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StrengthsFinder - StrengthsFinder - Finding the Strengths

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Greenville Advocate, October 5, 2000
by Nathaniel West

Armed with a powerful new personality test, Greenville College professors are hoping to guide students better than they ever have before...

Most people know what they want to be when they grow up. Then they get to college, change their majors five or six times, and end up in careers that have little or nothing to do with their degrees.

It's a story that pans out in colleges and universities all across the country, but particularly those with a "liberal arts" emphasis - that focus less on teaching a trade and more on developing well-rounded, complete people.

But liberal arts schools still end up with graduates who, despite their critical thinking skills, play games of hit or miss their careers.

Greenville College hopes to change that, for the better. And in the process, the school might just set a new standard in post-secondary education.

The college is working in cooperation with the Gallup Organization, the group responsible for producing arguably the most reliable and accurate surveys and statistics used by the media and the general public.

Gallup also delves extensively into helping businesses get more out of their employees, and the organization has developed a tool called a "Strengths Finder" - a test that identifies those aspects of an individual's personality that help him or her meet life goals.

GC will be the first college or university in the country to transfer the Strengths Finder comprehensively to an academic setting. Other undergraduate institutions have used the Gallup tool to a limited degree, but never as a key aspect of a student's entire four (or five or six) year undergraduate education.

What is perhaps even bigger news, at least on-campus, is how GC will incorporate the Gallup tool into a major change in the school's fundamental educational requirements that focus even more on cultivating a young adult's mind, body and soul.

In short, the college will help incoming students early on to discover their own strengths and to use this knowledge to determine a major and a career, without precluding the benefits of a liberal arts education.

Core Curriculum
For about seven years, GC administrators and faculty have wanted to change the school's general education requirements - the basic courses that all students must take, regardless of their majors. At liberal arts schools like GC, their general education courses tend to be more numerous - and critical to the overall aims of the school - and are often referred to as an institution's "core curriculum."

Until this year, the core curriculum has not changed at GC since 1968.

The new curriculum features "a much more structured and purposeful tracking of general education requirements," said Dr. S. Bradley Shaw, director of general education and English professor at GC.

"There is a high degree of excitement among faculty about the core curriculum," said Shaw. He added that the college faculty, which often represents opinions as diverse as the students who attend the college, voted unanimously in favor of the general education changes.

The most obvious modification this year is the reorganization of class credit and class schedules. In the past, the college worked on a "four credit" system - most courses, when completed over the span of a semester, would earn a student four credits, or points toward the graduation requirement of 132 credits. Students would attend class four days a week, with Wednesday as a sort of a midweek weekend.

Now, the college has gone to a "three-two" system. Major courses are now only worth three credits rather than four, but students only have to go to any particular three-credit class three times a week, on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Two-credit courses are taught on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

This change, although technically not part of the core curriculum change, works in tandem with the latter. The transition to a three-two system allows more courses to be taught (actually, more courses have to be completed in order to meet credit amount required for graduation), which means that more general education courses can be added.

The core curriculum has also changed in that many general education courses now more "interdisciplinary" - they incorporate several subjects (such as science and philosophy) into one class. The most critical classes to do this are the four new Core Classes, which a student must take year for four years.

During the fall semester of the freshman year, a new student is to enroll in the Cornerstone Seminar, which reviews the "foundation is the liberal arts tradition." That is followed by the Introduction to Christian Thought and Life class during the sophomore year and Foundations of Science during the junior year. The student's GC career, assuming it only lasts four years, culminates in the Capstone Seminar, an "integration across the disciplines."

These Core Courses are where the Strengths Finder comes into play. The interdisciplinary aspects of the Gallup tool allow test results to be incorporated easily into them.

"One goal of the Core Courses is to get students be self-reflective, to discover who they are," said Shaw. Students are enabled to discover "their callings, their purpose in life, and how their strengths compliment that."

Strengths Finder
The Strengths Finder test initially appears to be very similar to most other personality tests that people often take in a high school guidance course. The test taker is given two seemingly opposing situations, values or philosophies, and then asked to rank which one applies more to him or her. This is common format for such exams.

The difference in the Strengths Finder form other personality tests, according to Dr. Chip Anderson, a graduate school professor at both the University of California Lost Angeles and Azusa Pacific University in California, is what specifically the Gallup toll measures.

Anderson, who helped the Gallup organization to develop the Strengths Finder, is working with GC to introduce the exam to the college faculty, staff and students.

Most personality tests are based on theories about personalities. For example, the well-known Meyers-Briggs (sp?) exam is based on the theories of psychologies Carl Jung. These tests tell you what kind of person you are, what previously identified personality type you fit.

But the Gallup test uses a different foundation.

The initial designer of the Strengths Finder, Don Clifton, president of the Gallup organization, was being asked by large corporations to use his skills to help select people for top administrative positions in these corporations. So Clifton sought out the "best of the best" already in such positions, asked them what qualities of their personality helped them to achieve their status, and then used their information as a template for his personality test.

Clifton "identified these things that make people successful, those small, discreet, strengths," said Anderson... "Strengths are collections of personal qualities, abilities and talents that enable a person to do certain things very well."

Once specific strengths were pinpointed, it was fairly easy to compose an exam to locate them in various individuals.

The Strengths Finder test features 180 questions, asking the participant if he or she "is more like this or more like this," and the test taker can rank himself or herself on a five-point scale.

Said Anderson, "In order to understand fully the concept of a strengths, one must move beyond limited ideas about strengths, talents and abilities. The concept of strengths begins with the realization that many specific strengths may be needed to do something very well. It isn't as if one strength produces excellence. Many strengths, all working together, are needed to produce an outstanding performance."

Strengths and talents are placed into various categories or "themes," which included Relating Themes, Impacting Themes, Striving Themes, and Thinking Themes.

The added advantage of the Gallup toll is that it can be taken over the Internet, so those being examined receive immediate results and feedback. The test taker is presented his or her five most dominant strengths, and then how to best utilize these qualities in every day life and career planning.

An example of one of the strengths, the Theme of Adaptability, is detailed by the Gallup web site as follows:

"You live in the moment. You don't see the future as a fixed destination. In stead, you see it as a place that you create out of the choices that you make right now. You therefore discover your future one choice at a time. This doesn't mean that you don't have plans. You probably do. But this Theme of Adaptability enables you to respond willingly to the demands of the moment, eve if they pull you away from your plans.

"Unlike some, you don't' resent sudden requests or unforeseen detours. You expect them. They are inevitable. Indeed, on some level, you actually look forward to them. You are, at heart, a very flexible person who can remain productive when the demands of work are pulling you in many different directions at once."

Blending
Until this year, the Strengths Finder was used primarily by businesses and corporation, as per its original design. Academia utilized the Gallup tool on a limited basis.

But GC will be the first academic institutions to make the Strengths Finder results an intricate part of all four years (or more) that a student spends in college.

"We're the guinea pigs for Gallup," said Dr. Karen Longman, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty at GC, who headed up the project to bring the Gallup tool to the college.

(GC applied for - and received - a federal Department of Education grand to fund the inclusion of the Strengths Finder into the college's core curriculum.)

A common occurrence at colleges and universities is what's known as the "sophomore slump."

"At the very time when the 'glow' of entering the world of college has subsided (after the freshman year experience) and students often begin to questions whether the benefits of a college education are worth the effort and cost, sophomores receive limited attention because both programmatic and personnel support tend to shift back to the next group of incoming students," states Longman in the grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Education.

The introduction of the Strengths Finder to the college's general education courses aims to curb the sophomore slump by providing students with guidance throughout their college experience, not just their freshman year.

During the first year, a student takes the Gallup test, and strengths and talents are identified. The sophomore year is then targeted for career planning, based on the results of the Strengths Finder. This also aids students who have yet to choose a major to do so.

The junior years will feature "practical application" of students' strengths through "service learning and/or cross-cultural settings specific to the student's major," according to Longman.

In the senior year, a student is permitted experiences such as internships "that build upon strengths students have been developing."

And after that, life. The real world. But if GC and the Gallup organization are perhaps best summed up by Donald Clifton himself, in a letter he wrote to Dr. Laurie Schreiner, professor and Department of Psychology chair at Eastern College in Pennsylvania. Eastern has also been granted a federal grand to apply a similar strengths finding approach to its general educational requirements.

Clifton writes, "From the data I have seen, I believe people are more ready to assume a positive approach (to education) than ever before. Through the last century people increasingly took control of their lives, as they demanded more democratic societies. Now is the time to bring out the best in each human being by focusing individuals on their strengths."