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Students learn to develop strengths

Since 2008, every student who goes through the Gateway course at John Brown University has been strongly encouraged to take the StrengthsFinder assessment.

The 30-minute, computer-based assessment filters people into 34 different strengths-themes or talents and displays a list of each person’s top five.

That is only the beginning of a larger experience of discovering and applying one’s strengths, which the Gallup Organization, the company that developed the tool, refers to as StrengthsQuest.

The tool is based on the concept of positive psychology and was developed to answer the question “What would happen if we studied what is right with people?” according the Gallup website.

For example, if all the results from students over the last five years were combined, the University’s top five strengths would be Belief, Adaptability, Developer, Empathy and Responsibility, according to data collected by the University. On the other hand, less than 3.8 percent of all students have the themes of Self-Assurance, Focus, Significance, or Arranger. Each of these themes work together to form the current University culture.

Even before StrengthsQuest was routinely used in Gateway, Mandy Moore, now the director of first year experience, used the assessment in a class during her first year of teaching, because she had read about its use in businesses.

Moore said, at the beginning of the semester, only one student could confidently describe his or her strengths, but every student was aware of their weaknesses.

“I was overwhelmed by that,” said Moore. “Throughout the semester, I saw students that really embraced the strengths philosophy. They communicated that it was a very positive experience for them.”

When the conversation began about using the assessment university-wide, Moore was asked to be part of the core group of people developing the idea because of her experience.

After the group completed training in Arizona to get certified in StrengthsQuest by the Gallup Organization, the University hired an expert to come in and study the best way to use the tool at John Brown University.

The Gateway classes and their corresponding Friday sessions seemed like a natural, perfect place to implement the StrengthsQuest philosophy, especially since “it can have a significant positive impact on retention and helping students thrive in college,” Moore said.

Becci Rothfuss, director of the Leaders Scholars Institute at the University, oversees the use of StrengthsQuest across campus. She and Rod Reed, University chaplain, teach the Gateway Friday sessions.

“It’s a wonderful, incredible tool for understanding yourself and others,” Rothfuss said. “I don’t see it as a box, but as a tool to help.”

Moore agreed, “In my Gateway classes, I want to see the uniqueness of people… Sometimes there is a potential to put people in a box. I know I am more than just these five things, and I want my students to understand that too.”

For six years, the University has used StrengthsQuest in its Gateway classes, with a few opportunities to again discuss strengths during advising and leadership and career development later in a student’s time at school.

The assessment is an expensive financial investment that the University makes on behalf of the students. While there are institutional rates available, it still costs between $10 and $14 per person to take it.

Yet most believe it is worth it.

Moore explained, “When I go to academic research conferences, people say StrengthsQuest is the best assessment to give students in the first year of college. I really see it as at JBU we are making an investment in our students in their first year of college.”

Sophomore Asher Perkins said he felt like the report listing his top five strengths described him well. “It was pretty accurate. The wording was something I had never thought of. It fit who I was, but it was more accurate than anything I would have used to describe myself,” he said.

Reed said, “StrengthsQuest gives a common language to talk about who we are and what we do. We are able to talk about our differences in a good way.”

Moore said the assessment also helps students understand that a strength used to an extreme can be a weakness. She called this the “shadow side” of strengths.

Reed said, “Some people don’t realize that just because they have a strength doesn’t mean they should use it at 100 percent, all the time. We still need to work on things we don’t like doing, but we can do it in a way where we are inventing ways to compensate for our weaknesses through our strengths.”

Knowing one’s strengths is also applicable when exploring future employment opportunities. Chris Confer, director of the Career Development Center, said he uses the strengths concepts with students many times when he is working to help them find a career. It helps prepare them for interviewers who commonly ask about strengths and weaknesses during job interviews.

StrengthsQuest is used at more than 600 schools and universities in North America, according to Gallup.

John Brown University, however, is not necessarily included on Gallup’s list of schools that “have been recognized for exemplary strengths development and for their commitment to helping students on their campus to maximize their talent,” in the words of their website.

When asked why that is, Rothfuss explained, “We have not really sought Gallup’s stamp of approval. I think JBU has a really balanced culture. To be excessively reliant on one piece of information is not really JBU’s style. It is quite widely used on campus. It’s just that we’re not promoting ourselves as a strengths-based organization.”

Confer said, “I think there is healthy respect even within disagreement about strengths and that we benefit from that.”

Rothfuss agreed, “There are faculty and staff who would push back against strengths. We don’t ever want to be a place that indoctrinates people with one point of view, especially a secular point of view. I think we’ve decided that this is a good place for JBU to be.”

Evangel University, however, is recognized by Gallup as doing an excellent job at integrating strengths on their campus.

Sheri Phillips is the director for career development at Evangel. She has been involved in their strengths program since it was implemented in 2005.

The assessment is used quite widely across the EU campus. For example, Phillips said students take the assessment in their first Bible class, “Essential Christianity,” and are asked to reflect on how they can develop their strengths in their callings. Students have an assignment associated with strengths in their university seminar class. Strengths are also discussed in classes on healthy relationships, as a way to understand other people.

All faculty and staff have the opportunity to take the assessment and receive training about what it means. Additionally, Evangel uses the concepts for career services advising, in residence life training, alternative chapel events for students and programming activities.

“Do I see room for improvement? Oh goodness, yes,” Phillips said. “We work hard to help everyone understand that our strengths provide insight into motivational drives and that they aren’t meant to limit our thinking.”

Sarah Joppeck is a sophomore at Evangel and has enjoyed learning more about herself and others through StrengthsQuest. She even got to help teach a class on it to her fellow students.

“The greatest thing about StrengthsFinder is that it gives people a language to know themselves,” Joppeck said.

Asia Cogiel, Evangel sophomore, said, “Strengths are used in some of the first courses you take at Evangel, and they are mentioned in conversation at times, so at first it took some getting used to, but after learning more about them, strengths are actually very interesting. It helped me understand how I ‘tick’ and now I understand why I work in groups the way that I do.”