Sunday, October 14, 2007

Applying Strengths to Academic Success

I'm currently in the middle of a project analyzing the results of about 3,000 sophomores who completed a survey about their experiences in the second year of college. Because so many colleges are taking a strengths-based approach to at least some programming on campus, I added the question "I know how to apply my strengths to achieve academic success."

One of the things I've noticed informally over the years is that this element -- knowing how to apply one's strengths to academic tasks -- appears to be the "toughest" part of implementing a strengths program. Everyone loves to learn about their talent themes and there is a burst of positive emotions when that happens initially. And lots of people say that it has helped their relationships to understand how other people's talents make them good at what they do, but also can be annoying sometimes. But actually being able to develop those talents into strengths and APPLY those strengths to challenges -- well, that's the tough part.

So now I'm intrigued by this finding with 3,000 sophomores. Those who said they "definitely" knew how to apply their strengths to achieve academic success also were at the top of the scale on other important outcomes: they were more likely to say they would definitly graduate from their institution, they were more engaged in class, they sought out faculty more frequently, they were more involved in campus activities, they were more satisfied with their total college experience, and they were more likely to perceive their tuition dollars as a good life investment.

At first I thought this item was a proxy for academic self-efficacy. Surely this item just means they're confident and know their way around the system academically. But I statistically controlled for academic self-efficacy before running the analyses--and this item still contributes uniquely and significantly to our understanding of sophomore success.

So that's pretty cool. But what does it mean? Since not everyone who answered the survey had participated in a strengths-based program, we really don't know what they were thinking when they answered the question! So that's my next task--to figure out what students mean when they say they know how to apply their strengths academically--and then to ask them how they do that. We need specific examples. We need to understand this phenomenon better. I'm convinced it's at the heart of long-term results for strengths programs.

My colleagues at Azusa Pacific University are taking this next step with me. Dr. Sharyn Slavin-Miller will head up a qualitative study of the most and least engaged of our sophomores on campus. She'll follow up with those who returned as juniors, as well as with those who left the institution. She'll ask them lots of questions, but this one will be part of her study: "What do you do to apply your strengths to academic challenges? What does that look like for you?"

Dr. Karen Longman will also be working on a corollary study that will go more in depth with students who have participated in APU's strengths-based first-year seminar, building on the work that Dr. Eileen Hulme and Dr. Paul Kaak have begun. Dr. Anita Henck's focus is on strengths-based staff development programs and complements the work we're doing with student programs.

So stay tuned--I'm intrigued by our initial findings of the difference that it makes when students say they know how to apply their strengths to succeed academically. Now we need to know how they do that--and how we can teach other students to do that, as well!

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