Research Summary

A strengths-based approach to outdoor and adventure education: Possibilities for personal growth

Focusing on Strengths Fosters Personal Growth

Journal of Experiential Education

Although many traditional educational approaches aim to help learners shore up knowledge and skills where they may have weaknesses, a strengths-based approach accentuates the learner’s strengths. The authors of this study used an outdoor adventure course to illustrate how a strengths-based approach can result in positive outcomes in personal growth.

According to the authors, a strengths-based approach leverages a learner’s natural talents. By contrast, they note, “The traditional developmental approach includes measurement, identification of strengths and weaknesses, and weakness fixing.” When leaders accentuate a learner’s strengths, previous research suggests that the learner can become more engaged, directed, and hopeful, among other benefits.

In this study, the authors used a strengths-based approach in leading an international adventure education course on ecotourism. Fifty-eight college students (aged 19 to 22) participated in the study-abroad course, which involved a variety of adventure activities including hiking, rappelling, canyoning, and surfing. During the pre-course meetings, the authors administered the Gallup Organization’s Clifton StrengthsFinder (CSF), an online survey instrument that generates a list of the respondent’s top five strengths based on their responses to 180 questions that measure their patterns of thought, feeling, and behavior. The authors planned seven opportunities for the participants to identify, use, or reflect upon their strengths during the course, and informal discussions of strengths and the strengths-based approach also occurred throughout the course.

To evaluate the results, the authors administered one survey to measure personal growth and a second to assess the extent to which the participants understood and applied their strengths. The authors also analyzed the students’ final papers. The surveys revealed that personal growth was correlated with the students’ awareness and application of their strengths. According to the authors, “These data suggest that a focus on developing strengths was associated with greater personal growth.”

In addition, the analysis of the students’ final papers suggests that the strengths-based approach encouraged “mindful learning, enhanced relationships, and overcoming physical challenges.” They cite as an example of mindful learning a student who, because he was made aware of his communication strength, worked on honing his storytelling skills during the course. Another remarked, “It was unbelievable how much more I thought about personal growth and improvement once I knew where to start from.”

The students also appeared to use their strengths to help build relationships and work better as a team. For example, one student employed her harmony skills in helping resolve conflicts in the group, while another used her strength of command to take the lead in certain circumstances.

Finally, some students reported using their strengths to overcome challenges during the course. For example, one student used his skill of competition to motivate himself to overcome his fears.

The authors note that this study does have limitations, including a small sample size and the lack of a control group. The authors also note that the students’ final papers, which the researchers analyzed, were submitted for a grade, thus introducing the potential for bias.

The authors also recognize that not everyone agrees that this kind of positive psychology is beneficial. They cite one critic in particular (Ehrenreich) who has published a book that suggests that positive psychology represents a “departure from realism” and that the “American ideology of relentless positivity” has created myriad problems. The authors caution that “this relates to a practical pitfall of the strengths-based education—feeling limited or confined by a particular set of strengths. Care must be taken by educators to ensure CSF results do not become barriers to success.”

The Bottom Line

This study suggests that identifying and focusing on students’ strengths during an outdoor adventure program can help foster personal growth, mindful learning, and enhanced relationships. Focusing on strengths can also help overcome physical challenges. Yet more rigorous research should be conducted to confirm these results, and educators should be aware that, although focusing on a student’s strengths can help him or her overcome obstacles, strengths can become obstacles if the student begins to feel confined by those strengths.