Put your best foot forward. Be positive. Play to your strengths.
But what if you don’t know what your strengths are?
That was the challenge UNCG Career Services was tasked with when it started to notice that students had difficulty answering the common interview question, “What are your strengths?”
The office’s response was to develop a strengths initiative, a series of cross-campus training and programming for students, faculty and staff using GALLUP’s StrengthsFinder assessment.
The assessment helps individuals identify their top five signature themes, or areas of natural talent, and learn how to maximize their talents and turn them into strengths. StrengthsFinder is incredibly unique and virtually customized to each individual – the chance that you will have the same top five in the same order as someone else is one in 33.3 million.
“We’re geared to look for what’s wrong rather than what’s right,” said Kala Taylor, assistant director for strengths initiatives. “The strengths initiative ties into the culture of care we strive to foster at UNCG.”
Since Career Services launched the initiative in 2013, UNCG has done more than just implement the program – the university recently conducted its own research, proving the effectiveness of strengths-based learning.
It all started in fall of 2013, when Career Services partnered with the Academic Connections in Education (ACE) program in UNCG’s Students First Office. The two teamed up to offer students returning from suspension the opportunity to take the assessment and attend a strengths-based learning workshop instead of opting for another academic support track.
“We were retaining 80 percent of students who participated in the strengths-based learning track – a number that was significantly higher than the retention rates of the other tracks,” said Amanda Phillips, academic recovery specialist with the Students First Office.
Eager to take a closer look at the effects of a strengths-based education, Phillips and Taylor applied for a UNC General Administration grant funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for research on non-cognitive skills development. UNCG, along with UNC Chapel Hill and NC State, won the grant.
Taylor and Phillips conducted the research last spring, evaluating the impact of a 16-week, strengths-based intervention program on the development of non-cognitive skills and outcomes for students on academic probation.
Students participating in the strengths program showed higher rates of self-confidence and higher confidence in their ability to use their strengths for academic and career success.
For Brian Le, a sophomore majoring in kinesiology, the program gave him the motivation he needed. “I learned that I can be successful if I start to apply myself,” he said.
Sophomore Brooke Smith shared similar thoughts.
“It was helpful to have something new and positive to focus on. The program helped me take my strengths and find ways to use them.”
Taylor and Phillips recently presented their findings at the National Symposium on Student Retention in Orlando, Florida. Additionally, the study was selected and approved for publication by the Consortium for Student Retention Data Exchange.
“Before, these students didn’t know what they were good at,” Phillips said. “Now they have these five skills that they know they are good at naturally, and they can use these strengths for a successful academic career.”
Students on academic probation aren’t the only ones benefiting from the initiative. The strengths program has spread across campus, with a growing number of faculty, staff and students taking the assessment and participating in the workshop.
“The spread of this program has happened organically because people are starting to recognize that it’s positive and it works,” Taylor said. “Our goal is to give students, faculty and staff a way to identify their strengths and productively apply them.”
By Alyssa Bedrosian
Photography by Martin W. Kane