What if education focused on what was right with people rather than what was wrong with them?
Would it impact productivity, student retention and personal relationships?
These are the questions Lawrence Ressler, vice president for academic affairs and student development, and Linda Cantwell, associate professor of communication, are asking at Tabor College.
To find the answers, an experiment is under way to examine the first-time freshman experience and discover if a strengths infusion is of real benefit to their education and relationships.
They believe StrengthsQuest, a program from The Gallup Organization used to decipher an individual’s unique set of abilities, may help answer their questions.
A recent $5,000 grant from Noel-Levitz, an admissions consulting group, helped this experiment become reality. This fall, all freshmen, resident assistants, peer advisors and faculty participated in the StrengthsQuest survey.
According to Ressler, the top five themes as a collective faculty are “Learner” (a love to learn), “Input” (inquisitive), “Achiever” (constant need for achievement), “Belief” (enduring core values), and “Relator” (pleasure from close friendships).
The 180-question, Web-based survey positions two statements at opposite ends of a 5-point Likert scale and asks the surveyor to match the dot to the degree of their likes and dislikes, thoughts and behaviors.
When finished, the student’s top five signature themes, or strengths, appear.
StrengthsQuest measures 34 signature themes, including “Ideation” (intrigued by ideas), “Communication” (writing and public speaking skills), “Maximizer” (achieving excellence), “Empathy” (feeling the emotions of others) and “Restorative” (solving problems).
Qualitative studies conducted at UCLA, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Mount Vernon Nazarene University and Azusa Pacific University have shown positive differences in personal and academic confidence, motivation to achieve, sense of direction and purpose, optimism, and improved interpersonal relationships.
Quantitative studies are just as impressive. Substantial growth was shown in retention, cumulative GPA, academic and career effectiveness and intent to re-enroll.
Cantwell, who completed her dissertation over the philosophy of strengths, has implemented its methods into each of her classes for the past six years. She discovered it after taking a doctoral course from author and founder of StrengthsQuest, Edward “Chip” Anderson, and explained how it challenged the way in which she viewed herself as an educator.
“My job is to see students for who they are rather than who they are not,” Cantwell said. “I see students as coming to college with everything they need to be successful and see my challenge as an educator to help them become the individuals God created them to be to able to get done what he created them to get done in the world.”
With the courses Cantwell has taught over the years and the entire freshman class this semester, Ressler estimates that half of the campus community has taken the StrengthsQuest survey.
As a result, upperclassmen are familiar with it and have seen its personal impact already.
“It is extremely important because it changes (and) transforms your relationships,” said senior Natalie Regier, Madrid, Neb.
“My favorite thing about it is what can get on your nerves about somebody, once you know what their strength is, you can understand where they’re coming from or why they do what they do.
“If you understand their driving force, then you can more thoroughly enjoy that person for who they are. You almost get pleasure from seeing them use their strength.”
Sophomore Casey Toews, Frazer, Mont., has some of the same sentiment.
“StrengthsQuest made it possible for me to identify what I’m good at, and in doing so, to force me to re-evaluate what I hope to accomplish in my time here at Tabor,” he said.
“I had to analyze how I can best use my God-given attributes to effectively and efficiently reach the goals that both God and myself have chosen.
“More importantly, StrengthsQuest encouraged some of what I already knew about myself, giving me confidence that what I’m doing is purposeful.”
Not only is StrengthsQuest a tool for self-discovery, but also one that fits into the theology of Tabor College, Ressler said.
“To be created in the image of God is such a positive image. Ultimately, if you dig deep enough, you get to the fact that we’re created in the image of God, and God gives gifts to people. This is all Strengths-based.”
At the completion of the experiment, results from pre- and post-test measures will be gathered and evaluated. If they indicate a positive impact, further infusion of StrengthsQuest will be considered.
As of right now, it is only an experiment dependent on results and will not go further until it is proven effective. If positive results do show, the administration will possibly look into program additions such as a Strengths-based minor or major, Ressler said.