Do Something that Scares You

We invited contributors to share a promising practice or innovation they are testing in their work with students. In the post below, Tricia Seifert shares the process of creating a game to assist students in the transition to post-secondary education.

A friend’s advice: Do something that scares you. For some, launching into space is scary. For others, writing for a professional audience is scary. Writing scholarly and practitioner-oriented journal articles and blog posts from a decade’s research from the Supporting Student Success and Blueprints for Student Success projects didn’t scare me. I’m an academic; writing is what I’m trained to do.

Launching my research into a totally different orbit, now that is scary. Check it out here.

Success Prints Crash Course is launching. Check us out here.

It began by creating a board game, Success Prints Crash Course, which incorporates findings from a decade of my research conducted across North America. Designed to help students transition to higher education, I found the process of developing the board game exciting, exhilarating even. My creative energies were on fire. Rather than writing about the findings from my college impact and student success research, I was re-presenting, re-fashioning the implications directly for the people the research was intended to help, students and those invested in their success.

I have found so much joy in developing Success Prints Crash Course for students, with students. Not long ago, the Magic Sail Games team (Branson Faustini, Waylon Roberts, and Austin Boutin) confronted higher education’s hidden curriculum themselves. They brought this student perspective to the game’s central challenge: managing time to maximize academic performance and social connections while managing stress, earning enough money to pay tuition, and rolling with life’s unforeseen events.

Bran and Waylon with the first game prototype on the first 1000 mile road trip around Montana.

For the last 18 months, we’ve designed, played, iterated, and played some more. I’ve presented at 8 state, national, and international conferences; run 100+ play test sessions; and traveled 10,000 miles to share the game with students, parents, teachers, counselors, and higher education professionals.

None of this scared me.

What scared me was how to respond to the inevitable question at the end of a test play or conference session: how do I get a copy of the game?

I didn’t have an answer. I had been traveling with 2 prototype copies in the trunk of my car or on a plane. I didn’t know how to go from 2 games boards to 2000. I knew nothing about game manufacturing or how products are brought to market.

But I knew I had to push beyond my comfort zone if the game was to reach its potential and intended audience. I had heard high school students like the ones in rural Montana exclaim the game helped them realize they could ‘do college.’ I had played with first generation students, huddled around a game board during orientation, testing out their time management strategy. I had shared the game with higher education faculty and staff who emphatically stated how much they wished such a game existed when they were in school. It was from this group that I imagined how valuable the game could be for new faculty (or even better, tenured faculty) to understand the many demands today’s students balance.

How was I going to go from 2 game boards to 2000? There was a clear answer; I had to start a small business. I needed to source game manufacturers. I had to create a website to sell the game. I had to learn all the back-end business functions from shipping to search engine optimization.

This scared me. I am an academic after all.

I created Success Prints, LLC because it allows me to get my research into the hands of the people who can benefit from what I’ve learned in a form that will resonate with them, a game. Success Prints Crash Course is for students, parents, teachers, counselors, and higher education faculty and staff. Some call this ‘knowledge dissemination’ — I am disseminating in new and innovative ways what I’ve learned from talking to hundreds of students, staff, and faculty in both high schools and higher education institutions about students’ questions and concerns and the support needed to promote their success.

The website is now live and people can purchase copies of Success Prints Crash Course for their classrooms, residence hall lounges, or dining room tables. We are able to ship to Australia, Canada, South Africa, and the UK — — all countries where students are playing prototype versions. I invite you to check us out:

It’s been a crazy road and it’s just the beginning. I feel better knowing as I get more comfortable, it will scare me less. In many ways, I feel like the first-year student who has pulled up outside of the residence hall and is unpacking to begin their post-secondary journey. They are scared and the idea of leaving home and starting in a new world feels uncomfortable. But if they can just hang in through the first two weeks, they will find the rhythm and flow. Their discomfort begins to shrink and their comfort zone grows.

Here’s to doing something that scares you and growing in the process. Here’s to harnessing the power of games to teach students in fun and engaging ways.

Dr. Tricia Seifert is Associate Professor of Adult & Higher Education and Head of the Department of Education at Montana State University. She is also a game designer and student success innovator. You can follow the trajectory of the Success Prints Crash Course game @TriciaSeifert and @_blueprints on Twitter; @blueprints4success on Instagram; and Blueprints for Student Success – Montana on Facebook.

Sharing Practice from Around the World

By: Tricia Seifert, curator of the Supporting Student Success blog

As times change, the purpose of some things change as well. This blog was originally created as a place to share findings from the Supporting Student Success research project, a multi-institutional mixed methods study that sought to understand how colleges and universities across Canada organized and cultivated a culture to support student success on campus. Information about the study remains on the website. There are tabs detailing the different phases of the project, the surveys we designed, the presentations and publications that have derived from the work, and the amazing team that made it happen.

Although we continue to publish from the Supporting Student Success project, the blog has become a place for practitioners from around the world to share promising practices that are improving their work and their ability to support students to achieve their personal and academic goals. In 2019, we published posts from scholarly practitioners in Canada, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with a post from Australia in the wings. Blog viewers come from over 50 countries including Brazil, Hong Kong, India, Ireland, Philippines, South Africa, as well as Trinidad and Tobago.

Gall-Peters map. Image by Daniel R. Streve.

Recently, I was on a call with people involved in student affairs and services from around the world. We were discussing the avenues by which we could learn from the good work being done internationally. We identified the many wonderful venues that publish research studies on student affairs and services and their contributions to student learning and development. These include the Canadian Journal of Higher Education, Journal of Australia and New Zealand Student Services Association, Journal of College Student Development, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, and the Journal of Student Affairs in Africa. But we were thinking about how we might share and learn from international colleagues in a way that is less formal than a standard research article.

I think the Supporting Student Success blog could be one place. With a post in January 2019 detailing how one university in Mexico created a one-stop shop for student services to a recent post from a Canadian university describing holistic supports for indigenous students studying Science Mathematics Technology and Engineering disciplines, the Supporting Student Success blog has provided a forum to share and learn from others.

So today, I invite you to give some thought as to what you are doing in your work that is interesting and innovative. What would you like to share with the 3,680 (and counting) Supporting Student Success blog followers? And let me ask this question on the flip side: what would you like to learn from others? Please take 2 minutes to “leave a reply” and answer one or both of these questions. If you have something to share in the form of a future blog post, please leave your contact information so I may follow up with or you can reach me directly at

Our readers look forward to hearing from you.

For map enthusiasts, the image at the top of the page is a representation of the Sinu-Mollweide map created by Allen K. Philbrick in 1953. These images were taken from the Future Mapping Company website.

That’s Not! What We Do Here

The generative power of utilizing consultation, collaboration and persistence when navigating change at a research-intensive university

By: Stephanie Hayne Beatty – Director, Careers & Experience and Heather Wakely – Team Lead, Experiential Learning at Western University

“This sounds to me suspiciously like neo-liberal corporate thinking.”

When we asked for honest feedback about a newly-developed campus framework for experiential learning (EL), our students, staff, and faculty didn’t hold back. Recent interest in EL – both from students and the Ontario government—has generated spirited discussion on Western University’s campus (and at many other higher education institutions across the province) about the value, positioning, and best practices for EL.  

At Western, EL is defined as: an approach that educators use to intentionally connect learners with practical experiences that include guided reflection. EL allows learners to: increase and apply disciplinary knowledge, develop transferable skills, clarify interests and values, strengthen career engagement and employability, and collaborate meaningfully with communities.

The question we needed to answer was clear: how do we make more room for EL at a research-intensive university where there exists some healthy skepticism about its fit? For us, the answer lay in three key practices: consultation, collaboration, and persistence.


In November 2017, Western’s Vice-Provost (Academic Programs) struck a campus-wide taskforce to create a typology of curricular and co-curricular EL activities. While we had the benefit of learning from the University of Victoria and Brock University, who were some of the first institutions in Canada to develop their own institutional typologies, it was important that we grapple with questions that mattered most to us as an institution. We asked:

  • Are all lab courses, by their very nature, considered experiential learning? What about music performance courses?
  • What if the EL component takes place entirely within the classroom, and doesn’t extend to industry or community?
  • Should the EL component represent a minimum percentage of the students’ grade in order to count?

To explore the answers to these questions, the taskforce met regularly and facilitated 20 months of extensive consultation with the campus community – by online survey, Faculty/department meetings, students’ council meetings, and Town Halls. In June 2019, when the typology was passed by Senate, we were thrilled. We can’t contend everyone across campus is satisfied with every category, definition, or comma placement, but the taskforce is satisfied that we heard from a broad spectrum of voices and did our best to represent the interests of those from different disciplines, positions, and viewpoints.

Group of stakeholders reflect upon and celebrate experiential learning at Western University.
Students, staff, faculty, and community partners gather to reflect upon and celebrate EL at Western.


Because Western is a large a complex ecosystem with multiple nodes that a student interfaces with, collaboration is essential to all of our work in Student Affairs – from welcoming new students during Orientation Week to preparing them for life and career beyond graduation. Over the last few years, we have created several mechanisms through which meaningful collaboration on EL activities can occur: an employer-facing marketing campaign (hirewesternu), a Work Integrated Learning working group, and a campus-wide employer information tracking system. On your campuses, you are not strangers to this type of collaborative work.  As Student Affairs professionals, we collaborate across our institutions through working groups, communities of practice, marketing campaigns, and the use of shared systems. It takes big effort, but with this effort comes big rewards. We can co-create policies, processes, and programs that are more beneficial for ALL students, allowing them to better navigate the complex ecosystems of our institutions .

When the Ontario government invested in colleges and universities through its 2018 Career Ready Funds, we anticipated a different type of collaboration was needed in order to maximize the impact of EL on Western’s campus. We focused on developing new programs in areas where students did not historically have access to EL: a paid, credit-bearing internship program for students in Liberal Arts Faculties, and a paid, supervisor-approved internship program for students in research-based graduate programs. Like so many of you who are supporting student success, we collaborated to begin to address some of the inherent barriers to participating in EL – for first generation students, students with disabilities, and Indigenous students, among others.

One of the most inspiring collaborations to emerge from Western’s Career Ready project was a partnership between Impact Experience, the Indigenous Student Centre and Amizade, a long-standing international community partner. In May 2019, five indigenous students and two campus leaders traveled to Pine Ridge, South Dakota to learn from Elders who are dedicated to a sustainable future for the health and well-being of the Oglala Lakota people. We were able to provide financial support to the student participants, who noted the availability of an Indigenous program – where they could openly share their histories and experiences – was deeply valued.

Western students and team leaders participate in a week-long EL opportunity with a community partner in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, USA.
Western students and team leaders participate in a week-long EL opportunity with a community partner in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, USA.


For many years, EL has existed in various places and program at Western, but in the absence of a collective vision or voice. Many staff and faculty have dedicated years, and sometimes careers, to ensuring students can access high-quality internships, practicums, field experiences, and community engaged learning courses. They have advocated for resources, done the difficult task of partnership building, and defended their work against those who believe hands-on learning has no place in the academy. They are our passionate colleagues and fiercest allies – and their persistence has paid off.

As we kicked off the 2019-20 academic year, we are excited about many of the recent developments in our collective EL story. We have reorganized a new department called Careers & Experience, whose vision is for all Western graduates to have the skills and confidence to thoughtfully engage in communities, and build a meaningful life and career. We launched a user-focused, one-stop website for EL. We have worked closely with our Recruitment Office to thoughtfully engage with prospective students about the various ways to gain career experience. Finally, we have started a multi-year research project that will investigate the skills, competencies, and imagined futures of students who participate in internship versus community engaged learning, with the goal of better understanding the types of skills students develop across the variety of EL opportunities that we support and nurture at Western with our community partners.

The Path Forward

Do we have it all figured out? If we did, we’d tell you! What we can share are some critical lessons that continue to shape the way we think about what’s next for EL at Western:

  1. Build it and…you still need to convince them to come. When we launched internship programs in Liberal Arts, and posted 400+ paid internship opportunities, we thought students would come flocking and they didn’t. But, it’s not their fault.  Most students in these faculties have not historically had access to paid internships and weren’t actively planning to participate.  We are shifting a culture and that takes time.
  2. Find the common denominator. Working across disciplines, perspectives, and experiences, it can be difficult to reach consensus. When you peel back the layers, there is usually something everyone can agree on. Focus on that and build from there.
  3. Experiential Learning is a wellness issue. When students engage in EL they deepen their understanding, form connections, and develop confidence in their learning and their futures.  Our focus is on student thriving and we know that access to EL is a critical factor to student success.

We would love to hear about your own experiences and the lessons learned at your institutions. Please take a moment and leave a comment. Or feel free to tweet directly @westernuSE

Supporting Indigenous STEM Students

By: Noah Arney & Michelle Pidgeon

The disparity of post-secondary education (PSE) completion between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians (40% vs. 55.3%) continues to persist (Statistics Canada, 2016). Unfortunately, the disparity is wider when we compare undergraduate degree completion between Indigenous (8.6%) and non-Indigenous Canadians (23.25%). The gap of post-secondary completion (certificate, diploma, degree, and above) specific to the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) fields is even wider. Indigenous people are half as likely to have STEM based PSE (4.1% vs. 10%), and for those with STEM Bachelors degree and above, the gap moves to being a fifth as likely (1.1% vs. 5.7%).

In 2012 Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta created the Aboriginal Science & Technology Education Program (ASTEP) to support the growth of Indigenous STEM students in the Faculty of Science and Technology. This program operated from 2012-2019 and represented one of three Indigenous specific STEM programs offered specifically at the university level in Canada.  To understand the impact and influence of this program an external review was conducted in 2017 following Indigenous research processes (Kovach, 2009; Pidgeon & Hardy Cox, 2002). This process included an analysis of institutional data, comparisons with similar programs, and interviews and sharing circles with students, staff, and faculty who were closely associated with ASTEP.

From the participants in the review, ASTEP was valued for its relationship building, wholistic student support, faculty support, and creating a sense of belonging for Indigenous students in the Faculty and more broadly at MRU. This was done through intentional programming and practices by the ASTEP coordinator, faculty, and staff from the Iniskim Centre at MRU all of who had a shared aim of supporting ASTEP students and broader Indigenous communities through programming for Indigenous youth.

Relational Student Services

Relationship building with students was the basis of most of the successes. This was accomplished by frequent interaction in person, electronically, and over the phone. These interactions were spread across the various events and supports offered by ASTEP. Relationship building across academic faculties and other units was accomplished by frequent interaction both formally and informally, both connected with ASTEP directly and as part of the broader University community.

Indigenous students specifically valued the academic advising, tutoring in Indigenous-centered spaces, Indigenous speaker series, Lunch and Learns, Dean’s lunches, and Elder support.  Faculty valued the professional development provided to them, assisting with curriculum development with Indigenous peoples, and organizing meetings with Elders and other knowledge keepers. Students and faculty involved in ASTEP valued the community and sense of support that was created through these various aspects of the program. The collaborations involved in ASTEP provided a welcoming and safe environment, and established relationships of trust and mutual respect.

Intergenerational mentoring with faculty, staff, and students was created through ASTEP that was another core theme emerging from the evaluation that as a program strength. Bringing role models to the institution through the Indigenous Science Speakers Series and other events and programming helped Indigenous students put themselves forward as role models for incoming university students and high school students. Through meeting Indigenous scientists and professionals, ASTEP students could go beyond imagining themselves as Indigenous STEM professionals but becoming such professionals through the meeting role models who were established in such careers. Their responsibility to give back and help the next generation continued for some ASTEP alumni who after they graduated continued to work with the Iniskim Centre and Faculty of Science to mentor the new students.

Successes Found

There was clearly value and impact of the program. From the review of institutional data, the Indigenous STEM student population doubled in five years, and now accounts for 4.2% of students in the Faculty of Science & Technology, up from 1.7% in 2011. Institutional data showed the average GPA remained in line with non-Indigenous students throughout the program while the retention rate of Indigenous students was higher than for non-Indigenous students at 87.4%. This was 10% higher than for non-Indigenous students. Pre-ASTEP retention was unable to be determined due to low student numbers. The ASTEP data challenges stereotypes about Indigenous students not being as committed or academically capable as non-Indigenous students. It also provides support for Indigenous specific programming that is aimed at supporting Indigenous student success and persistence in STEM related programming.

Challenges Faced

Two of the biggest challenges with a program like ASTEP are student time/engagement and sustainable funding. ASTEP worked on the first by having a full-time program administrator who was able to work one on one with students and adjust his schedule to better serve the student population. The coordinator acted as a liaison between the STEM faculty and the Indigenous student services, along with direct supports for Indigenous STEM students. While the program was initially funded externally through corporate funding, and when this source was not renewed, the ASTEP program was closed due to lack of institutional and/or external support. As an interim measure, many different groups on campus have taken up elements of ASTEP to ensure the students are supported until institutional funding can be secured.

Integrating Into Your Practice

Other post-secondary institutions could utilize a similar Wholistic Support Model to support the Indigenous STEM students at their schools. The Indigenous Wholistic Framework (Pidgeon, 2014) utilized by Dr. Michelle Pidgeon in her review of the program is a good model example for Indigenous post-secondary student support. The key feature of Pidgeon’s (2014) model is the “interconnectedness of the intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and physical realms” (p. 10) which are themselves connected with the relational connection of the individual to their community and beyond.  

Indigenous Wholistic Framework (Pidgeon, 2014)
Figure 1. Indigenous Wholistic Framework (Pidgeon, 2014)

The following activities, as described in Figure 2, provide some examples of how to support Indigenous STEM students.

Wholistic Supports for Indigenous Stem Students
Figure 2. Wholistic Supports for Indigenous STEM students

As you can see in Figure 2, there are many opportunities for post-secondary institutions to increase their support for Indigenous STEM students. Many institutions support Indigenous students through advising and tutoring. But the intellectual domain is more than that. Students must be given examples of other Indigenous people who have succeeded at what they are accomplishing, and faculty and staff must learn about the perspectives and backgrounds of Indigenous students. The core though is integrating support for the whole person rather than simply supporting a student’s intellectual success. It is this focus on the whole person that led to the successes of ASTEP, and it can also lead to success in other post-secondary institutions.

The Whole Student

The support of students physically may be seen in two different ways. First the support of students’ physical needs such as ensuring that students don’t need to choose between accessing supports and eating. Second is the use of land-based events and activities which would vary by the region the post-secondary institution is in.

Supporting the emotional and spiritual growth of a student is something that can be done both in conjunction with a wellness centre on campus or could be done in Indigenous student supports. Many institutions have Elders in residence or visiting Elders. Connecting students between programs and between years to create peer supports can be very beneficial. Most important though is the concept of building relations between students and between students and staff and faculty. This creates a feeling of safety and a sense of belonging that helps support students as they progress through post-secondary. Supporting this feeling of belonging is ensuring students have access to cultural supports and ceremonies as they require. Separating the spiritual domain from the rest of the person is not something that is supported by Indigenous educational philosophy. Intellectually, Indigenous students can be supported through peer-tutoring, having faculty members who have been trained around culturally relevant pedagogy and curriculum, and having direct connections of what they are learning to their future career aspirations (e.g., co-op, mentorship with professionals).

Increasing the number of Indigenous students in STEM fields is a worthy goal for any post-secondary institution. Providing support specifically for Indigenous STEM students was shown to be beneficial at MRU. From this program, there are many sharable lessons to support Indigenous students in STEM fields and we hope other institutions take up this work and develop supports, programs, and services for their Indigenous students.

Noah Arney is Work Experience Coordinator – Bachelor of Computer Information Systems, Career Services at Mount Royal University. Dr. Michelle Pidgeon is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University and Director, Centre for the Study of Educational Leadership & Policy (CSELP) and SAGE (Supporting Aboriginal Graduate Enhancement).


Kovach, M. (2009). Indigenous methodologies: Characteristics, conversations, and contexts. Buffalo: University of Toronto Press.

Pidgeon, M (2014). Moving Beyond Good Intentions: Indigenizing higher education in British Columbia universities through institutional responsibility and accountability. Journal of American Indian Education, 53(2), 7-28.

Pidgeon, M., & Hardy Cox, D. (2002). Researching with Aboriginal peoples: practices and principles. Canadian Journal of Native Education, 26(2), 96-106.

Statistics Canada (2016). Census of Population, Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016263. Ottawa: Statistics Canada.

What do Arduinos have to do with Student Affairs?

By: Jennifer Clark, Student Success Coordinator in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering at Montana State University

As a student affairs practitioner, it is helpful to explain our work and its value to student success in many languages. In my student affairs work in the Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering, student success is desired; but let’s face it – engineers are often much more comfortable solving hard problems that are easily solved with math and science than messy problems that involve students, their emotions, and the back stories they bring with them to college. Regardless of the recognized value of the student success perspective, the language is unfamiliar and might even be described as foreign…but it can be acquired.

A MSU Engineering student helps Jen.

Recognizing the need to gain a deeper appreciation for the logical, ‘law-abiding’ language so familiar to engineers, I spent the last few months delving into the engineering design process through a computer hardware and coding project using open-source Arduino tools which support developing engineers and computer scientists. I was guided by my understanding of student success and pitched a ‘walk in their shoes’ concept idea to a few electrical engineering students/professionals. They were THRILLED to help me step into their world for a bit, even though they were not particularly interested in understanding the nuances of student services. At first, the goal was simply to gain a deeper appreciation for the complex nature of engineering as a discipline and as a way of thinking. What I gained was this rich, robust perspective of not only the Engineering discipline, but how to communicate the value of student affairs and the value that listening to students brings to success programs. 

This project became my way of articulating to the engineering community with whom I work why listening to students is important. The Arduino board was the instrument that allowed me to speak the ‘engineering language’ as I shared my learning. Briefly, there are 4 devices on this board; each do something different based on the code that was built in. There is an LCD screen that says, “I Love MSU” with an image of a bobcat; a light that changes between 3 colors; a buzzer that sings a Mario Cart song; and the last is a motion detector. These devices were simple in their action, but behind the scenes required a higher degree of complex and specific wiring and coding triggering the intended response to an action command. Student affairs work has a similar structure, on the surface appearing simple but requiring strategic and intentional planning to ensure student success programs have the desired outcome for the population they are designed to serve. Specifically, the motion sensor on this board provided the best demonstration of why it is so important for student affairs professionals to hear and respond to the needs of the students they serve. 

Looks so simple . . . looks can be deceiving.

As the most complex component on this board, the motion sensor took me some time, and extra help troubleshooting, to realize the pre-coded time delay was creating problems with what I wanted the device to do. It wasn’t until I reviewed for myself how the device was set up that I realized what was happening and that I could remove the extra time delay code. Instantly I recognized that this was the perfect metaphor for communicating to my engineering and student affairs colleagues the value of the student perspective as we work to perfect the practice of student success.

Intending to support success, student affairs practitioners may pre-code experiences, or strategies as best practice, unaware that they are not what students find most valuable. There is a need to engage with students and listen carefully to examine if what has been pre-coded makes sense. Keeping a finger on the pulse of current students within our disciplines allows for recognition that students really need a shorter time delay; or in my case, no time delay at all. By stepping outside my box and learning something new, a door opened, a new language was learned, a gap in understanding was bridged and a way to connect two worlds was created.

Still learning.

Engineering education and student affairs practitioners both seek to solve problems related to student success. Searching to find order where there appears to be chaos, recognizing decisions require understanding of trade-offs in using one method over another, and the willingness to embrace innovation by trying new approaches is using an engineering mindset in student affairs. Through this process it is important to be mindful of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and more importantly asking if there is something else we should, or shouldn’t, be doing instead. Including student perspectives is critical to any design process meant to benefit student populations. By keeping our finger on the pulse of what current, everyday students need, the probability of designing effective solutions increases. This supports mindfulness of the pre-coding we as practitioners insert and the purpose it serves in meeting the overall objective. So, what do Arduinos have to do with Student Affairs? They remind us to be intentional in how programming is developed in order to make the connection for maximum student effect.

Lighting the Way

By: Tricia Seifert, Associate Professor in Adult & Higher Education and Department Head of Education at Montana State University

Lanterns light the way
Lanterns suspended from the ceiling at Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park.

This summer I took some time and disconnected from my phone, computer, and social media. I went to Glacier National Park and took in the breathtaking views of the mountains, lakes, streams, and wildflowers. I observed a grizzly bear and her cubs, deer, marmots, and eagles. The nature that surrounded was beautiful and inspiring.

But there was something about the lanterns in the park’s hotels and lodges. Suspended from huge beams, they lit the way. I stood on the second floor and marveled at the color of light, the shape of the lantern, and how they were hung at different heights. They made me think about how faculty, student affairs and services staff, and peers often light the way through post-secondary education’s darkness.

Students, especially those who are first in their family to attend college or university, may find the campus bewildering, a maze of buildings with names that are unfamiliar. Who is a Registrar? Who is a Bursar? And why do they need their own offices?

Those from rural communities may have no conscious memory of making a friend. They simply have gone to school with the same group of kids their whole life. Signing up to be on the email list for a student club may feel really intimidating. Sitting in a classroom with more people than in one’s hometown can be downright anxiety-provoking.

Having to get out up and out of bed of one’s own volition can be difficult if its being done for the first time. How much time is needed to study for the test? How long will it take to draft and then edit the first composition essay? Mastering the art and science of time management takes practice.

It’s for these reasons (and thousands) more why it’s important that our campuses have plenty of lanterns. Faculty, staff, and students who communicate clearly that they care about and are committed to supporting first-year students as they find their way.

Lanterns at the Lake McDonald Lodge at Glacier National Park.

At Montana State, these lanterns shine brightly during MSU Debut. This is a series of signature events that begin with hundreds of volunteers helping with Move In Day continues with Convocation, and concludes a full month later with the Involvement and Study Abroad Fair. Over the course of those weeks, there are a number of events that embody the spirit and culture of Montana State. This includes the revered ‘M’ photo where all first-year students form a huge block M on the football field and are welcomed by the University President as well as the ‘Rockin the M’ event in which students engage in the 100+ year tradition of painting rocks on the mountain side.

The beloved ‘M’ on the hillside on the outskirts of Bozeman, Montana.

At each of these events and across campus, faculty, staff, and students serve as lanterns for the first-year students starting their post-secondary journey. They are there directing students to the right building, explaining how financial aid works, and inviting them to join in the fun at ‘Movies on the Lawn.’

The hard work of planning that goes into a campus’ orientation and onboarding activities is coming to fruition, the first-year experience is beginning. But there is always an opportunity to learn what others are doing to serve as lanterns for their students. I invite you to take a moment and “leave a reply” with what you are doing to light the way.

Strengths-Based Teaching: The Role of CliftonStrengths for Postsecondary Students in Teaching Roles

By: Isabelle Barrette-Ng, Ph.D, Amy Burns, Ph.D, and Gareth C. McVicar, M.A.

In the Fall of 2013, the University of Calgary began using CliftonStrengths for Students (CS) to help students discover, develop and apply their top talents, and to support an overall shift in their mindset from a deficit-focus to a focus on their talents and what makes them stand out. As the use of CS grew, we developed the Strengths-Based Campus program, one part of our overall donor-funded UCalgaryStrong initiative, which focusses on equipping students with the skills they need to become grounded leaders, helping build a cohesive community, and developing personal resiliency to cope with the stressors inherent in post-secondary life.

Since 2013, 15,000 members of our campus community have participated in strengths-based programming, and over the last three and a half years, this has included 5,700 students through 194 sections of 18 courses in six faculties. One of the most notable gains from the incorporation of (CS) into academic classes has been students’ self-perceptions and abilities to successfully work in teams.

Introducing Our Team

In this article, we write about the recent funding of our Teaching and Learning Grant to study the impact CS has on supporting both Education and Science students in their roles as teachers and the development of a self-reflective teaching practice. Before we articulate the details of our research plans, we want to tell you part of our stories with CS and how our collaboration came to be.

Gareth McVicar: In my role as the Manager of Student Leadership Development in the Leadership and Student Engagement Office, I lead the implementation of the university’s Strengths-Based Campus Program. In that work, I’ve noticed students often focus on deficit-fixing as opposed to focussing on their talents and the gifts that make them stand out. I’ve also noticed that many students need support in learning how to work effectively in teams, navigate conflict and dialogue respectfully with those who have very different ideas and opinions in comparison to their own. As a result much of the work my colleagues across campus and I do with CS is focussed on empowering students to develop these skillsets, their self-awareness and confidence through discovering and applying their strengths. This led to my work with Dr. Burns and Dr. Barrette-Ng to incorporate this focus into academic classes requiring a large amount of teamwork.

Dr. Amy Burns: In my work with pre-service teachers in the Werklund School of Education, I noticed that many of the undergraduate students with whom I worked needed additional supports as they navigated the complex interpersonal aspects of pre-service teaching. Indeed, even those who excelled in this aspect of their program often mentioned how they needed to understand their own perceptions of themselves as teachers more fully. In turn, I implemented an opportunity for a small number of first year pre-service teachers to experience CS, a program supported by the University of Calgary and designed to assist people in understanding their strengths and the various ways they can implement these strengths in working with others and in understanding their own work. The experience was very successful, leading students to better understand their own students, and led to the desire to study the potential impact of CS for university students with a teaching role more generally.   

Dr. Isabelle Barrette-Ng: As the program director of SAGES (SoTL Advancing Graduate Education in STEM), I work with STEM graduate students seeking to develop their teaching practice. Through the program, STEM graduate students complete two credit, pass-fail courses. In the first course, they are introduced to the principles of the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). The second course consists of a practicum where students are given the opportunity to apply what they have learned in a classroom setting by designing, delivering and evaluating a specific component of a course in partnership with a faculty mentor within their discipline. To better support the SAGES scholars in developing their evidence-based, reflective teaching practice, I introduced CS for the first time to the SAGES scholars in Fall 2018. Many students commented that knowledge of their strengths has both helped them identify innate assumptions about teaching and learning, but also increased their self-awareness.

Our Research Study

Through our work with CS in undergraduate Science and Education courses, through SAGES and through the training of graduate level Science TAs to facilitate Strengths within labs, we noticed how the activities we facilitated were instrumental in helping students understand the accountability they held along with their other team members to ensure an overall positive group experience.

As you read this, you might be thinking what exactly is CS and how does it work? To answer this, we need to go back in time to shortly after the end of World War II when veteran and Distinguished Flying Cross recipient Donald Clifton started his university studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Fascinated by psychology, Clifton quickly discovered that all of the books on psychology fixated on how to fix people, which led him to ask “what will happen when we think about what is right with people rather than fixating on what is wrong with them?” Seen as the Father of Strengths Psychology and the Grandfather of Positive Psychology, Clifton and Gallup in turn spent 50 years studying how people define strengths. From this, a 180 item assessment was developed. At the end of the assessment, participants receive a “Top 5” report or “Full 34” report.

Our work at the University of Calgary focusses on helping students discover, develop and apply their “Top 5” results. Prior to beginning their course and/or group work, students receive an email from their instructor asking them to complete their Strengths assessment. In class, students are then introduced to the concept of their talent themes, have the opportunity to individually reflect on their themes and how they use them to be successful, and are invited to participate in a team treasure hunt focussed on learning about the strengths of their classmates and different approaches to working together. In class, students are also guided through talking about their previous best and worst team experiences, and the way in which they each approach leadership, communication, conflict, stress and receiving feedback. In turn, students synthesize these conversations into a team contract. Through this process, we articulate that while we want to support setting up the environments for these conversations to occur, students are also equally accountable for creating a positive group experience. Within SAGES, and training for both TAs and future teachers, we have similar conversations, and pair this with discussions around teaching approaches, classroom management and working with learners who learn differently from our own learning lens.

These experiences led us to consider whether CS could help future educators develop their teaching practices. As educators, we also know that developing one’s teaching practice is challenging, in part because it requires a thorough examination of innate assumptions and self-reflection on perceptions of teaching and learning. In turn, we will commence our research study “Strengths-based teaching: The role of CliftonStrengths for postsecondary students in teaching roles” this coming Fall. In our study, we will follow the experiences of University of Calgary post-secondary students who hold teaching roles within both the Faculty of Science and the Werklund School of Education, as they learn about, and then apply their Strengths in their roles as teachers. More specifically, we will examine:

  1. How CS influences future teachers’ self-perception in their learning and in their teaching; and
  2. How these future teachers see an understanding of their own strengths manifesting in their teaching practices.

Grounded in Literature and Theory

This collaborative inquiry and the questions that drive it spring from two bodies of equally compelling literature. The first of these deals with the importance of interpersonal competencies among those new to teaching roles and the challenges that they face in navigating complex challenges in this regard. This is due, in part, to their tendencies to approach the act of teaching from a set of preconceived ideas as to what constitutes teaching and learning (Leavy, McSorely, & Bote, 2007). Ambrosetti (2014) notes the importance of these preconceived ideas in the daily interactions pre-service teachers have with both those they teach and those they work alongside. For the participants in this study, both pre-service teachers in a teacher education program and graduate students charged with teaching in an undergraduate Science program, the importance of questioning these preconceived ideas and, as a result, engaging with students and peers in a strengths-based manner is critical to both their development and the development of those they teach.

The second body of literature revolves around the concept of self-efficacy and its importance to developing teachers. CS is a program based on Positive Psychology that may allow the implementation of such strengths-based approaches. Lopez (2006) notes, “Positive Psychology, the pursuit of understanding optimal human functioning, is reshaping the scholarly and public views of the science of psychology … and it is helping us understand how college students transform their minds, hearts, and lives in just a few short years” (p.1). This foundation for positive Psychology is further supported by the concept of personal efficacy. Bandura (1997) described personal efficacy as the need for people to believe in the power of their actions to produce desired outcomes. In the absence of this belief “they have little incentive to act. Efficacy belief, therefore, is a major basis of action” (p. 3). The concept of self-efficacy is also prevalent in many recent articles and studies (McCormick et al., 2002; Dugan and Komives, 2010; Komives, Dugan, Owen et al., 2011) and is identified as integral in shaping how students form their identities as leaders, and in turn enact leadership. Specifically, “students may possess significant knowledge and abilities related to leadership, but the likelihood that they will enact them rests largely on their internalized belief system about their capacity” (Komives, Dugan, Owen et al., 2011, p.71). Given the leadership role inherent in teaching, the development of such self-efficacy is critical.

Our Methodology

A case study methodology will be implemented, comprised of three activities that will allow us to better understand the impacts of CS, on the perceptions of university students in a teaching role. Data collected will be triangulated from three sources, literature on the CS program and students with teaching roles, surveys completed by student participants, and focus groups completed by selected student participants.

First, preservice teachers in the Werklund School of Education and graduate student teachers in the Faculty of Science will be provided with the opportunity to engage with our CS research. This opportunity will also be provided to all students in these groups regardless of their participation in the research.

Second, two surveys will be administered to students agreeing to participate in the research.  The initial survey will examine participant perceptions of teaching and learning and the role of their own strengths within that role prior to the commencement of their teaching responsibilities. It will also examine their preconceived notions of the role of strengths in interpersonal competency. A survey administered at the end will ask participants to comment on the role the knowledge of their strengths played in their teaching responsibilities and interpersonal skills. Additionally, the surveys will be qualitative in nature and will not attempt to prove a causal relationship.

Third, participation will be sought from those participants willing to undertake focus group interviews to augment the survey data. A total of two focus groups will be held each year, one from Science and one from Werklund, with projected participation of 5-10 per group. All data will be analyzed thematically and will be examined against the survey data in order to provide a clearer and more holistic picture of the potential of CS to support self-efficacy and interpersonal skills.

These three activities will allow us to answer our research questions as they will provide greater understanding of student self-perception in both their learning and their teaching roles as well as how their strengths manifest themselves in this work.

Collaborating with Students

For the purposes of our research, collaboration with students will take place through the hiring and mentorship of two graduate student research assistants. These students will be involved in every aspect of the research from data collection to literature review to data analysis and dissemination. While these two individuals have not yet been identified, we are committed to providing this opportunity to graduate students who are curious about and committed to ideas around the scholarship of teaching and learning, strengths-based approaches to teaching, positive psychology and to those looking for the opportunity to be a part of a cohesive and collaborative team dedicated to co-inquiry between faculties and between disciplines.

Next Steps

As a research team working on this collaborative inquiry project, it is our intent to write a follow-up article once we have analyzed our results, and to further articulate how use of CliftonStrengths for Students is a powerful tool that can help current and future educators develop their teaching practices.


Ambrosetti, A. (2014). Are you ready to be a mentor? Preparing teachers for mentoring pre-service teachers. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 39(6). Retrieved from

Bandura, A. (1997). Self-efficacy: The exercise of control. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman.

Dugan, J.P., & Komives, S.R. (2010). Influences on college students’ capacities for socially responsible leadership. Journal of College Student Development, 51, 525-549.

Komives, S.R., Dugan, J.P. & Owen, J.E, Slack, C., Wagner, W. et al. (2011). The handbook for student leadership development (2nd. ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Leavy, A. M., McSorley, F. A., & Bote, L. A. (2007). An examination of what metaphor construction reveals about the evolution of preservice teachers’ beliefs about teaching and learning. Teaching and Teacher Education, 23(7), 1217–1233.

Lopez, S.J. (2006). Major developments in positive psychology. Washington, DC: Gallup Press.

McCormick, M.J., Tanguma, J., & Lopez-Forment, A.S. (2002). Extending self-efficacy theory to leadership: A review and empirical test. Journal of Leadership Education, 1, 34-49.