Brainstorming is a near ubiquitous means for groups to initiate planning for a project, whether in business or in class. The assumption is that by starting with a blank slate, asking people to throw out ideas without judgement, groups will get a wider range of options and greater participation than otherwise. But in reality, the results are often the exact opposite as studies have shown it to be often less effective than individuals working alone (Brown & Paulus, 2002). Researchers have looked at why brainstorming so often fails, and the results can guide faculty in setting up productive brainstorming sessions for their students.
The major problem with brainstorming is that it is a social process, and like all social processes, it is strongly influenced by participants’ personalities. There is strong pressure to conform in groups. This is due not to overbearing leaders but rather to self-censoring by participants who do not want to be in the minority or viewed as disagreeable (Taylor, 2019). People also do not want to make suggestions that others perceive as dumb and so will withhold their ideas in many cases. A similar problem is that when people speak one at a time, each person needs to wait their turn to speak. Even if someone has an idea, the conversation might have moved on by the time they get their opportunity to voice it, or perhaps they will have forgotten their point.
One possible solution is “brainwriting”: participants work alone and then submit ideas without having to first suggest them to the wider group (Association for Psychological Research, 2016). An initial study of this approach compared a team of employees that first brainstormed ideas as a group and then worked individually to add their own ideas to a team whose members first worked alone (brainwriting) and then submitted ideas to a group. The second team generated 71 percent more ideas than the first team.
A count of the mere number of ideas, of course, does not necessarily mean a greater breath of ideas or that some people did not still withhold ideas. I would suggest that instructors have students post ideas to an asynchronous digital sticky-note board, like Padlet, before the group meeting to avoid the pressures of face-to-face groupthink and then, during the meeting, alternate between group discussions and individual postings. That might maximize both the quantity and quality of ideas. This process can work in both face-to-face and online classes, with students alternating between the videoconferencing and digital sticky-note apps during the meeting.
A second common problem is getting widespread participation in group work. Students who see that the brainstorming can go on without their involvement or who view the topic as uninteresting or the project as busywork may become disinterested and choose to free ride (Taylor). Faculty tend to address participation issues with punitive measures, such as making participation a part of a student’s grade, but this does not improve intrinsic motivation and may encourage superficial, token responses.
Instead, participants must see the benefits of working in a group. This means making sure that brainstorming sessions lead to action, not just talk, as is often the case with group discussions. Another suggestion is to focus the question. A question that is too open-ended makes it hard for students to get started. Students lack the wide body of knowledge of a class topic that faculty possess and so have fewer tools to address topics abstractly. It is easier for them to discuss a case that is familiar to them. Instead of a general topic like “internet marketing options,” for example, it can be easier for them to brainstorm “ways to use TikTok for marketing.”
Decision making and next steps
Faculty often leave out a decision-making process in their directions for group projects. How, then, will groups make decisions? Normally, decisions in groups are made by talking over a topic until one position appears to be in the majority, at which point those who disagree believe themselves to be in the minority and stop contributing. This creates the illusion of consensus by silence, covering over the actual level of disagreement.
One suggestion is to have groups vote on the various options that members have presented (Taylor). For one, this allows those who disagree with the majority to still have their position counted. Two, voting can create buy-in from participants as they see that their position was given a fair review.
Instructors should also give students a clear method for translating brainstorming into action. How often have we sat in workshops or meetings where people were asked to write ideas on large brown sheets of butcher paper taped to the walls only to have those rolled up at the end and never be seen again?
Here it can be helpful to give students template documents for synthesizing their work and planning next steps. This can be as easy as a Google Doc, but graphic sites like Canva include brainstorming and planning templates that students can work on collaboratively during their meetings and then download at the end. These can help structure the ideas into something that can guide action.
Merely putting students into a group and telling them to “get at it” is not enough to ensure a robust discussion of ideas. Social pressures and other factors will intervene. Try different methods to help overcome these obstacles to help your students get started on group projects.
Association for Psychological Research. (2016, March 15). There’s a better way to brainstorm. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/minds-business/theres-a-better-way-to-brainstorm.html
Brown, V. R., & Paulus, P. B. (2002). Making group brainstorming more effective: Recommendations from an associative memory perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(6), 208–212. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00202
Taylor, B. (2019, August 8). Why most brainstorming sessions don’t work. Work in Progress. https://blog.dropbox.com/topics/work-culture/how-to-brainstorm