I have recently been researching leadership theories, and how they are applicable to various positions within business organizations. I was first introduced to this concept in my Leadership and Human Resources Development graduate class, and have since been very intrigued with how these ideas are connected to the work we do within our institutions. Obviously, there are several different leadership theories that can be discussed, including Lewin's (1930) Behaviour Theory, Allport's (1921) work on Trait Theory, Fieldler's (1958) Contingency Theory, and Transformational Theories, such as Kouze and Posner's (1987) Leadership Participation Inventory, just to name a few. However, I have found it difficult to find literature that focuses on or includes the concept of leadership as a personal process of development and growth. Instead, it seems that most theories emphasize inherent traits, situational experiences, mutually beneficial relationships, or privileged/differentiated positions. While I don't disagree that relationship building is an important part of leadership, nor do I believe that being in a differentiated position doesn't come with more expectations of leadership, I do not personally believe that leadership is grounded solely in either of these ideas. In my personal opinion, being a great leader is constantly pushing yourself to be better, and recognizing achievement as going above and beyond what is required of you. Most importantly, my view of leadership is not inspired by rewards, promotions, or monetary value; rather, it is grounded in motivation and drive. Those are leadership qualities that I think are earned through hard work and dedication, and are not necessarily in every person that we would call a "leader".
Earlier this week, while scrolling through my Twitter feed, I came across a tweet that Ryerson John* had posted about leadership. Leadership actually has little to do w/ others or positions within an organization. It's about self-actualization. Ding, ding, ding - finally! After reading it, I instantly felt a sense of reassurance and contentment. I also thought about Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs (1943, 1954), and wondered how I hadn't thought of it sooner. If you are familiar with Mazlow's theory, you know that each person is motivated to achieve certain needs, and as each is attained, they move to the next. As one must satisfy lower needs before moving to the fifth stage, self-actualization, it can be incredibly difficult for a person to attain. However, once an individual has achieved self-actualization, they realize their potential and seek personal growth and meaningful achievements.
What I found so inspirational about the tweet was that the focus of leadership in this context is on our own individual ability as a leader to move through the previous four stages - psychological and biological; safety; love and belongingness; and esteem - and to focus on personal discovery. I found this particularly interesting, because many organizations do consider leadership to be about team and peer relationship development. While that is incredibly important, particularly in the field of student affairs, building relationships does that not always inspire the motivation to continuously improve and to be the best you can be. I would say the same about an individual's position within their organization. Regardless if you are managing a department, or working on the ground level with students, that should not be the only characteristic that dictates who you are as a leader. So how are we creating cultures within our institutions, departments and organizations that focus on supporting staff in moving through the hierarchy to become a leader - an individual who reaches self-actualization?
Accordingly to Mazlow, there are 12 characteristics of a self-actualized person. These qualities are described in a recent article in the Huffington Post:
1. They embrace the unknown.
2. They possess high levels of self-acceptance, including their flaws.
3. They prioritize and focus on the journey, not the destination.
4. They are inherently unconventional.
5. They are motivated by growth instead of satisfaction of needs.
6. They have a purpose.
7. They are not troubled by small things.
8. They are grateful and do not take blessings for granted.
9. They share deep relationships with a few people, but have affection toward the entire human race.
10. They are humble.
11. They resist enculturation and make their own decisions, selecting what they see as good and rejecting what they see as bad.
12. They are not perfect.
So again, I ask, how are we incorporating these concepts into our one-on-ones, performance evaluations, and coaching conversations? How can we use these 12 characteristics to focus on concepts that we have previously used to define leadership - relationship building, leadership traits, competencies, and positional differentiation? Let's talk about developing trusting relationships by creating a culture where every employee knows that their peers are working to reach self-actualization. Let's create departments that connect competencies to working through the hierarchy. Let's hire staff who have goals related to becoming self-actualized. And most importantly, a question I ask myself everyday, what are YOU doing to reach self-actualization? Because while we all contribute to our organization in some manner, there are always decisions that are made above us that we may or may not have any control over. However, the one thing that we all have consistent control over is ourselves, so I challenge you to critically think and reflect on Ryerson John's tweet, and ask yourself: how are you going to work on reaching self-actualization?
*If you are not familiar with Dr. John Austin, I would encourage you to follow him on Twitter and read the #RyersonSA Blog. The work that the Ryerson Student Affairs department is doing is both inspiring and exciting!
Student persistence is one of the most widely studied areas of higher education (Fisher & Engemann, 2009; Tinto, 2006) and has become an increasingly hot topic in Canadian post-secondary education, as it supports our government and institutions in their goal of managing highly functional and well integrated education systems that provide students with opportunities for success (Conrad & Morris, 2010, p. 2). While the concept of student persistence has been around for some 50 years, the perspective on retention changed significantly in 1970 (Tinto, 2006) and has continued to evolve over time, particularly as students, families and all levels of government invest in the Canadian post-secondary sector (Canadian Council on Learning, 2011). Unfortunately, over the past two decades, Canada’s average dropout rates have been approximately 20% - 25% from first year to second, and only approximately 60% of an entering cohort persists to degree completion (Grayson & Grayson, 2003). These statistics cause some citizens to question the high investment in higher education, particularly because each student who does not proceed to the next academic year costs Canadian institutions at least approximately $6,282 annually (Dietsche, 1990). That cost has likely increased significantly over the past twenty-five years, and these statistics are particularly problematic knowing that student persistence is often viewed by society as a primary measure of student success and institutional success. Therefore, institutions are focusing on student persistence, as a positive and increasing retention rates is often thought to be the result of an improved quality of student life and learning on campuses, and demonstrates the value of the investment (Noel-Levitz, 2008).
Across Canadian institutions, many student service programs have opportunities available to assist students with the transition to post-secondary education and increase first year student success and retention (Grayson & Grayson, 2003). Researching and understanding the effectiveness of various retention strategies can provide a solid foundation to student affairs professionals when implementing programs that support student persistence. As identified in a study conducted by Fisher and Engemenn (2009), the strongest determinant of student retention is student engagement. Looking at the relationship between student persistence and engagement, this paper seeks to determine if high impact student engagement programs, including living learning communities, peer mentorship programs, and experiential learning opportunities, are effective strategies to improve overall student persistence at Canadian post-secondary institutions.
Literature Review: Retention Theories in Post-Secondary Education
To effectively understand how student engagement programs can impact student persistence, it is essential to have an understanding of the literature in the field on post-secondary student persistence and attrition. The research on these concepts spans well over five decades, and continues to become more advanced as scholars form a more thorough understanding of the complexities that shape the student experience and overall persistence (Tinto, 2006). Research in this area began to change in the 1970s, once theorists started to shift their views of retention from the abilities of a student, to the influence of the environment in a student’s choice to stay or leave an institution.
The most popular model of student attrition to emerge during this time was Tinto’s (1975) Student Integration Model (Grayson & Grayson, 2003), and is still considered one of the most popular in the field. The Student Integration Model was unique at the time, as it focused on identifying multiple factors involved in student persistence, whereas previous studies had primarily focused on one single concept (McGivney, 2005). Based on different sets of factors that affect persistence, the first phase of the model looks at a student’s background, individual attributes, and commitments to personal goals and the institution. Once enrolled, students engage with academic experiences, intellectual development, as well as social integration. In particular, Tinto (1975) states that it is critical to integrate opportunities for interaction between a student and other members of the institution, both faculty and peers, in the first year of post-secondary education (Tinto, 2006). Tinto’s (1975) concept became heavily connected to what became known as the “age of involvement”, and theorists such as Aston, Pascarella, Terenzini reinforced Tinto’s (1975) focus on social integration and student involvement. Tinto’s (1975) research also influenced practical recommendations to create student persistence programs, encouraging institutions to employ practices that would increase academic values and social support (Bean & Eaton, 2001).
Furthermore, the model generated a great deal of inquiry into student attrition, particularly from first to second year (Grayson & Grayson, 2003). This inquiry paved the way for further research on student retention in the years to come.
In 1985, Bean and Metzner created their Student Attrition Model, which included additional factors that were not included in Tinto’s (1975) Student Integration Model. In the Student Attrition Model, the attrition factors are divided into three areas: academic, social-psychological, and environmental. While many of the factors included in this model are also present in Tinto’s (1975) work, Bean and Metzner (1985) added environmental factors not previously discussed, such as finance, opportunity to transfer, and outside friends. Despite the fact that the Student Attrition Model includes many of the same concepts as Tinto (1975), the utility of the two models is employed quite differently (Grayson & Grayson, 2003). As pointed out by Cabrera, Castaneda, Nora and Hengstler (1992), both models look at persistence over time and argue that pre-college characteristics affect how students will adjust to their institution. However, unlike in Tinto’s (1975) diagram, the Student Attrition Model emphasizes the importance that external factors play in influencing attitudes and decisions. Furthermore, “…whereas the Student Integration Model regards academic performance as an indicator of academic integration, the Student Attrition Model regards college grades as an outcome variable resulting from social-psychological processes” (Cabrera et al., 1992, p. 145). In the final analysis of their research, Cabrera et al. (1992) identified that while the Student Integration Model has had more of its hypothesis validated, Bean and Metzner’s (1985) model better assists in identifying the importance of external factors, and future research should look to combine the insights from both theories (Grayson & Grayson, 2003).
Almost two decades later, Swail (2004) did look to Tinto’s (1975) and Bean and Metzner’s (1985) models as the foundation for his framework on student retention, The Geometric Model of Student Persistence and Achievement. This model also focuses on three factors: cognitive, socio-psychological and institutional, which are very similar to Bean and Metzner’s (1985) academic, social and environmental variables. The difference in Swail’s (2004) model is that it places the student at the centre of the model, rather than as an indifferent element to a flow chart (p. 13). The framework acts as a visual reminder that all three factors must be equal in order for a student to have a balanced experience, through a combination of student-specific features and institutional resources. Based on Swail’s (2004) model, rarely does a student come to a post-secondary institution with a balanced triangle. It is more common for a student to arrive as an isosceles or scalene, and they often require institutional supports or programs to transform into an equilateral polygon by the end of their post-secondary career. Therefore, the equilibrium of a student’s triangle is based on, “the ability of the institution to deliver the appropriate level of support services to counter the strengths and weaknesses of the student” (Swail, 2004, p. 18). These types of institutional services are more thoroughly discussed than in previous models, and emphasize the important role of various services on campus, including financial aid, student services, recruitment and admissions, academic services, and curriculum and instruction (Swail, 2004). The equilateral triangle is a reminder to post-secondary educators of their role in supporting students, and highlights the importance of assisting students in connecting all three factors together.
Student Engagement and Persistence
There is a prominent connection between Tinto’s (1975), Bean and Metzner’s (1985), and Swail’s (2004) factors of social integration and the concept of student engagement. Astin’s (1984) notion of student involvement “refers to the amount of physical and psychological energy that the student devotes to the academic experience” (p. 297). As paraphrased by Grayson and Grayson (2003), the greater the student involvement, the more positive the outcomes. Moreover, the connection between persistence theory and student involvement is further discussed by Terenzini, Pascaella and Bliming (1996), as their research concluded, “academic and cognitive learning are positively shaped by a wide variety of out of the classroom experiences” (p. 157). These experiences represent student engagement opportunities, which Kuh, Kinzie, Buckley, Bridges and Hayek (2007) argue combine the time and energy students invest into purposeful activities and the effort institutions devote to efficient educational practices.
Furthermore, research conducted by Seidman and Brown (2006) proposes that students learn more in a non-academic setting, as students spend the majority of their educational experience outside of the classroom (Kuh, Schuh, Witt & Associates, 1991). In fact, it has been argued that co-curricular experiences account for approximately 70% of what students gain from post-secondary education (Kuh, 1993). This confirms the notion that outside of the classroom engagement on a post-secondary campus positively affects learning and student development in a number of ways (Terenzini et al., 1996). In fact, in Hughes & Paces’ (2003) study, it was confirmed that students who are less engaged outside of the classroom than their counterparts are less likely to persist. In a more recent study, it was also evident that all students attending institutions with complementary initiatives and purposeful educational practices are more likely to be more satisfied, perform better academically, and persist to graduation (Kuh, et al., 2007).
As there becomes heightened awareness about the relationship between student engagement and persistence, co-curricular experiences become increasingly more important to student affairs educators, whose primary role is to create meaningful learning experiences for students outside of the classroom (Goodman, 2014). The mission of student affairs departments is typically to facilitate opportunities to create a holistic student experience through student development and social interactions (ACPA & NASPA, 2006). In her study on the effectiveness of outside of the classroom experiences, Goodman (2014) concluded that student affairs work does have a positive effect on multiple areas of student development, and should continue to find ways to support students in making meaningful co-curricular experiences that encourage connections with faculty and peers, interactions with students who are different than themselves, and relate their in-class knowledge to other experiences. Furthermore, the value of student affairs programs is “the application of human development concepts in post secondary settings so that everyone involved can master increasingly complex developmental tasks, achieve self-direction, and become interdependent” (Miller & Prince, 1976, p. 3). When intentional and well-designed, effective practices in these areas can include living-learning communities, peer mentoring, and service learning opportunities (Kuh, et al., 2008), and positively impact student satisfaction and persistence. These opportunities were identified as high-impact practices (HIPs) in the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), which evaluates over 1500 universities and colleges in the United States and Canada.
To learn more about student engagement strategies and retention, please read my graduate manuscript on the About Me page.
I have always been very fascinated with Gallup's Strength Based Leadership concept and approach. Since completing the assessment myself, I have personally found so much success from identifying, understanding and applying the strengths that I have. My 5 strengths have also been very beneficial in finding specific roles that are tailored to my passion, abilities, and skills. I take every opportunity possible when working with our student staff to teach them how to use their strengths to develop stronger team dynamics, better understand their role on a team, and for career development.
I recently attended a session at ACPA from the University of Calgary that outlined their UCalgaryStrong program, which has inspired a more resilient campus because their approach to working with students is strengths-focused. Incoming students have the opportunity to complete the assessment during Orientation, and then departments on campus use strengths as a common language in which they advise and support their student population. I honestly thought it was an incredible approach to focusing on what students are good at and to build self confidence. As I listened to the presenters talk about the success of the program, it was reaffirmed for me how much I appreciate Strengths Based Leadership and how valuable it is to students and staff alike. It inspired me to want to continue to use the tool as a foundation for on-going training, developmental conversations, and team building.
As I reflected on my experience in that session, I decided to start looking into theoretical research on the strengths based approach and how I could use it to better develop and advise my staff. I found an overwhelming amount of content, but one particular article, Strengths Based Advising by Schreiner and Anderson (2004), was both inspiring and captivating. It was also exciting to read that the positive experiences that I have recently had with staff, peers, and students focused on strengths, rather than areas of development, is rooted in the purpose and intentionality of the strengths-based approach. It not only made those I was speaking with feel more confident and positive, but it also left me feeling like I had seen an entirely new side of those individuals and felt inspired by their new perspective and overall hopefulness.
In reading through the article, I learned that the nature of strengths-based advising is primarily focused on helping students learn ways in which to capitalize on their strengths in order to succeed in the future. In doing so, there are six key aspects that the advisor must be aware of.
Foundation - The advisor needs to set strengths as the foundation of the meeting and conversation, and create an environment by which the student becomes more aware of their strengths, which will in turn motivate the student to set goals, achieve at a higher level, make better choices, and complete their tasks (p.1).
Focus - The advisor shifts the focus of the session from problems to possibilities.
Framing - The advisor focuses on positive, open-ended questions rather than using a problem-oriented approach.
Feeling - The vibe of the session feels different to the student, which is validated by a research study conducted at Eastern University (Schreiner, 2000), which suggests that students randomly assigned to a strengths-based advising approach were more significantly satisfied with their experience than those engaged in the traditional approach.
Confidence - An individual's confidence increases when strengths become the primary focus of an advising session. When strengths are discussed within the context of how they can be applied or developed, students are affirmed and their confidence increases (p.2).
Direction - As students become more aware of their strengths, they begin to see how and where those strengths can be applied. This provides individuals with a sense of personal direction.
The article also discusses how using strengths eases the transition to college and university for students, which is demonstrated by the UCalgaryStrong program. As student affairs professionals, we acknowledge that students come to post-secondary with many external factors, many of which can influence their ability to be successful. Some examples of these types of background factors can include parental values and encouragement; the values and goals of peers in high school; cultural values and expectations; positive experiences with teachers and counsellors; exposure to college educated people; and the emphasis that churches and other community organizations place on higher education (p.3). If any of these elements create an unrealistic or inaccurate expectation of the college experience, students may encounter difficulty adjusting and struggle with resilience. As we know that people who are 'resilient' and able to make a positive transition: possess an awareness of their strengths (Meichenbaum, 1999); make more positive attributions about their own abilities (Weiner, 1991); and become more personally involved in the college experience and connect with other students, faculty, and staff (Aston, 1993; Tinto, 1987), appyling strengths-based advising to our day-to-day interactions is promising. It also encourages students to feel like they "belong in college", and positively connects them to their post-secondary experience (p.4).
Despite that the article is written primarily for an audience that formally advises students, there is a real connection to the work that we do in greater field of student affairs every single day. The conversations that we have with our own staff, students and peers are very impactful, and the strengths approach provides us with a language in which to have meaningful conversations. Furthermore, in a field that hires more students and staff than most, the article provides insightful questions around an individual's ability to apply their strengths, which may enhance many of our current behaviour-based, reflective and carousel processes. For example, consider asking, "Which of your strengths do you feel are most characteristic of you?" or "How have these strengths helped you in the past?". If you're looking to identify opportunities for development, consider asking, "In what ways do you want to develop these strengths?" or "What images come to mind when you think about fully developing these strengths?" (p.5).
The same theory applies to discussions with students around engagement. Not all residence or commuter students are actively engaged in the campus community, but perhaps it is because they do not even know what they are good at, or where there skills would be best utilized. In conversation, find out from students what they are passionate about, where their strengths lie, and what they aspire to do. Consider asking them what areas they most want to achieve in during their university or college career. Academics? Extracurriculars? Community service? Follow up by asking how their strengths might help them achieve this goal, and what campus activities would allow them to capitalize on their strengths most (p.5). Moreover, what types of leadership opportunities, co-ops, or on-campus work positions would enable their skills to flourish and empower their self-confidence?
Furthermore, I am inspired by the connection that this approach has to peer programs. Strengths-based advising does not have to be the sole responsibility of professional staff; rather, we should be encouraging our students to use this language to support and empower each other in their campus and/or residence communities. As Don Clifton and Paula Nelson state, strengths develop best within the context of a supportive relationship, and with that foundation the student has a greater chance of fulfilling his or her potential and achieving success in college -- and beyond (Clifton & Nelson, 1992). The programs on our campuses that emphasize relationship building and mentorship most are our academic and personal support roles. In many cases, these are peers who are acting in a mentoring capacity in hopes of supporting another individual in their transition to higher education, and to offer guidance to help others overcome obstacles in the way of their success. Knowing that the strengths-based approach is rooted in the context of supportive relationships, how can we use strengths as a tool for mentors to further support the success of their mentee and apply a positive approach to goal setting?
In conclusion, in reflecting upon the concept of using a strengths-based approach in our departments, it makes sense to me that not only would we learn more about our staff, students, and peers, but we could also empower them to learn more about themselves. In a society where it feels as though we often focus on a person's weakness or barriers, it is so enriching to know that there is an approach that emphasizes the very best in every person, and identifies what each individual brings to our communities, our teams, and our departments. It is inspiring to hear that institutions such as the University of Calgary are leaving the deficit model behind and adopting a strengths-based approach. It is exciting to learn that strengths-based educators are "trying to discover and develop a student's strength as opposed to identify and remediate the student's deficits" (p.10). It is also extremely rewarding, speaking from personal experience, to help others increase their own awareness of their strengths, and watch them apply and celebrate them! Knowing this, my challenge to other student affairs professionals is to consider how we can build this approach into our one-on-one advising, orientations, or leadership workshops. How can we use it as a tool for hiring, recruitment and training? How can our departments do a better job of using strengths to develop strong team dynamics and identify individual's similarities and differences? How can we continue to learn more ways to better support our students and create more positive student experiences? And, perhaps most importantly, how can we share and educate others on this engaging and positive approach?
A creative educator striving to enhance the holistic student experience and committed to exploring personal strengths and fulfillment.