Positive Reinforcement

by Heidi Lynn '05

It was early one afternoon, during the week of finals, when I sat in a small conference room in the Hugh and Hazel Darling Library with Chip Anderson, Ph.D., professor in the [then] School of Education and Behavioral Studies. Three ministers from the Church of the Nazarene were also present to implement StrengthsFinder, a strengths inventory program that Anderson co-designed, into the process of hiring and delegating new ministers in their church. I was there to learn about StrengthsFinder also, but I was interested in understanding what is has to do with college students.

The StrengthsFinder is an online test administered through The Gallup Organization. The test requires a personal ID code to log on, which can be found inside the book cover of StrengthsQuest: Discover and Develop Your Strengths in Academics, Career, and Beyond, or purchased individually from the website, www.strengthsquest.com. The test identifies the 34 most common personality strengths (a quality, attribute, or talent that enables or empowers someone to do certain things very well) and discusses how people with those strengths use them in school, work, and relationships. The test takes 30-40 minutes and the individual's top five strengths are instantly projected, ready to print. Beyond those logistics, StrengthsFinder is much more — a perspective revolutionizing the way APU approaches student development. Each fall, freshmen students, orientation leaders, and staff and faculty mentors took the StrengthsFinder as part of the Beginnings class curriculum. Participants processed three out of five stages of approaching strengths. First, the test results determine a strengths profile (identification). Second, a person agrees with and recognizes their strengths within their lives (affirmation). Third, participants rejoice in the talents God gives to each person (celebration). Fourth and fifth, a campus resource assists students with growing and using their strengths (development and application). Combined, these five stages represent Anderson's vision for college students nationwide: within the first five weeks of college, each student talks about his or her strengths and college experience with a support person, discusses which strength(s) he or she would like to focus on for the next four years, and gains a purposeful, intentional, and directed educational experience. Suddenly, the student's collegiate experience becomes an integration of study, social growth, and focused personal development. Anderson's vision arose from his 33 years in student retention at the University of California, Los Angeles. He studied the reasons students dropped out of college, and attempted to address the problems. After evaluating students' areas of weakness and developing programs to help them improve in those areas, the dropout rates made few steps forward. "[This method of focusing on one's weaknesses] works to a certain extent, but it demoralizes people," Anderson said. He attended a conference in which the now deceased Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D., then chair of the Gallup International Research and Education Center, was speaking, and it changed his approach to helping students. He realized that "most people drop out because of disillusionment, discouragement, and reduced motivation," which is caused by focusing time and effort on fixing weaknesses. "Focusing on your weaknesses will only get you to mediocre," Anderson said. After sitting in a psychology class and studying theories about what was wrong with people, Clifton asked himself, "What would happen if we studied what was right with people?" He believed that if you want to produce excellence, you have to study excellence, so he studied the best of the best in education — teachers, advisors, and counselors — who produced the best results in students. He went on to study the highest caliber of students and workers in various career fields, and in these studies of excellence, found one thing was certain: these individuals focus on their strengths and manage their weaknesses. After many meetings, hours of research, and studying more than 2,000 high-achieving students, Clifton and Anderson developed a computerized inventory that would quicken the process of identifying someone's strengths, as well as make the test available to virtually anyone. Their result: StrengthsFinder. Unlike many personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, the StrengthsFinder focuses on the study of people, not the study of theories. Being able to understand what StrengthsFinder is all about has significantly changed my life as a young adult and a college student. My peers and I face tremendous pressures to perform, figure out what our life will be like in the next few years, and discover who we are now as opposed to who we were a few years ago in high school. By this point in our developmental journey, we know what is wrong with us. We know the weak areas of our lives and often grow tired of hearing about how we can improve. It is hard for us to be better people when all we center on are our faults, and Anderson agrees. "The reason we only measure their top five strengths is because if you give people more than their top five, they will focus on the bottom, which defeats the purpose of finding your strengths," he said. Since I have taken the StrengthsFinder, I have discovered a multitude of strengths I did not know I had. And the focus on what is right about me is a refreshing perspective. As an Achiever, I strive to be the best that I can, and when I do not perform as I expected, I am disappointed. Some might say that I am a perfectionist, but StrengthsFinder has helped me realize that this drive will help me accomplish things in school, work, ministry, and life. These findings have encouraged me to see the best in myself and to utilize the talents that I have to pursue excellence in all areas of my life. After reading about my strengths and how others who have a particular strength use it, I am aware of how they interrelate and work throughout my everyday life, creating a unique combination for success. It is uplifting and motivating to know that no one has the same exact strengths that I have. In conjunction with that, I have also learned how God created each one of us with unique gifts and plans for serving him, in every area of our lives — school, work, and relationships. As Anderson emphasized in our meeting, I have no better responsibility than to capitalize on the person God wired me up to be. "Don't try to be like anyone else," he said. "Try to be yourself, how God made you, to the best of your ability."

Heidi Lynn '05 is an editorial intern in the Office of University Marketing and Creative Media.