Shahid Bux, American University of Sharjah
Although the PERMA model has been promoted as a model for student wellbeing, particularly in more vulnerable groups (e.g. Kern et al., 2015; Tansey et al., 2017; Umucu et al., 2020), and as a valid tool across cultures (Lambert D’raven & Pasha-Zaidi, 2015), few authors have spoken about the model and its relevance to student success. The PERMA model was developed by psychologist Martin Seligman (2011). This theory, based on the canons of positive psychology, is about understanding the conditions under which people thrive and is based on five dimensions: Positive Emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning, and Accomplishment. Current uses of the model, in the student context at least, contradict the very principles of positive psychology on which the model was founded—namely, that rather than looking at what is wrong with people, which is the focus of traditional psychology, we ought to look at what is right with people. So, although the PERMA model may provide a useful lens through which to view the challenges faced by student veterans or students with mental health concerns for example, it is equally if not more effective as a tool in understanding why students succeed. The presence of the five dimensions outlined by Seligman then ought to be examined more carefully in students who succeed academically in order to help other students striving for success. What do the five dimensions of the PERMA model actually mean and why are they relevant to student success?
Positive emotion is about nurturing hope and optimism and allows people to find fulfillment in daily tasks and persevere with difficult challenges. An address by David Throgmorton at a NACADA Regional Conference in 2009 sums up the importance of advisors in nurturing this quality in students: “never forget that as an academic advisor, you are the front lines of hope for your advisees…They are looking to you. They are investing their hope in your ability to understand their plight and to suggest a path out of the darkness.” In times of great uncertainty, one could argue that advising has never been more important as a platform to help students clarify educational choices, navigate the academic quagmire of academic policies, and to keep students engaged with their programs and university. As Miller and Murray (2005) observe, when students are “supported by positive institutional experiences that strengthen their self-esteem and self-efficacy, these students overcome the negative effects attributed to at-risk factors.” Using a strengths-based approach, advisors are also uniquely positioned to affirm strengths and talents by helping students connect their hobbies and interests to courses and career-paths (Ward, 2008).
The second dimension—engagement—is about finding psychological presence or flow in a particular activity that deploys a person’s skills, strengths, and attention. As Kuh (2006) explains, advisors’ intimate familiarity with their students tied to the emphasis on shared responsibility, meaningful interactions, and academic and social success allows advisors to encourage students to engage in meaningful and relevant activities inside and outside the classroom. Advisors can also help students identify interests through activities that ask them to identify favorite assignments, projects they completed which they felt proud of, when they lost a sense of time while studying, their favorite classes, and abilities they would like to develop (Wilcox, 2016).
The third dimension—relationships—is critical to wellbeing and infuses life with meaning and purpose. Feelings of joy, belonging, and pride are amplified through strong relationships and speak to the human need for connection. Advisors not only connect students to others resources, but are themselves a resource as coaches, mentors, and counselors for students as they navigate their way through academic terrain (Gordon-Starks, 2015). Not only can this relationship strengthen student engagement, but it may also develop long after college-life into a much closer relationship (Gordon-Starks, 2015). Advisors can help connect students to other people and opportunities with projects that explore their use of campus resources, extracurricular activities they are involved with on or outside campus, or independent studies they would like to engage in (Wilcox, 2016).
A sense of meaning and purpose is the idea of serving something bigger than one’s own individual needs, such as that offered through religion, family, the community, or societal causes. One way that advisors can nurture this quality is through an exploratory process that allows students to select majors matching their interests and strengths. This can include reflection exercises on learning and skill development through the academic journey, pictures of learning experiences, projects completed, poetry, art, and the connection between extra-curricular activities and courses revealing skills and career interests that the advisor and student can discuss (Ward, 2008). E-portfolios can also be structured to meet the dynamic needs of undecided students, utilizing the “flipped advising” approach described by Steele (2016), in which the traditional instructional approach is flipped so that students complete assigned exercises (organized as modules or uploaded as dynamic templates) prior to the advising session for students to access at any point of their educational journey (Wilson & Gerson, 2011).
The final component of the PERMA model relates to accomplishment, which is the feeling gained through meeting goals and ambitions that may be pursued for its own sake in a variety of contexts. Through the use of appreciative advising, advisors can discover strengths using discussions about past achievements, design educational plans with students to help turn dreams into a reality, and encourage students to raise their ambitions instead of being content with the status-quo (Pulcini, 2016). Advisors can also help students find a medium to showcase achievement in the form of awards, certificates, trainings, internships, and competitions.
The benefits of the PERMA model are that it provides a framework for advisors to intentionally cultivate these qualities through different mediums such as e-portfolios, students’ projects, self-reflection exercises, and self-assessments. It can be tied to existing syllabi used by academic advising departments (Ward, 2008), but more significantly looks at the student as a whole individual, facilitating both wellbeing and academic success.
Academic Support Center
American University of Sharjah
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Cite this article using APA style as: Bux, S. (2021, June). PERMA as a model for student success. Academic Advising Today, 44(2). [insert url here]