Anxiety and Creativity

POV: Managing Student Anxiety & Unlocking Creativity

The World Economic Forum predicts that creativity and innovation will be among the top job skills needed in 2022. And BU defines them as essential to its undergraduate education. As the Hub Curriculum Guide states, “BU students across all fields of study will benefit from learning how to think in new ways, imagine new possibilities, take new approaches, and/or make new things.”

As I read on in the guide, there is one line that I keep coming back to: “They will have personal experience of taking risks, failing, and trying again.”

This line represents a pedagogical challenge that I’ve been thinking about a lot in my time as interim director of the CTL. Every year BU students are more diligent, driven, and academically prepared than the year before. But they are also, like their peers nationally, more anxious. As I head back to the classroom, I’m looking for strategies to allay anxiety and encourage students to explore outside the box.

Put “wrong” aside

I turned to graphic novelist Lynda Barry, also an associate professor of interdisciplinary creativity at the University of Wisconsin, for ideas about overcoming creative anxiety. Barry notes that when small children draw, they “use the paper as a place for an experience.” As they get older, they begin to focus on the product—and to judge it, often harshly. At that point, they usually stop drawing. Here’s Barry’s antidote:

“The quickest way to turn the paper back into a place is to fold it into quarters, draw a quick scribble in each of the quadrants, turn the paper upside down and set a timer. Give yourself one minute for each scribble. Your job is to turn that scribble into a monster. There’s no way to do this wrong—or right for that matter. Monsters can look like anything. . . Almost all of us can do this. And not just do it, but feel a particular sort of aliveness while we are doing it.”

Barry assigns monsters to reassure inhibited artists because monsters can’t be judged as “wrong.” Being wrong or incompetent is anxiety-provoking, perhaps particularly so for this generation of college students. Many come to us shaped by years of being rewarded for efficiently accruing right answers. Getting something “wrong” may be especially intimidating for students who come from high schools that focus heavily on standardized tests and those subject to stereotype threat.

Barry’s exercise might help such students overcome their anxiety about drawing. But how do we get them to think with similarly fearless creativity in their academic classes? I asked two colleagues, a poet and an engineer.

Reframe failure

Jessica Bozek, who teaches Poetry Now in the CAS Writing Program, aims to give students “explicit permission not to tie a bow on their thinking.” She looks for ways to reframe the messiness that is an inevitable part of creative thinking in a positive way, so she might tell an achievement-oriented student, “The options you explored that didn’t work give you important context for the place you are going next.” And she helps students value that messy process by assigning e-portfolios in which they document and reflect on changes they have made—a practice that has well-proven advantages (see, for example, Fink 2003).

As to her own work as a poet, Jessica said, “I’m always afraid. I think it’s the nature of creative work. The only way I’ve ever found to get to a new project is to just write a whole bunch of really bad stuff. Maybe just one sentence in pages of awful stuff is the seed for a project.”

Bill Hauser, who teaches mechanical engineering, notices that students struggle with creativity because “they don’t realize how difficult it is to make something happen, and they don’t realize how many false starts they will need to absorb.” He advises his senior capstone students, “Try many things. Most of them will fail. Persist.”

Rethink grading

Since grades are a locus of much student anxiety, we might foster creativity by reconsidering assessment. In a Learning Science Speaker Series talk the CTL hosted last year, Nathaniel Brown made an argument for the an alternative to grading called progress mapping based on cognitive psychology. In my field of writing studies, there has been much discussion recently about Asao Inoue’s labor-based grading contracts, which he frames in terms of equity and inclusion.

Grades image
Courtesy of

The assessment practices Brown and Inoue endorse are different, but they both make it easier for students to explore, take chances, and linger without worry in ways that also open up more space for creative thinking. It is no coincidence that both bear some resemblance to Lynda Barry’s grading policy.

If you are not ready to redesign your course around progress- or labor-based evaluation, consider a small change to how you define success on a rubric, a document that spells out exactly what you value. The rubric Jessica uses when grading student poetry is illustrative. She includes credit for a reflection that “establishes your intentions and makes specific references to the author/book on which assignment is based” and allows that “even if you don’t feel that your poem succeeds in a particular area, you may still receive full credit if your reflection articulates an especially compelling vision.”

Or adopt a policy like Bill’s. He aims to shift students’ perception of their assignments “from what they accomplished to what they learned from the experience of the creation” by dropping the first paper’s grade if it would lower the overall average, giving students a chance to experiment at low risk.

Bill quoted Thomas Edison: “Great success is built on failure, frustration, even catastrophe.” The world needs our students’ new ideas. If we want them to learn creativity, we need to find creative ways to show them we value the failures they are likely to encounter along the way.

For more ideas about teaching creativity and innovation, visit the CTL guide.

Learn more about Digital Learning & Innovation, or to schedule an appointment with a CTL Learning Experience Designer, email

Sarah Madsen Hardy

About the author: Sarah Madsen Hardy is a Master Lecturer and Associate Director of the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program. She served as the interim director of the Center for Teaching and Learning in 2019.