Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Brainstorming for eLearning: Rules of Brainstorming

By Shelley A. Gable

We know that some of the most effective training follows a problem-centered approach, engages learners, is abundant with practice and coaching, and simulates the work environment as closely as possible.

Easier said than done, right?

Let’s be honest – it’s challenging to create training like that (especially with the time constraints most of us work within!). If it were easy, we wouldn’t have so much eLearning with the page-turner design. So how do we do better?

How about rounding up some colleagues for a brainstorming session?

Brainstorming is fun, and most people are flattered when asked to share their expertise, so getting a few peers together to exchange ideas for an hour may be easier than you’d expect.

Once you’ve gathered your brainstorming team, briefly explain the goals and audience for your project. Don’t linger too much on resource limitations at this point – you can revisit that later. And be sure to explain what you’re hoping to gain from the brainstorming session. For example, are you looking for ways to make your audience care about compliance regulations? Or perhaps you’re trying to apply a problem-centered design to a lesson that’s currently a bullet point-driven lecture. Whatever the case, provide your team with a focus.

Then, introduce them to the rules of brainstorming. In this context, rules aren’t intended to inhibit...instead, they help ensure that ideas flow freely.

Brainstorming Rule #1: Withhold judgment.
Don’t silence an idea because you initially think of more drawbacks than advantages to doing it. And similarly, resist the temptation to point out flaws in others’ ideas. You can nit-pick at them later. But during the brainstorming session, encourage everyone to tell you everything they think of.

Brainstorming Rule #2: Quantity, quantity, quantity.
The more ideas you have on the table, the more likely you are to come across a few gems. Focusing on rapid-fire quantity can also have the side effect of not allowing time for premature judgment. To help ensure variety, encourage ideas from everyone involved. Even repetition is okay – a repeat idea presented in a slightly different way could take you to places that the original didn’t.

Brainstorming Rule #3: Get crazy.
In a brainstorming session, no idea is unrealistic. Tell the team that you want – even expect – wild, off-the-wall ideas. To make good on this rule, be sure to record every idea suggested. Even if it seems ridiculous. Even if it was mentioned as a joke. After all, you never know when a far-fetched idea will inspire a feasible yet clever suggestion for someone else.

Brainstorming Rule #4: Build.
Encourage the team to build on one another’s ideas or find ways to combine ideas. This technique can become especially handy if the group slips into an idea lull. Grab an idea or two that jump out at you and suggest that the team explore them further. How would they approach it? Pose “what if” questions. Similarly, you might choose a seemingly unrealistic idea and ask for suggestions on how to carry it out if you had total freedom with your project.

Too often, we try to conquer the world on our own. Though I like to generate ideas independently when I first begin a new project, some of my best lesson designs were inspired by conversations where my peers allowed me to pick their brains for a while.

Have you found brainstorming helpful? It’d be great to see some success stories in the comments following this post. Additional brainstorming tips are welcome too.


  1. Hi..
    Thank you for sharing this Brainstorming Rules This rule are really useful to encourage team members.To make good on this rule, be sure to record every idea suggested.

  2. Hi my name is Stephen Harwick and I work for the Creative Education Foundation (CEF). CEF was founded by Alex Osborn- the inventor of brainstorming!

    I really like your guidelines because they match our divergent thinking guidelines exactly. Our Divergent Thinking Guidelines are:

    1) Defer Judgment
    2) Go for Quantity
    3) Seek Wild Ideas
    4) Combine and Build Ideas

    So as you can see- you hit them all dead on. However I wanted to add our Convergent Thinking Guidelines to your post. Convergent thinking is used after a full brainstorming session in order to narrow our options and pick the correct idea to develop.

    The Convergent Thinking Guidelines are:
    1) Be Deliberate
    2) Check your Objectives
    3) Improve your Ideas
    4) Be Affirmative
    5) Consider Novelty

    Alex Osborn did a lot more than setting the guidelines for brainstorming. He also developed the Creative Problem Solving (CPS) process. The CPS process is a very useful technique that aids in developing and improving your creative abilities.

    If you would like to check out our organization please feel free to visit:


    Thank you for this great post on brainstorming!


  3. Hi Steve - thanks for sharing a slice of your expertise! It makes a lot of sense to outline post-brainstorming steps...when someone is looking at all the ideas generated and thinking, "what next?"

    I'll definitely check out those sites.


Thank you for your comments.