefanie Sinclair

[This piece originally appeared in the Bulletin of the British Association for the Study of Religion 132 (Nov 2018). You can read the full issue here. Stefanie was the recipient of the first BASR Teaching Award, and this piece celebrates her achievement.] 

Creativity is in demand. As Gaspar and Mabic point out, “in the last decade creativity has become a mantra which is used by politicians, businessmen, employees, teachers, professors, students and others. Creativity is seen as a cure for a wide range of [social, economic and educational] problems” (2015, p. 598). It is valued as an important life skill, linked to increased levels of wellbeing and depth of learning. It can build resilience and help solve complex problems. Creativity has also been identified as an increasingly desirable graduate attribute that cannot easily be outsourced or replaced by machines in a labour market increasingly dominated by technology (Blessinger and Watts 2017, 3; Csikszentmihalyi 2006; Gauntlett 2011; Osmani et al. 2015; Rampersad and Patel 2014; Robinson 2011).

While there is wide-ranging agreement that higher education can play an important role in fostering creativity, there have been claims that it is not doing enough and there are “calls for a more rigorous approach to teaching creativity” in higher education (Rampersad and Patel 2014, 1). However, there are many different views on what creativity actually is and how its development can be best supported. Studies have, for example, found that academic staff and students in higher education often have different understandings of the concept of creativity. When interviewing academic staff from a range of subject disciplines at Liverpool John Moores University and University College London (UCL), Edwards et al. (2006) found that the academics they interviewed tended to associate creativity with originality, with being imaginative, with exploring or ‘adventuring’ for the purpose of discovery, with synthesis and making sense of complexity and with communication. A parallel study of students’ perception of creativity, on the other hand, found that students tended to associate creativity with freedom from routine and from the need to justify oneself, with expression of imagination, with independence, risk and sometimes superficiality. Students also typically described creativity as something personal and infectious (Oliver et al. 2006). These differences highlight the elusive and complex nature of this concept (Kleinman 2008, 209). Notions of creativity range from understanding it as an elite enterprise that is reserved for the talented and gifted few, to the increasingly influential understanding of creativity as a powerful collaborative process that can and should be harnessed in everyone (Rampersad and Patel 2014, 1; Robinson 2011). I find the latter particularly convincing.

However, in an environment determined by league tables, funding cuts, stifling levels of bureaucracy and the looming pressure of the REF and TEF, where students are increasingly encouraged to approach education as customers purchasing qualifications, it can be very challenging to inject creativity into the curriculum and adopt a greater focus on teaching and learning as a collaborative process of discovery and growth. So what can we do to address this? Csikszentmihalyi argues that “if one wishes to inject creativity in the educational system, the first step might be to help students find out what they truly love, and help them immerse themselves in the domain” (2006, xix). He contends that to support this process, it is important that teachers model the joy of learning and the passion for their subject discipline themselves. As Kleinman concludes, “academics need to be perceived and involved as agents in their own and their students creativity rather than as objects of, or more pertinently, deliverers of a particular ‘creativity agenda’ “(2008, 216). As part of the Open University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences teaching scholarship seminar series on ‘Creativity and criticality in online learning’ colleagues got together last summer to talk to each other about their passion for their respective subject areas – and some filmed each other talking about this on their smart phones. In the midst of stressful deadlines and piles of paperwork, many colleagues commented on how refreshing and energising they found it to remind themselves and each other of their deep passion for their subject areas and for teaching and research. In the context of the many pressures academics are facing, it is important not to lose sight of why we’re in ‘it’ in the first place, and it is important for our students to see this, too.

This scholarship seminar series built on topics explored in a volume on Creativity and Criticality in Online Learning, edited by Jacqueline Baxter, George Callaghan and Jean McAvoy. This is about to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2018, with contributions from a range of colleagues working at The Open University, including myself, considering the particular opportunities and challenges associated with teaching creativity in higher education in online settings.  The chapter I contributed focuses on the link between creative and multisensory learning. It explores how digital technologies can be used to create opportunities for multisensory learning and assessment, particularly – though not exclusively – in distance learning environments (Sinclair, forthcoming). My chapter introduces and critically appraises three forms of assessment currently used in Religious Studies and Philosophy modules at The Open University, including the assessment of digital audio recordings of oral presentations, presentation slides and of a ‘Take a picture of religion’ activity. This activity encourages students to engage critically and creatively with different understandings of the concept ‘religion’ by asking them to take a photograph of an object or place representing an aspect of ‘religion’ in their locality. They then share and discuss this photograph on an online platform with a small group of other students, moderated by a tutor, followed by an assessed reflective activity. An important insight I have gained through the scholarship projects this chapter is based on, is the value of consulting colleagues and involving students in the critical evaluation of new forms of learning and assessment, and of sharing and developing resources across different modules. This very much ties into the understanding of creativity and of creative learning and teaching as collaborative processes, giving staff and students a sense of ownership.

It could be argued that Religious Studies is in a particularly strong position as a subject discipline to facilitate the development of creativity and of creative learning in higher education. There are a number of reasons for this. Many colleagues have talked and written about the fantastic opportunities fieldtrips, fieldwork or engagement with museum objects or artefacts can offer to  engage students in collaborative, ‘hands-on’, multisensory and creative learning (see, for example Gregg and Scholefield 2015; Chatterjee et al. 2015). Religious Studies offers a particularly rich range of opportunities for this. While financial constraints, workload issues and health and safety regulations pose many tricky challenges to the organisation of international fieldtrips, it is important not to lose sight of more easily accessible opportunities for multisensory learning on a local, smaller scale (as illustrated by the ‘Take a picture of religion’ activity mentioned above). Another reason why Religious Studies is in a particularly good position as a subject discipline to foster creativity in higher education is the fact that creative solutions for complex problems often “lie in the ‘liminal’ spaces, the boundaries or thresholds of different academic discipline domains” (Stefani 2017, 206). As an inherently multi- and interdisciplinary subject discipline, Religious Studies has plenty to offer in the exploration of these liminal spaces. As the Employability guide published by the Higher Education Academy’s Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies predicted in 2009: “in an increasingly global economy, the skills of vision, creativity and religious sensitivity, which are developed through the study of TRS, will be at a premium” (HEA 2009, 4; emphasis added). Let’s shout this from the roof tops.


Blessinger, Patrick and Watts, Linda S. (2017) ‘History and nature of creative learning’ in Linda S. Watts and Patrick Blessinger (eds.) Creative Learning in Higher Education: International Perspectives and Approaches, New York and London: Routledge, pp.3-13.

Chatterjee, Helen J. and Hannan, Leonie (eds), (2015) Engaging the Senses: Object-based learning in higher education, Farnham, UK and Burlington, USA: Ashgate.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (2006) ‘Foreword: Developing creativity’ in Norman Jackson, Martin Oliver, Malcolm Shaw and James Wisdom (eds.) Developing Creativity in Higher Education: An imaginative curriculum, London and New York: Routledge, pp. xviii-xx.

Edwards, Margaret, McGoldrick, Chris and Oliver, Martin (2006) ‘Creativity and curricula in higher education: academics’ perspectives’ in Norman Jackson, Martin Oliver, Malcolm Shaw and James Wisdom (eds.) Developing Creativity in Higher Education: An imaginative curriculum, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 59-73.

Gaspar, Drazena and Mabic, Mirela (2015) ‘Creativity in Higher Education’, Universal Journal of Educational Research, 3: 9, pp. 598-605.

Gauntlett, David (2011) Making is Connecting: The social meaning of creativity, from DIY and knitting to YouTube and Web 2.0, Cambridge and Malden: Polity.

Gregg, Stephen E. and Scholefield, Lynne (2015) Engaging with Living Religion: A Guide to Fieldwork in the Study of Religion, Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

HEA Subject Centre for Philosophical and Religious Studies (2009) Employability: Where next? Unlocking the potential of your theology or religious studies degree, 2nd ed., Higher Education Academy.

Kleinman, Paul (2008) ‘Towards transformation: conceptions of creativity in higher education” Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45: 3, pp. 209-217 [Available online at]

Oliver, Martin, Shah, Barat, McGoldrick, Chris and Edwards, Margaret (2006) ‘Students’ experiences of creativity’ in Norman Jackson, Martin Oliver, Malcolm Shaw and James Wisdom (eds.) Developing Creativity in Higher Education: An imaginative curriculum, London and New York: Routledge, pp. 43-58.

Osmani, Mohamad, Weekrakkody, Nitham M. Hindi, Al-Esmail, Rajab, Eldabi, Tillal, Kapoor, Kawaljeet and Irani, Zahir (2015) ‘Identifying trends and impact of graduate attributes on employability: a literature review’, Tertiary Education and Management, 21: 4, pp. 367-379.

Rampersad, Giselle and Patel, Fay (2014) ‘Creativity as a desirable graduate attribute: implications for curriculum design and employability’, Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 15: 1, pp. 1-11 [Available online at]

Robinson, Ken (2011) Out of Our Minds: Learning to be creative, 2nd revised ed., Chichester: Capstone.

Sinclair, Stefanie (forthcoming) “Creativity, criticality and engaging the senses in higher education: Creating online opportunities for multisensory learning and assessment” in Jacqueline Baxter, George Callaghan and Jean McAvoy (eds.) Creativity and Critique in Online Learning: Exploring and Examining Innovations in Online Pedagogy, Palgrave Macmillan.