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Jennifer Hart, University of Southern Maine

Jen Hart.jpgColleges and universities around the United States have invested in strengths-based programming. While several tools are available, Appreciative Advising and Strengths-Based Advising are two popular programs. Students have countless opportunities to apply their talents and strengths in a variety of settings in college, including academics, residential life, first-year experience programming, and student leadership development.

In 2018, Matson and Robison reported that 600 institutions utilize the Clifton StrengthsFinder, a popular assessment for strengths-based advising which is built on the idea that college students engage in the process of discovering, investing in, and applying their natural talents, which develop into strengths. Research on strengths-based education models conducted by Soria and Stubblefield (2015) identified a positive relationship between awareness of personal strengths and student retention between the first and second year. They also found students who participated in strengths-based conversations with college and personal connections were "significantly more likely to be retained to their second year" (Soria & Stubblefield, 2015, p.3) in comparison to peers who did not participate in strengths-based conversations.   

Application of a strengths model to academic advising can focus on students applying their talents and strengths to academic courses, study techniques, and major exploration. Schreiner’s (2013) chapter on strengths-based advising in NACADA’s Academic Advising Approaches provides advisors with an outline focusing on the process of students identifying their talents, affirming and building awareness, envisioning future possibilities including how to leverage their  talents to reach goals, identifying a plan, and finally applying strengths to areas of challenge.  Strengths-based advising has been particularly successful for students on academic probation by having students use their strengths in an area of academic challenge.  

Case Study: University of Southern Maine

The University of Southern Maine’s (USM) Academic Advising Department integrated a strengths-based advising model into their work with undergraduate students in 2013. In collaboration with a university wide Strengths@USM program, students engage in strengths programming in multiple settings, including academic and career advising, the academic classroom, campus and residential life, and student leadership programming. This initiative was spearheaded and funded by a Title III Strengthening Institutions U.S. Department of Education grant.

Academic advisors incorporate discussions about a students’ strengths into several points of contact throughout the academic year. These strengths-based conversations range in topics from a general exploration and discussion of a students’ top five strengths, to discussion around academic strategies and study techniques.

During a 90-minute advising and course registration meeting, advisors meet with newly admitted students on a one-on-one basis to welcome them to the university. This meeting begins with an open-ended question encouraging students to reflect on areas of strength, personal accomplishments, and successes. Student responses are diverse, and the discussion offers an opportunity for newly admitted students to reflect on their own areas of success and achievement as they transition to college, which is at times an overwhelming experience for many incoming students. USM advisors have shared feedback that opening the meeting with a student’s personal reflection on their strengths and achievements is one of the most valuable parts of the meeting, going on to share that this conversation sets the tone for the next 90 minutes. Following the one-on-one meeting, first-year students are sent an access code to take the StrengthsFinder assessment, which is integrated into multiple settings during the academic year.  

The strengths advising model is a great tool to use with students on academic probation as well. Students on probation participate in an academic recovery program which provides support from advising, and other academic support areas on campus including tutoring, TRIO, and faculty advisors. During academic recovery meetings, advisors encourage students to reflect on how they can apply their talents and strengths to areas of academic challenge. StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond (Clifton, Anderson, & Schreiner, 2006) identifies a set of academic study techniques for each identified strength. A review of these academic study techniques can lead to constructive conversations between advisors and students focused on the application of talents and strengths toward areas of academic challenge. These conversations can lead to ah-ha moments and also reinforce positive study techniques the student may already be utilizing, such as participation in study groups, test taking techniques, awareness of study environments, or establishing academic goals.

Professional Development and Developing Culture

Integrating strengths-based activities into staff meetings and professional development is a constructive way of continuing to develop awareness on a professional level of how strengths impact individuals, colleagues, and the dynamics of the team. Programming reinforces that advisors have an opportunity to leverage their personal strengths in their own professional work on campus and career development. As advisors learn about their own strengths, they develop an awareness beyond the basic model, which can have a positive impact on mastery and comfort using the StrengthsFinder language in conversations with students. Ongoing professional development can focus on individual or team development and can occur in multiple settings including supervision, committee work, or departmental meetings. 

A potential pitfall of any new program is the trap of talking about it once or twice a year and not taking the steps to actively integrate it into the departmental or university culture. At USM, many advisors, staff, and faculty have their top five strengths visible in their office as well as in their email signature. Additionally, interactive white boards highlight how to apply strengths to career, academic study techniques, or group work and are available for the USM community to take information and learn about new applications for their strengths. These are ways of keeping the conversation alive for the university community and have also spurred constructive conversations between staff, faculty, and students around shared strengths. 

Building a strengths-based culture on campus creates a common language on campus; advisors, faculty, and staff have shared incredibly rich conversations that they have had with students focused on shared and common strengths. A strengths-based culture on campus actively involves academic advisors who play an integral role in supporting students and creating an environment where students feel valued and known. Integrating strengths into advising conversations can foster an educational environment conducive to learning, development, and growth. To learn more about the University of Southern Maine’s program, please visit our website where you can find advising, student, and faculty resources: https://usm.maine.edu/strengths (USM, n.d.).

Jennifer Hart
Academic Advisor, Coordinator of USM Strengths
University of Southern Maine
jennifer.hart@maine.edu

References

Clifton, D. O., Anderson, E., & Schreiner, L. A. (2006). StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: Gallup Organization.

Matson, T., & Robison, J. (2018). Using a strengths-based approach to retain college students [Opinion].  Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/232088/using-strengths-based-approach-retain-college-students.aspx

Schreiner, L. (2013). Strengths-based advising. In J. K. Drake, P. Jordan, & M. A. Miller (Eds.) Academic advising approaches: Strategies that teach students to make the most of college (105–120). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Soria, K.M. & Stubblefield, R.  (2015). Building a strengths-based campus to support student retention.  Journal of College Student Development, 56(6), 626-631.

University of Southern Maine (USM). (n.d.). Strengths @ USM. Retrieved from https://usm.maine.edu/strengths

Cite this article using APA style as: Hart, J. (2018, December). Developing a strengths-focused community. Academic Advising Today, 41(4). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

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Academic Advising Today, a NACADA member benefit, is published four times annually by NACADA: The Global Community for Academic Advising. NACADA holds exclusive copyright for all Academic Advising Today articles and features. For complete copyright and fair use information, including terms for reproducing material and permissions requests, see Publication Guidelines.