“Making Connections: Creativity Supports Learning Through Associative Thinking”
Roger Beaty, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Penn State
Department of Psychology
Creativity is key to learning success: people who produce more original ideas tend to learn better. Yet it is unclear why—despite decades of research on creativity and learning, the cognitive mechanisms underlying this relationship remain poorly understood. In two studies with undergraduate students, we examined whether creativity supports learning through associative thinking—the ability to generate novel word associations—which is central to creativity but has not previously been tied to creativity and learning. To assess associative thinking, we used a word association task requiring students to produce semantically distant words. To assess learning, we used a paired-associate language learning paradigm, where students learned the English meaning of Lithuanian words. In Study 1 (N = 147), we found that students who generated more semantically distant word associations learned significantly more words on the language learning test 24 hours later, controlling for general intelligence. In Study 2 (N = 141), we extended the effect to naturalistic creativity tasks—writing short stories and sketching line drawings—finding associative thinking mediated the relationship between creativity and learning. Taken together, the findings indicate that creativity's contribution to learning operates in part through a shared cognitive capacity for making new connections.