12 Ways to Help Students Brainstorm and Share Their Bold Ideas

It’s easy to get stuck in the same old, same old when programming, but you don’t have to.

One of the things I valued most as a student leader was working with my peers to innovate. And today is a national celebration of just that kind of fruitful collaboration; it’s National Swap Ideas Day

No matter what the date is though, it’s always a good time to consider how you can keep generating good ideas and bringing them to life.

One place to start is with brainstorming sessions. So, I’ll share some ideas for getting those started and making the most of them. Then, I’ll offer ideas to help you sustain a culture of idea-sharing all year round. 

4 Brainstorm Techniques

It might feel silly to think about how to brainstorm. After all, it’s something you probably learned in elementary school and have kept doing on auto-pilot ever since. 

But rest assured; It’s definitely worth reflecting on. In fact, there are some key ways to get the most out of your brainstorming sessions. 

1. Start out wild

Don’t worry about what seems realistic or not. Yes, I know how hard this can be. But letting go of concerns about reasonability is essential to brainstorming. 

One way to set the mood for proposing wild ideas is by doing a practice round of brainstorming about a fictional scenario. 

Our favorite silly question to ask at Presence is, “How can we get an elephant out of a bathtub?” Our teammates have suggested they we frighten the poor elephant out with a mouse, use a crane to lift the creature, patiently motivate it by first listening to its concerns, and other hilariously amusing solutions. 

The point here is to focus on being playful and social together. This way, people get inspired by others’ ideas and can add their own twists to ideas they hear. The more unrelated and ridiculous the warm-up, the better!

This can really help to get people in a creative headspace together.

2. Reserve judgment

The elephant exercise (or any other warm-up scenario that you pick) can help your reserve judgment, too. It’s hard to be judgmental when you have such a ridiculous problem to solve.

Nonetheless, when you’re letting your imagination run wild, it’s easy to feel self-conscious about the ideas you share. You have to realize, though, that these aren’t ideas you’ve had a lot of time to refine. In fact, the point of brainstorming is the opposite: To explore raw ideas as they come.

Still, staying judgment-free takes practice and patience. So, it’s essential to realize that great ideas need to start somewhere. You need to trust your teammates and have faith in yourself.

In addition to budgetary concerns and worries about your teammates judging you, you might also be held back by worries of how students — or whomever else you’re programming for — will react.

You may be inclined to stick to what’s been successful before, and stray away from things that you’re worried may be unwelcome by students. But so much good can come from letting go and exploring new ideas! 

Don’t think negatively. Think of the potential. You may come up with a brilliant idea and receive lots of encouragement from your teammates.

3. More is better

You might think the more that ideas are thrown out, the more cluttered things will get and the lower quality your ideas will become. But actually, it’s not like that by all. Your ideas are likely to just become different, not worse

New ideas tend to be inspired by ones that have been proposed before. This is how ideas get more and more creative and go beyond what’s conventional. 

Thinking up a lot of options might feel unnecessary since all the ideas won’t be used. But rest assured that the more there are, the easier it is to pick out the truly special ones. 

Also, you can always save all the ideas that were generated and keep them in a book or an electronic document where students have access to them. This can serve as an excellent resource for students to refer to whenever they need a little boost of inspiration.

4. Think ahead

Whenever you plan to host a brainstorming session, let your student leaders know ahead of time. This will ensure they arrive in the right mindset. They’ll be ready to be vulnerable and creative. 

To host a brainstorming session, preparation is key. You’ll want to carefully craft questions to guide participants. Consider what you hope to achieve together. What sorts of ideas do you hope to brainstorm? What are your ultimate goals or learning outcomes?

You’ll also want to gather all your materials. I like using big sheets of paper and sticky notes. Each question you ask can be written on a big piece of paper that’s posted on the wall. Then, you can designate a few student leaders to collect people’s ideas (written on sticky notes) and attach them to the paper. 

Make sure to give your students an accurate expectation of how much time you will spend brainstorming. It’s better to overestimate how long it’ll last; that way, you won’t hold them longer. 

And be sure to include time to debrief. You can ask if everyone felt that you achieved your goals, and discuss what went well and what went poorly in coming up with ideas. This feedback can help you make your brainstorming sessions even better in the future.

8 Everyday Practices

In addition to formal brainstorming sessions, there are many things you can do to foster an environment that encourages frequent ideation and idea swapping.

1. Put up a whiteboard

Your student leaders are super busy! You can show them that you understand that fact, while still encouraging idea sharing, by placing whiteboards in communal spaces.

If your student government has an office or your RAs have a resource room, hang a big whiteboard there and invite students to add to it. You could start the trend by writing your own questions for them to answer, or you can encourage student leaders to come up with their own prompts.

You might have them share the name of programs they’re hosting that month. Or, you might invite them to ask a question for others to respond to, such as, “Would you come to this event?” or “Which program name appeals to you most?” Be sure to leave space for responses, perhaps with Post-It notes or instructions to place tally marks next to their choices. 

These interactions will obviously be less in-depth than traditional brainstorming sessions, but they still encourage feedback and can help students get inspired.

2. Solicit Feedback

You can show your students how much you value their perspectives by frequently asking for their feedback.

When you are working with a new committee on a project, take time to brainstorm with your students what sorts of things really work well for them. 

3. Reflect on ideas

Give your student leaders notebooks when they start their positions and set the exception for them to bring their notebooks to all meetings. Encourage students to record ideas as they pop into their heads and to write down daily or weekly reflections about their experiences. 

This practice will help students contribute to their teams and get in a habit of generating and valuing their own ideas. Plus, you’ll demonstrate how much you value debriefing with them and helping them to improve their experiences.

4. Encourage students to attend each other’s events

Event attendance can be a great way for students to support their teammates. It also helps them to experience programs in a different way and to see another student leader’s way of planning and implementing things. 

They might also discover new approaches for a classic event or venue or be inspired to create an entirely new event. 

5. Foster praise

When student leaders attend each other’s events, they get to know each other better and can offer each other more genuine compliments. This helps build trust and camaraderie and makes it easier for them to engage in more critical ways. They can more naturally offer each other feedback and will feel more comfortable being vulnerable with each other.

6. Reach out to the community

Don’t just swap ideas between program planners, student leaders, and other campus professionals. The students you’re hoping to engage might also have awesome ideas! 

Encourage your student leaders to send out a survey in an email or through their student engagement platform to get their peers’ ideas. This can be a classic poll or they can have open-ended questions for survey takers to add in freeform suggestions.

7. Survey attendees

Getting attendees’ feedback can make your brainstorming sessions betters the next time around. In fact, encouraging your students to embrace assessment is a great practice all year round. 

Your student leaders might ask attendees their favorite part of the event or to say what they felt was missing.

They can look at all sorts of outcomes — related to budget, inclusion, accessibility, process efficiency, attendance, educational content, and much more. Doing this can help guide your brainstorming processes in the future.

8. Reach out to colleagues 

Professionals who work in other areas, beyond student affairs, can all bring really strong ideas to the table.

Depending upon their functional area, they likely have different ideas about what programs would be engaging to students. So, you can encourage your students to reach out to these professionals. Or, you can take the initiative to collect ideas from your coworkers, then pass those on to student leaders.

As you venture further into the semester, consider resetting the ways you approach team idea generation. Give your student leaders ample opportunities to grow their skills and create a vision together. 

How have you made idea swapping a priority? Share with us your approaches and results with us @HelloPresence!

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Sara Friend

About the author: Sara is the former Content Marketing Intern at Presence and a recent graduate of the New College of Florida. She loved being an RA to first-year-in-college students. She also tap dances for fun. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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