- Building a Strengths-Based Campus to Support Student Retention
Strengths-based approaches are flourishing across hundreds of higher education institutions as student affairs practitioners and educators seek to leverage students’ natural talents so they can reach “previously unattained levels of personal excellence” (Lopez & Louis, 2009, p. 2). Grounded in a framework of positive psychology (Gilman, Huebner, & Furlong, 2009; Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), these strengths-based initiatives help students to identify their natural talents, engage students in productive activities to develop their personal talents into strengths, and empower students to mobilize their strengths in everyday situations (Soria, Roberts, & Reinhard, 2015; Soria & Stubblefield, 2014). Strengths-based educational approaches are governed by the principle that capitalizing upon one’s best qualities will lead to greater success as opposed to focusing on remediating one’s weaknesses (Clifton & Harter, 2003; Lopez & Louis, 2009).
One of the most well-known tools to help college students discover their strengths is the Clifton StrengthsFinder® assessment, developed using interview data from more than two million individuals over three decades (Clifton & Harter, 2003; Hodges & Harter, 2005). The StrengthsFinder® assessment helps individuals to identify the 5 most salient talent themes out of 34 natural talent themes, which are naturally recurring patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors which, when refined with knowledge and skill, can be developed into strengths (Hodges & Harter, 2005). Several million college students have taken the StrengthsFinder® assessment to learn their top 5 talent themes (known colloquially as “top five strengths”; Lopez & Louis, 2009). Strengths-based approaches are focused upon helping individuals see their strengths as aspects of their identities that set them uniquely apart from others—even individuals with the exact same top 5 talent themes in the same order of salience (the odds of which are 1:34 million) are likely to use those themes in very unique ways.
Even amid the growth of strengths-based approaches on college campuses, little research exists that examines the benefits of strengths-based approaches for students. We attempt to bridge the gap in literature by examining the relationship between first-year undergraduate students’ strengths awareness and their retention. The institution under examination offers one of the largest implementations of strengths-based approaches in the nation, making it an ideal location within which to study the benefits of strengths-based approaches for first-year students.
BUILDING A FRAMEWORK FOR STRENGTHS
In Fall 2011, a large, public research-intensive university located in the Midwest of the United Sates offered the StrengthsFinder® assessment to all incoming first-year students. Students were invited to take the StrengthsFinder® via a personalized email that contained a code to take [End Page 626] the assessment at no cost. Before they arrived on campus for matriculation, 5,122 first-year students, 95.4% of the first-year class, took the online assessment and received their top five talent themes (addressed informally as “top five strengths” across campus). Throughout their first semester, students engaged in a variety of activities related to their top five strengths, with an initial concentration of programming and interactions offered during an extended new student orientation. The university is a large, decentralized institution; therefore, while some strengths activities were coordinated through a central office, the majority of activities were initiated and developed by departments independently. Strengths-related programming varied across these unique contexts, although faculty and staff were provided with numerous resources and training opportunities to standardize the strengths-related messages students received.
The foundation for these efforts correspond to Lopez and Louis’s (2009) framework of the principles of strengths-based education, which broadly include: measuring students’ strengths; providing individualized educational experiences for students based on their personal strengths; developing networking opportunities for students to share, explore, and develop their strengths with others; drawing out students’ strengths through deliberate application of strengths inside and outside of classrooms; and encouraging students to undertake their own intentional development of strengths by actively seeking out novel experiences and previously unexplored venues for focused strengths development and application. The university adopted a strengths initiative framework that served as an outline for strengths integration strategies and established learning objectives for students at developmental milestones. The overarching goals of the strengths initiative are...