February 17, 2016

Teaching From Your Strengths

by Jane Kim, Pharm.D., PGY1 Pharmacy Practice Resident, Kaiser-Permanente Mid-Atlantic

 “What are your strengths and weaknesses?” is a common interview question. Employers ask this question not to identify what the candidate brings to the table, but rather to see if the candidate has an awareness of his or her own unique strengths and weaknesses. When given the opportunity to focus on one’s strengths, individuals are six times more likely to be engaged in their jobs and three times more likely to have an excellent quality of life.1 As an educator, leveraging your strengths to enhance student performance will not only benefit you in becoming a more effective teacher, but will advance your students’ skills and knowledge as well.

You cannot be anything you want to be –
but you can be a lot more of who you already are.
– Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0

A powerful tool that identifies an individual’s potential for building strengths is the Gallup Organization’s Clifton StrengthsFinder questionnaire. Created by educational psychologist Don Clifton and Gallup, StrengthFinder characterizes 34 strengths that describe what people do well (Theme Quick Reference Card). By completing an assessment consisting of 177 questions, your top five strengths and the areas with the greatest potential to develop are identified. The strengths philosophy states that individuals will benefit more by building on their talents rather than spending the same amount of time correcting their weaknesses.2

What is a strength? A strength is the ability to provide consistent, near-perfect performance in a given activity. By investing skills and knowledge in a “natural” talent, it becomes a strength.1 By having an awareness of your strengths, you can apply them to develop your teaching philosophy and style, and subsequently build aspects of the instructional design process such as preparation, instructional methods, presentations, and evaluations around your strengths. Strengths-based education involves intentionally discovering one’s own strengths as well as students’ strengths and applying them systematically to teach effectively.3 For example, one of my top five strengths is “Context,” meaning I like to create a framework and to put facts into perspective. An enjoyable lesson for me would involve breaking down a patient case and presenting the key points in the context of the case. Not only would it be enjoyable, it would be easier for me to teach with real-life illustrations rather than lecturing about a disease state with no relevant examples. Applying your unique strengths will allow you to create an environment for learning that taps into all of your greatest potential. In addition to using your strengths in the teaching process, actively modeling your strengths is a lesson in itself.3 Albert Bandura’s social learning theory states that complex behaviors can be produced only through the influence of models.4 Another strength of mine is “Analytical” — meaning I am methodical and rational in the way I think through things. If I can teach using my analytical strengths, students will be more likely to appreciate the importance of facts, data, and details in assessing a problem.

We teach who we are.
– Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Similar to having an awareness of your own strengths will help you in your journey as an educator, helping students to discover their own strengths will facilitate their journey as learners. Engagement is a principle highly sought after by employers and educators. William Kahn defines personal engagement as “harnessing of organization members' selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.”5 Engagement can be assessed using well-validated Gallup Workplace Audit, of which one of the 12 items asks if employees have an opportunity to highlight their strengths.  In a meta-analysis of 198,514 employees in 36 companies, engagement combined with overall job satisfaction leads to positive business-unit performance outcomes such as profitability and productivity.6 If utilizing one’s strengths makes an employee more engaged, it can certainly do the same to promote student engagement. Through positive and specific feedback, creating an awareness of their strengths will give students a sense of confidence and self-efficacy.

Creating meaningful activities that allow for development of one’s strengths is a hallmark of strengths-based education. A study involving 1,250 students from five schools of pharmacy that used StrengthFinders 2.0 found that the top five themes among 99.5% of the students were one of the following: Achiever, Harmony, Learner, Responsibility, and Empathy.7 These results provide valuable insight in guiding educational activities for pharmacy students. To leverage this knowledge, pharmacy education should reinforce these strengths to develop exceptional pharmacists who are both empathetic and responsible to their patients. The University of Minnesota College of Pharmacy developed a strengths-based instructional program to enhance awareness of strengths, foster strengths-based decision making, and increase application of strengths by students. After completing the Clifton StrengthsFinder, students completed workshops, reflections, and participated in discussions related to strengths. During advanced practice professional experiences, pharmacists provided feedback on strengths activities for students. When asked if discussing strengths with the student helps to support the student's ability to identify a role in pharmacy aligned with his or her talents, 86% of pharmacists responded positively. When asked if strengths discussions helped to support the student's leadership development, 95% of pharmacists responded positively.8 If educators endeavor to identify students who do not possess certain qualities, pairing students with complementing strengths can be valuable strategy.

One’s strength is a combination of one’s talents, knowledge, experience, and skills. This strength should be cultivated and given much more attention than one’s shortcomings. Recognizing these strengths, applying them, and then reflecting on them will make for better educators and engaged learners.

Five Principles for Strengths-Based Education3
  1. Measure strengths. Use an assessment to determine unique strengths to provide learners and educators an awareness of their skillsets.
  2. Individualize the learning experience to each student. Help students apply their strengths to individual goals as part of the developmental process and provide feedback that emphasizes strengths. When possible, tailor teaching methods to meet student needs and interests.
  3. Network with personal supporters of strength development.  Establish connections with friends, family members, and professionals who encourage excellence.  
  4. Deliberately apply strengths in and out of the classroom. Create opportunities for students to showcase their strengths and guide students to utilize strengths independently.
  5. Develop strengths through novel experiences or focused practices. Invest time and effort in new experiences to elevate skills and knowledge of existing strengths.


  1. Rath T. StrengthsFinders 2.0. New York, NY: Gallup Press; 2007.
  2. Asplund J, Lopez SJ, Hodges T, et. Al. The Clifton StrengthsFinder 2.0 Technical Report: Development and Validation. The Gallup Organization 2007. Available from: Accessed January 31, 2016.
  3. Lopez SJ and Louis MC. The Principles of Strengths-Based Education. J Coll Char. 2009;10(4):1-8.
  4. Bandura A. Social Learning Theory. New York, NY: General Learning Corporation; 1971.
  5. Kahn WA. Psychological conditions of personal engagement and disengagement at work. Acad Manage J. 1990;33(4):692-724.
  6. Harter JK, Schmidt FL, and Hayes TL. Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: a meta-analysis. J Appl Psychol. 2002;87(2)268-279.
  7. Janke KK, Farris KB, Kelley KA, et al. StrengthsFinder signature themes of talent in doctor of pharmacy students in five midwestern pharmacy schools. Am J Pharm Educ. 2015;79(4): Article 49.
  8. Janke KK, Traynor AP, and Sorensen TD. Refinement of strengths instruction in a pharmacy curriculum over eight years. Am J Pharm Educ. 2011; 75(3):Article 45.

No comments: