Our Pathway To Student Success Begins With Developing Strengths

An emerging area within higher education is the notion of a strengths-based approach to student success. Historically, institutions have focused student development efforts on correcting student deficiencies. An emerging body of research, however, underscores the importance of shifting attention from fixing faults to developing skills. This strength-based approach targets the positive outcomes of resilience, meaningfulness, relationships, engagement, and overall well-being. Altering our student advising philosophy requires a change in how we approach our students and structure their educational experience, and it will require innovations in the next generation of academic and co-curricular offerings.

A strengths-based perspective starts with the fundamental assumption that every student has positive skills that must be mobilized in order for them to enjoy success in college and outside of college. The question of how to create an educational experience that draws out students' assets versus an experience that merely identifies their deficiencies is of paramount importance. First, we must redefine our perspective within higher education. We must move away from a pure selection method that weeds out students who do not fit or thrive within our current structures. We must help students discover their own assets and help them apply these assets toward positive outcomes defined by personal excellence.

While the principles of strengths-based advising are continually being developed, the starting point is always helping students to understand their own strengths and then structuring a learning environment that provides opportunities for self-discovery, individualized development, and intentional application of these strengths. The opportunity for self-discovery should involve communication with students about their own strengths and capabilities. This information must be coupled with an individualized advising experience integrated across academic, career and professional development domains. In addition, advising must be done in conjunction with ongoing and dynamic opportunities to apply these strengths both inside and outside the classroom.

One of our academic advisors shared with me a great example of these principles in action. As one student emailed, "I would like to preface this with I don't put a lot of stock in most 'personality' tests. But, I can legitimately see these strengths in me. I am not saying the test itself might change what I am looking to major in but at least for me it has hit the nail on the head. What should my next step be?"

The combination of revealing student strengths, engaging them in meaningful in-classroom exercises, and coupling it all with individual advising appointments leads to amazing self-discovery and clarity on the best fit for the student's academic pathway. Now, the advisor is able to leverage a portfolio of resources to help support the student with experiences that provide intentional application of these strengths in preparation for their future life and career path.

We have learned that many higher education institutions make the mistake of providing students with strengths assessments that have no link to academic advising, career services, or other aspects of individualized advising. How we structure the opportunity for students to apply their strengths in the co-curricular space helps students make a meaningful connection between their unique skill set, their academic experience, and their professional future. In this regard, global experiences are critical. Traditionally, study abroad has been presented to students as an opportunity for cultural exposure. Under the strengths-based approach, international experiences are an opportunity for further developing their strengths while cultivating a global mindset.

At Pitt Business, we have undertaken a strengths-based approached within our academic and career advising center. Similar to other institutions, we use the Clifton StrengthsFinder tool for the strengths assessment of all first-year students.Then we take it a step further with our integrated academic and career advising approach, which coaches each student through an individual development plan that is discussed, revised and used as a guide for the student's progress across their four years. Our advising is augmented by a competency-based technology platform called Suitable, which helps students leverage their strengths as they advance through co-curricular opportunities. Drawing on the student engagement analytics provided by this platform, we are able to provide individualized feedback to students on how their participation in student clubs, case competitions, professional development activities align with the positive outcomes that result when their strengths are recognized, developed and supported within their undergraduate experience.

Changing a mindset is never easy, but by viewing student development through the lens of building strengths rather than correcting faults, higher education institutions are better able to drive key student success outcomes. Doing so also helps to advance the broader institutional outcomes of enhanced freshman retention, higher graduation rates, and stronger student engagement levels. The pathway to student success begins with identifying and drawing out the often hidden assets of each individual student and providing them with a strengths-based educational experience that creates positive academic, career and life-long well-being.