Loyola University Chicago

Department of Psychology

Thinking outside the box

Students take creativity to a whole new level

By Drew Sottardi  |  Senior writer

Assistant professor of psychology Robert Morrison has a PhD in cognitive neuroscience and conducts research into how the brain allows people to reason and remember throughout their life. He’s also an accomplished artist whose photos, paintings, and sculptures have been displayed in galleries and museums across the country.

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Read what current and past Psychology of Creativity students are thinking about at the course blog.

With that unique background, it’s no wonder that Morrison’s teaching style is a little, well, unusual.

His Psychology of Creativity honors course is a perfect example. On a recent February afternoon, Morrison buckled on his bike helmet, shut his eyes, and moved blindly around the classroom, bumping into others as part of a student-led presentation. He later ventured outside in the dead of winter to take part in another group activity.

For Morrison, it’s all in a day’s work—and an example of how he goes out of his way to connect with his students.

“There are no traditional papers or tests for this class,” said Morrison, who received the College of Arts and Science’s Sujack Award for Teaching Excellence in 2013. “I tell my students, ‘This is your chance to do the things you always wanted to do in a college class.’ ”

One of Morrison’s most popular assignments for the course is something he calls “the great mind presentation.” For this, he divides his class into small groups and has the students research the lives and creative processes of seven of the greatest thinkers of the modern era, including Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, and Pablo Picasso. The students must then make a presentation to the rest of the class about their subject.

Morrison’s one rule for the assignment? “Don’t bore me,” he said. “This is a class about creativity, so be creative. Take us for a wild ride.”

It’s a directive his students run with.

One group got inside the mind of Freud by bringing a couch into class and having a student portray the famed psychiatrist going through a therapy session. Another group took the class on a time-travel tour through Dumbach Hall, where students got to meet the people who influenced Picasso’s artwork.

And in February, with the Sochi Games going strong, four students staged the Einstein Winter Olympics to help explain the physicist’s most famous discoveries. Among the events were the 200-meter Wave Particle R­ace and the E=MarioCart2 ride—a playful riff on Einstein’s theory of relativity that featured students being pushed in a laundry cart while throwing tennis balls and aiming a laser pointer at the blackboard.

Loyola senior Brittney Rooney was part of the team that came up with the idea for the Einstein Olympics. She and the others in her group had only a basic understanding of physics and math, so they came up with some novel ways to share Einstein’s theories and discoveries.

“We wanted to make Einstein’s concepts easy to understand and let others know what they were and why they were important,” Rooney said. “We had people throwing balls, running around, doing the wave—all sorts of things to bring the concepts down a few notches to their most basic levels.”

Rooney, an honors student who is getting a double major in political science and environmental science, had never taken a psychology course before this semester. But it’s turned out to be one of her favorite classes at Loyola.

“It’s definitely more interactive than other classes I’ve taken,” Rooney said. “It’s more work than your average class, but it’s also more rewarding. If you go in knowing you’re going to have to work, and you don’t mind that, then you’ll love it.”

Fellow team member Rob Palumbo, a junior who is majoring in psychology, said the class is unlike many of the other honors courses he’s had so far.

“In honors classes, a lot of times you listen to a lecture, read a book, and then write an essay,” he said. “That has its place, but this class really allows the students to lead a lot of the discussions. It lets you go beyond writing a paper.”

Palumbo—who also works with Morrison in Loyola’s Cognitive & Affective Neuroscience Lab and would like to one day become a cognitive neuroscientist himself—has a simple message for students who aren’t sure if they should sign up for the course.

“If you embrace it and really try to enjoy it,” he said, “it could be one of the most memorable classes you’ll ever take.”

Robert Morrison, PhD

Hometown: Philadelphia

At Loyola since: 2009

Courses taught: Psychology of Creativity (HONR204); Seminar in Neuroscience (NEUR300); Laboratory in Experimental Psychology:  Cognition (PSYC314); Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience (PSYC382); Seminar in Cognitive Neuroscience (PSYC435)

Learn more about Morrison—including his thoughts on teaching and his latest research projects—at the CAN lab website.