Positive Student Development Research Study
Understanding the Relationships between Positive Personality and Optimal Student Development: Phase 1 Survey
Background & Justification
In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the field of positive psychology and its application to fields such as health and education. In contrast to a focus on distress and dysfunction, the field of positive psychology emphasizes the development of positive strengths and emotions to facilitate personal growth and thriving (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). Unlike past psychological research that has centered around classifying psychological disorders, recent research has identified and classified key character strengths, such as hope and curiosity (Peterson & Seligman, 2004). Research on character strengths is grounded in the idea that cultivating these positive characteristics will lead to enhanced psychological outcomes such as happiness and well-being (Peterson & Seligman, 2004).
This strengths-based positive psychology approach has important implications for university student development. Indeed, research on character strengths has found positive correlations between strengths such as hope, self-control, and curiosity and outcomes such as academic learning, college satisfaction, and life satisfaction (e.g., Chang, 1998; Curry et al., 1997; Harachkiewicz, Barron, Tauer, & Elliot, 2002; Tangey, Baumeister, & Boone, 2004). For example, hope scores of college freshmen (hope is defined as the motivation to move towards goals and developing multiple ways to achieve goals) predicted later grade point averages and were related to whether or not a student graduated (Snyder et al., 2002). In a separate study it was found that students with higher hope scores demonstrated greater problem-solving abilities and showed less disengagement when faced with stressful academic situations (Chang, 1998). Research on academic emotions indicates similar findings in that students reporting greater hope and enjoyment in learning also showed higher motivation, self-regulated learning, and learning strategies that focused on elaboration rather than rehearsal of material (Pekrun, Goetz, Titz, & Perry, 2002). It is evident that these strengths are related to a broad range of academic outcomes. In order to harness these strengths, it is necessary to understand both how these strengths develop over time and how university experiences facilitate or hinder development of specific strengths during undergraduate education.
Recent research in student development suggests that university experiences play a key role in the development of specific character strengths. For example, reviews of service learning indicate that participation in a service learning activity combined with structured reflection is associated with positive academic outcomes, personal development, citizenship outcomes, and social skills and attitudes (Conway, Amel, & Gerwien, 2009). On the other hand, some research suggests a decline in strengths in relation to university. For example, Lieberman and Remedios (2007) found that mastery goals and expectations of enjoyment declined over university education. By understanding the specific experiences related to these increases or decreases in university students’ strengths, administrators and instructors could better structure learning experiences for students.
While a strengths-based perspective holds much potential for explaining and influencing student growth and development in university, rigorous empirical research using an integrated strengths approach is limited (Linley & Harrington, 2006). While there is a burgeoning literature on individual strengths such as hope and curiosity, what is lacking is research that examines the development and relationships among strengths-based traits in student populations. Past research, such as research on students’ academic emotions, has been heavily biased towards negative emotions such as anxiety and has only recently examined the influence of hope on learning and achievement (Pekrun et al., 2002). There is a need for longitudinal empirical research to explain how positive traits and strengths develop and change over students’ educational careers and how these strengths both impact and are impacted by university experiences.
Summary of Results
Available December 2011.
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