In the pursuit of improving college student experiences and outcomes, higher education institutions are increasingly embracing innovative approaches. A prime example is the implementation of CliftonStrengths®, a tool designed to empower individuals to discover and cultivate their natural talents.
In the context of higher education, CliftonStrengths aids students in recognizing their unique strengths, promoting self-awareness and personal growth. A strengths-based approach to higher education emphasizes strengths over weaknesses, fosters a positive learning environment, and encourages students to accept their uniqueness and navigate life changes with a heightened sense of purpose.
Gallup researchers have conducted extensive studies on the effects of a strengths-based approach among college and university students. In 2023, we carried out a systematic literature review of 30 academic journals, dissertations, white papers and conference presentations from the past decade, led by researchers outside of Gallup. To be included in our review, studies must have included original research comprising an experiment, pre-post assessment, or evaluation of student experiences after participating in a strengths-based intervention. This was done to build upon an earlier literature review published in 2012 and further explore how CliftonStrengths interventions predict crucial aspects of student success.
The studies we reviewed encompassed a variety of student outcomes such as wellbeing, sense of belonging, time to graduation, self-efficacy and academic performance, among others. Our review revealed two critical higher education outcomes most represented in the studies: student engagement and retention.
Student engagement is a pivotal factor in propelling student success. This type of engagement is often characterized by the emotional bond students form with their educational journey, their tenacity in the face of new or challenging learning experiences, and their commitment to fulfilling academic responsibilities and maintaining consistent class attendance.
Multiple studies in our review demonstrate that incorporating CliftonStrengths into higher education predicts higher student engagement. For instance, research involving students from the University of Minnesota revealed that participating in strengths-based mentorship significantly predicted higher scores on the student engagement index. This holds true even when accounting for variables such as gender, race/ethnicity and other CliftonStrengths-related interactions (e.g., discussing it with peers or in a first-year experience course). In addition to strengths-based mentorship, researchers have also established a relationship between strengths self-efficacy and engagement. Specifically, in a study of students attending a private midsized institution in the Southwest, students’ belief in their ability to build and apply their top five strengths was positively related to their engagement.
Similarly, an experimental study at a Turkish university found that students who engaged in a 10-week course dedicating 30 minutes each week to strengths-based development exhibited a 9% higher class attendance rate in the subsequent semester than their counterparts who did not participate in strengths-based development.
Despite recent increases in student persistence and retention, 41% of college students surveyed in 2022 considered stopping their coursework in the past six months. Past Gallup research has identified that stopping an education before obtaining a degree puts students in a worse position than those who never enrolled, largely due to higher student debt and lack of credentials to show employers.
Research across various higher education institutions represented in our review shows that a strengths-based approach can help students stay enrolled. For example, another study with students from the University of Minnesota found that first-year students who reported having a strengths-based advising discussion were 1.53 times more likely to return for their second year of school. Compared with their peers, they were also 1.9 times more likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree within four years. Additionally, a study of students attending Oklahoma State University found preliminary evidence that the retention rate of first-year students increased among students enrolled in a college that incorporated CliftonStrengths into an introductory course. Changes in student retention rates can have major implications for both students and universities (and incoming tuition).
Studies measuring strengths-based approaches across colleges and universities have shown promising results in the effectiveness of CliftonStrengths for improving a range of student outcomes, but it is important to consider that the effectiveness of any one strengths-based approach is not one-size-fits-all.
While a significant portion of the studies reviewed reported positive and significant findings regarding the effectiveness of CliftonStrengths, there were instances of null findings (i.e., no discernible pattern), primarily across studies with smaller sample sizes and less thorough interventions. Importantly, no studies found CliftonStrengths to negatively impact student experiences.
To optimize student outcomes, integrating CliftonStrengths into campus culture necessitates a deliberate and strategic program design. Based on the specific outcomes an institution is aiming for, this could encompass training faculty to weave strengths-based teaching methodologies into their instruction, fostering strengths-related conversations among students, offering resources for students to delve deeper into their strengths, creating avenues for students to apply their strengths in practical contexts, and cultivating a campus culture that appreciates and celebrates individual differences.
By focusing on what makes each student unique and capable of success, we can create an educational environment that not only promotes academic achievement but also prepares students for a fulfilling life beyond the classroom.