Enabling Excellence through Equity: Lessons Learned

By: Tricia Seifert

The image conveys moving from one water-based space to another. On the left is a picture of a rushing waterfall; on the right, waves washing up on the beach.

At the closure of the “Enabling Excellence through Equity” conference, the presenter shared the famous Winnie the Pooh quote from A.A. Milne in the right-hand photo above; “You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come find you. You have to go to them sometimes.” I left the waterfalls, forests, and mountains of Montana to look up at the red bellied black snake hillside of the Woolyungah (the five islands), nestling my toes in the sand on the beach in Wollongong, New South Wales, Australia. This wasn’t vacation — I was at a conference — but when people push your thinking and share ideas that ignite your imagination, it is a creative, generative holiday.

I spend the last week discussing how higher education can:

  • Widen participation from equity groups (Indigenous students; students from a Non-English speaking background; students with a disability; students from low SES backgrounds; regional and remote students)
  • Partner with schools, families, and communities to foster a higher education-going culture
  • Encourage and support students to see themselves as ‘uni material’ and develop necessary skills through robust enabling programs
  • Assist students as they transition to higher education and then as they enter the workforce

These were the central streams of the conference presented by the Equity Practitioners in Higher Education Australasia (@TherealEPHEA) and National Association of Enabling Educators of Australia. I am so thankful for the opportunity to leave my forest and learn from others in theirs. I wish to share some of what I take-away from the experience.

Take-Away #1: Widening participation in higher education is no longer a social justice imperative but an economic one.

Jobs of the future will require higher-order, complex, and critical thinking skills. There is a raft of evidence to this fact. I often cite the Center for Education and the Workforce report detailing the need for education beyond a school credential / high school diploma. But I was fascinated to learn of the 2019 study conducted by Deloitte Access Economics that found:

“social inclusion plays a critical role in lifting Australia’s living standards through increased productivity in the workplace, improved employment and health outcomes, reducing the cost of social services and by spreading the benefits of economic growth across society.”

Although I find it highly unfortunate that widening educational opportunity to groups historically under-served by higher education requires an economic justification to motivate policymakers to take action, I was excited to learn of the government provided Higher Education Participation and Partnerships Program funding and support of the National Center for Student Equity in Higher Education (@NCSEHE). At a time when the government has re-instituted caps on the overall number of places for university study, HEPPP funding is not a panacea. That said, I applaud the overt support of efforts to bring higher education into schools and bridge what is often two silos.

Take-Away #2: Language is power; how we convey an idea has reverberating repercussions.  

This is the time in the conference where I had to do the most cross-cultural decoding of meaning. The conference organizer welcomed delegates by telling her personal story of higher education and shared she started her higher education journey through an ‘enabling program’. I was fortunate to have my friend and colleague, Sam Avitaia from the University of Wollongong-Bega, as my cultural translator and I asked her at morning tea what is enabling education.

As I grappled to understand this new concept, I kept looking for the American equivalent. In some ways, it may be akin to what we call ‘remedial education,’ which in its most generous term is referred to as ‘developmental education’. But here’s the distinction, remedial/developmental education is predicated on what students lack. There is something deficient about the students’ preparation and the university is called upon to fill in the deficiency.

After attending several enabling sessions at the conference, I came to understand that ‘enabling education’ comes from a different starting place. Rather than situating the student as deficient and in need of remediation, the student is seen as completely whole, with promise, potential, and capacity. The enabling education program is designed to assist students in calling upon their strengths in realizing their goals.

Dr. Leanne Holt, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Strategy) at Macquarie University, also drove home the point of language. She shared how she was “not keen on support” and called on the delegates to re-frame their work as ‘student success.’ Again, ‘support’ as a noun suggests what students lack; what the university must shore up. ‘Success’ recognizes students’ capacities and strengths and places universities in the role of developing, fostering, enhancing, ‘supporting’ student capacity toward success.

Take-Away #3: Make the implicit, explicit. Decode the hidden curriculum

Sally Kift (@KiftSally) kicked off the conference with the opening keynote. It was a policy and practice Tour de Force. Amidst my furious writing of policy documents to download, she returned over and over to the fact that First Year Experience 3.0 must be whole-of-institution, shared responsibility for “transition pedagogy” (Kift, Nelson & Clarke, 2010).

Too often, students are left to arrive at university with their secret decoder ring to make sense of higher education’s ‘hidden curriculum’. However, for those who are First in Family (or first generation) to attend higher education, they have no such ring. These students must figure out #HowToUni (my favorite hashtag of the whole conference) on their own. Not only is this expectation of first-year students unfair, it is quite simply, wholly inequitable.

Drawing and extending from Dr. Kift’s presentation, I offer the following. If we are to realize the promise of widening participation, institutions must:

  1. Manage the transition by unpacking the hidden roles and inviting students to conceive of their own vision of success
  2. Acknowledge the diversity of its entering/commencing students and recognize these students come with different forms of capital that must be engaged as students master their new ‘student role’
  3. Design curricula with intention. Imagine curricula that was coherent, scaffolded, relevant, and organized in such a way that students received timely feedback on their performance. If higher education academic and professional staff purport to have this expertise, then students rightfully should expect them to employ it effectively.
  4. Create curricula that call on students to be teachers and learners with peers, academic and professional staff, industry, and with their families & communities. Learning is a social enterprise. We teach when we are engaged with another. We learn, similarly, in community.

As I reflect on an amazing conference, I am grateful for the opportunity to have shared and learned with equity and enabling practitioners and researchers from across Australasia. I come back to the Maori phrase written three times in my journal:

he tangata       he tangata       he tangata – it is people.

‘It is people’ (he tangata) is the answer to “what is the most important thing?” It is people who have spurred me to cultivate a rich sense of curiosity and inquiry. It is people, their possibilities and promise, that move me to teach.

Tricia Seifert is Head of the Department of Education at Montana State University and Associate Professor in the Adult & Higher Education program. She also curates the Supporting Student Success blog. If you wish to guest write for the blog, please leave a comment below, tweet @TriciaSeifert, or email tricia.seifert@montana.edu.

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

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 http://ro.ecu.edu.au/ajte/vol39/iss6/3

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.

Research Findings Part 3: How to Train Your Professor

This week we are sharing slides from our presentation entitled, “How to Train Your Professor: Tips for Flight According to Students”, delivered on July 4th, 2013 at the International Study Association on Teachers and Teaching (ISATT) in Ghent, Belgium (#isatt2013). Student and faculty stakeholders frequently comment on how learning is impacted by both organizational/institutional culture and notions of student success. The students that participated in our research were extremely metacognitive in thinking about the teaching and learning process and the elements they require for intellectual growth. This presentation will detail several elements discussed by students and faculty: class size, experiential learning, meaningful lesson planning and the use of technology in the classroom. The PowerPoint slides and accompanying notes can be downloaded from the ‘Presentations and Publications’ tab.


As always, we endeavor for this blog space to be used as a place for dialogue. Please feel free to ‘leave a comment’ at the bottom of this post with your thoughts and perceptions.

– Christine H. Arnold