Creative insight and the role of feedback: What adolescents can tell us

Researchers from the Centre for Science of Learning@ACER recently carried out a norming experiment to investigate the effects of feedback when carrying out verbal creative insight problems.

This line of enquiry, led by Dr Sacha DeVelle, focused on a set of tasks identified in neuroscientific and educational research as problems that provide insight into creativity (Bowden & Jung-Beeman, 2003; Dow & Mayer, 2004). Creative insight describes a type of problem solving that is subjective, unconscious and often culminates in the ‘eureka’ moment or ‘aha’ experience. It is different from more routine, analytical thinking found in general problem solving tasks that involve  a series of logical steps that culminate in the final solution. Research in this area has focused exclusively on university students and adults. The current approach, however, focused on a different age group, namely adolescents. We were also interested in further testing our feedback model (Timms, DeVelle, Schwanter & Lay, 2015), and the role that hints play when solving creative insight problems.


We used a verbal insight problem task where participants must identify a single word (light) that is remotely associated with a set of 3 other words (star, street, house). Twenty two participants (10 males and 12 females) enrolled at St Stephens School (Duncraig, WA) participated in the experiment. The mean age was 13.4 years (SD = .50).

Students were presented with 80 problem sets. Half of those were followed by a hint that was designed to facilitate the correct answer. We also asked students to rate their ‘aha’ moment after each problem on a Likert scale from 1 to 3 (where 1 rated the absence of such a moment, and 3 rated a very strong ‘aha’sensation).

A short break was provided at the half way mark (following the 40th problem). Students were then placed in pairs and asked to work together on the Duncker (1945) candle problem. This creative problem solving task examines the role of ‘functional fixedness’ (can the student see more than one way to use an object). Students viewed an image of a candle, a box of tacks and a packet of matches placed on a table. They were asked to fix the candle to the wall so wax did not drip on the table below. Students were given 5 minutes to discuss the problem in pairs, and write down the best solution. The experiment then continued with the second half of the problem sets.

At the end of the session students were divided into groups for follow-up discussions. We were particularly interested in students’ perceptions of the compound tasks and the effect of hints, their input on the Candle problem, and their feelings about the ‘aha’ moment.

General Findings

The running themes that emerged from our small group interviews showed that most students felt that hints interfered with their responses. However, overall results from the verbal creative insight task show that students were more accurate on solutions that followed with a hint, compared to those items that did not. We believe that the provision of hints narrowed down searching for the correct solution; however students were not aware of this subconscious process, and so underestimated those positive effects.

Students were asked in the group interview if they had felt the ‘aha’ moment. All spoke very animatedly about this feeling (e.g. feels like it fits, is really perfect, on tip of the tongue, and feels like a proud moment). Examples of previous ‘aha’ moments included problem solving, maths, puzzles and writing a creative story without a model to follow. Most students reported feeling this during the experiment at least half of the time.

We also asked students how they felt about being placed in pairs, half way through the experiment, to work on the Candle problem. All students found this task very enjoyable because ‘it was fun, there were lots of possibilities, it was easy, satisfying, allowed for a group and individual answer’. A closer look at the performance on the Candle problem showed a number of novel responses. However, many of those were constructed outside of the parameters provided in the written instructions.

We were also particularly interested in students’ confidence levels and affective state during the experiment. At least half felt confident that 80% of their responses were correct, while a small percentage were not sure on how they performed. The results, however, showed that in general students overestimated their correct responses. Most students admitted to feeling frustrated at some point during the verbal insight task (e.g. when not able to answer multiple questions in a row, matching two words but not the third, feeling that the hint interfered with their thought patterns, knowing the correct answer was obvious but not quite getting it). This is a commonly reported in the creative insight literature, and is key to why we presented the Candle problem at the half-way mark of the experiment.

Implications and next steps

There are a number of implications that arise from the present norming study. We were particularly in interested in how adolescents deal with a verbal creative insight task. Our findings show that 13 and 14 year old students do relatively well on such problems when hints are provided. Student perceptions, however, did not reflect performance: most believed that hints interfered with their answers. Performance on the Candle problem showed that students really engaged in the task, providing a range of novel (and at times useful) solutions to the problem. However, not all students addressed the task as described in the instructions. The current findings allow for further testing of our feedback model (Timms et al; 2015; DeVelle, Timms & Lay, under review). We now plan to slightly modify the current set of verbal insight problems, expand on our feedback condition, and move to the next stage of testing. We thank the students from St Stephens School (Duncraig, WA) for participating in this research project.

Find out more about creative insight at the Centre for Science of Learning@ACER’s Assessing Creativity and Innovation: Insights from neuroscience workshop.


Bowden, E., & Jung-Beeman, M. (2003). Aha! Insight experience correlates with solution activation in the right hemisphere. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 10(3), 730-737.

DeVelle, S. (10th February, 2016) Creative insight problem solving: What teachers should know. Teacher Magazine.

DeVelle, S; Timms, M & Lay, D. (under review). Learners’ use of feedback within an intelligent learning environment: A deeper look at learning. Australian Journal of Education.  

Dow, G., & Mayer, R. (2004). Teaching students to solve insight problems: Evidence for domain specificity in creativity training. Creativity Research Journal, 16(4), 389-398.

Duncker, K (1945) On Problem Solving. Psychological Monographs (58:5) Washington DC, American Psychological Association

Timms, M; DeVelle, S. & Schwanter, U. (2015). Towards a model of how learners process feedback. In C. Conati, N Heffernan, A. Mitrovic & M. Felisa Verdejo (Eds). Published proceedings of the Artificial Intelligence in Education Conference 2015, 794-799, Springer International Publishing, Switzerland.