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.

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