Infusing Career Assessment into a First-Year Experience Course
By Michael Stebleton
"What are your talent themes?" This question guides the assessment process for a first-year experience course at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. In the 2009 fall semester, all 450 first-year students enrolled in the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD) registered for a faculty-led first-year inquiry (FYI) course titled, Multidisciplinary Ways of Knowing. In addition to discipline-specific content, all sections of the FYI included curriculum focused on career assessment and planning. This component was developed and led by career counselors and student affairs professionals. Furthermore, career counselors collaborated with faculty members (no small feat) to deliver the infused curriculum across 18 sections of the course.
Most first-year students enter post-secondary institutions with limited experiences and insights regarding the life-career planning process. This situation is often exacerbated at large research-oriented universities where counselor-student ratios are high and opportunities for interaction are limited. In the CEHD, our objective was to address this problem by incorporating a career exploration program into the first-year inquiry course. We anticipated that this opportunity would help students initiate the self-assessment process as well as provide them with tools for greater exploration. A secondary rationale was to encourage meaningful collaboration between academic affairs and student affairs -- faculty members and career development professionals (Stebleton & Schmidt, 2010).
After some deliberation, career counselors and consulting faculty members decided to use StrengthsQuest for the self-assessment process. StrengthsQuest (SQ) is an assessment tool published by Gallup, Inc., and is the college-adapted version of the Clifton StrengthsFinder. We selected the tool for three reasons:
It is grounded in three decades of research, including more recent work in positive psychology (Bowers & Lopez, 2010; Lopez & Louis, 2009);
It is applicable to a diverse range of cultures and contexts (it's been used in over 50 countries);
The tool has strong practical value. In other words, the students interpret and apply the results with ease; it is affordable; and the tool's website is well-supported.
StrengthsQuest (https://www.strengthsquest.com/) is based on a solid strengths-based development program. The philosophy assumes a proactive, positive approach to student development and achievement. Rather than focusing on what's wrong with students and institutions, Shushok and Hulme (2006) contended that efforts should center on what's right with students and their interactions with the institution. According to the StrengthsFinder resource guide (2001), the tool measures not strengths, but the presence of 34 general areas, or "themes" (p. 1). Like many assessment tools, one of the goals of SQ is to launch the self-discovery process for undergraduate students.
All CEHD students completed the SQ during Welcome Week at the start of fall semester, 2009. The tool takes about 15-20 minutes to complete online. Counselors and faculty members introduced the SQ philosophy and provided an overview of how it would be utilized in the first-year experience. Each career counselor was matched with a faculty member for the entire semester. Throughout the semester, career counselors visited their assigned group of students at six different points in the curriculum. The infused SQ sessions assumed a specific activity and outcome. For example, in session 2, students engaged in a Treasure Hunt Activity where they learned more about the 34 different themes by identifying other students who had similar signature themes. During session 5, students participated in planning activities around exploring majors and careers. The students were expected to complete homework activities. The homework project for session 5 included using occupational resources such as the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Each session lasted about 30 minutes and was conducted in the classroom. The infused career content was clearly indicated in the syllabus. Moreover, students received points for the homework activities and these point values were included in the course grade.
We completed a comprehensive final evaluation of the SQ experience at the end of the semester. Evaluation took the form of a written survey, online journal entries, and informal student interviews. Overall, the results were extremely positive and impressive. Based on 359 survey responses, the students indicated the following (agreed or strongly agreed):
88% stated that they were more aware of their personal strengths;
79% stated that they were aware of words that they can use to help describe personal strengths;
78% said that knowing their strengths will help them invest time and energy into meaningful activities.
One student responded: "These types of activities were really an eye opener for me. I really enjoyed doing them, and it taught me a lot of great things -- not just who I am as a student, but as a human being. I honestly had no clue about my strength themes before I came into this class." Not surprisingly, not all students reported glowing comments. Some students stated that they felt the amount of time spent on the SQ was too long and that the curriculum could be shorter.
Perhaps most telling from a student service perspective, 85% of the students stated that their career or student services partner was effective in teaching and delivering the SQ curriculum. Most career counselors who participated in the program described it as a rewarding and engaging experience. For some counselors, it was the first time they had been in front of a classroom for an extended period of time -- an experience that was both anxiety-producing but also a positive professional development opportunity.
Strategies for Involvement:
Listed below are several guidelines for career practitioners who wish to implement a similar program.
Garner buy-in from both academic and student affairs; support is critical.
Career counselors need to find innovative ways of getting into the classroom; it is the best strategy to reach students and share career planning concepts.
Collaborate with faculty members; be persistent.
Take a lead role in first-year experience initiatives.
Assume teaching responsibilities when you have the opportunity (or create your own opportunities).
Based on the successes of the pilot program, career counselors and faculty in the CEHD intend to provide future uses of the StrengthsQuest. We will implement the first year inquiry again next fall and career practitioners will assume lead roles in helping to make this course successful for our first-year students.
Bowers, K. M., & Lopez, S. J. (2010). Capitalizing on personal strengths in college. Journal of College and Character, 11(1), 1-11.
Clifton StrengthsFinder Resource Guide (2001). Omaha, NE: Gallup University.
Lopez, S. J., & Louis, M. C. (2009). The principles of strengths-based education. Journal of College and Character, X, 1-8.
Shushok, F., Jr., & Hulme, E. (2006). What's right with you: Helping students find and use their personal strengths. About Campus, 11(4), 2-8.
Stebleton, M. J., & Schmidt, L. (2010). Building bridges: Community college practitioners as retention leaders. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 47(1), 78-98.
Michael Stebleton, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Postsecondary Teaching and Learning (PsTL) at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. He is actively involved in the first-year experience course and related college initiatives. Prior to assuming a faculty role, he worked in career and academic services for approximately 15 years. Stebleton's research and teaching interests include: college student development, career development, and multicultural college student success issues. He is the lead author on an upcoming, newly-edited career text: Hired: Job-Hunting/Career-Planning Guide (4th ed.) published by Pearson Prentice Hall. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.