Every Learner Everywhere
Intentional Futures
Achieving the Dream

How a Strengths-based Approach in Education Enables Equity Efforts

As colleges and universities work to become more equitable for students who are Black, Latino, Indigenous, poverty-affected, or first-generation, many are working to understand the advantages of a strengths-based approach in education, sometimes called an assets-based approach.

Developing a strengths-based perspective is one key step in a new resource, Equity Review Tool: A Process Guide for Equity-centered Instructional Materials, developed by Achieving the Dream and Intentional Futures with support from Every Learner Everywhere. “The Equity Review Tool” uses asset-based language, analysis, and resources to encourage faculty, administrators, and other education professionals to empower and accurately represent students who have historically been excluded and marginalized in higher education.

Over three chapters, the tool covers topics such as critical introspection for educators, developing equity-minded course materials, and designing departmental and other review processes with equity for students in mind. Woven throughout is the necessity of shifting from a traditional view of students’ deficits to identify and build on their assets instead.

What is a strengths-based approach in education?

The strengths-based approach is more established in the fields of social work and mental health where it is sometimes summarized as “what’s strong instead of what’s wrong.”

A strengths-based approach in education asks what assets students have drawn on or developed in order to succeed so far and designs curricula, systems, and supports to take advantage of those assets. That contrasts with beginning a lesson, course, or support initiative with the goal of filling in or remediating an apparent lack in college readiness or academic success.

Students have a range of strengths that don’t necessarily show up in traditional academic assessments. They may:

  • be highly motivated to use college to change their lives;
  • be highly motivated to support their home communities;
  • have experience managing conflicting schedules and financial constraints to their educational progress;
  • have experience with resisting racism, classism, colonialism, sexism, ableism, and other biases in both interpersonal and institutional forms;
  • have specific knowledge, ways of knowing, and cultural, language, or religious practices from their home communities;
  • have specific ways of sharing knowledge, sharing responsibility, or building community; and/or
  • be familiar with creative and cultural texts that aren’t on the course syllabus and have practice creating their own.

With a strengths-based perspective in mind, college and university faculty can design a course or an activity by asking first what students know, understand, are skilled at, or are motivated by that the class can scaffold from.

For example, instead of interpreting a lack of participation in a particular activity as a lack of motivation, faculty can ask what motivates students and use that to inform their teaching practices. Instead of focusing on a seeming lack of college-going knowledge, faculty or academic and student services support professionals can start by asking what specific knowledge students bring from their communities and families that they can draw on to succeed in college.

Shifting perspective and responsibility

According to Tia Holiday, Associate Director, Postsecondary Education Lead for Intentional Futures, and one of the co-authors of Equity Review Tool: A Process Guide for Equity-centered Instructional Materials, a strengths-based perspective reframes the way educators perceive the students in their class. Rather than assuming that responsibility for why a student is not succeeding in the classroom lies with the student, a strengths-based perspective asks what in the classroom keeps the student from succeeding.

Holiday gives the example of students not coming to office hours. If faculty assume the problem lies with the student, they are unlikely to reflect on and revise their processes and unlikely to address equity gaps. From a strengths-based perspective, Holiday says, the faculty members would ask what the student wants to achieve and how office hours can be designed and presented as a way to achieve that.

“Assuming a strengths-based perspective shifts to interrogating our own practices so we can position students as the experts in the classroom,” she explains. “It’s reframing the way we talk and think about students. What are we doing that prevents students from making it to office hours?”

Building a strengths-based classroom

Holiday says a great way for educators to focus on students’ strengths is through the reading materials they select for their syllabus. “When faculty members are doing their course design, the assumption is the faculty knows best,” she explains.

“The faculty knows the scholars and their subjects. But if you open it up to student input, there’s an opportunity for students to say, ‘Well, I really respect this author or researcher.’”

This type of strengths-based reframing of reading materials, Holiday says, allows educators to learn about authors they may not know about, including racially minoritized professionals making contributions to academia.

She suggests using a strengths-based approach to find out what other types of reading materials other than books students appreciate and are excited about. For example, are some students culturally inclined to spoken word or singing?

“Not everyone’s going to want to read Shakespeare and connect to that,” Holiday adds. “What are the different types of knowledge other than text we can bring into the classroom that students can actually want to engage in and can see themselves in?”

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Establishing an authentic strengths-based plan

The potential strengths listed above that students may bring should not be taken for granted, and faculty should not make assumptions about the strengths their students may have based on their race or ethnicity.

For example, if a teacher’s data says they have many Black students in their class, that does not mean all those students like basketball and that culturally relevant pedagogy means leaning on texts about basketball. “That is a stereotype that is not necessarily helpful,” she says.

Authenticity also means educators should not assume all students will want to share about their background or home communities. “They may have had an experience where they shared and they were made to feel unsafe,” Holiday says.

To build an authentic strengths-based classroom, faculty need to understand they will need to take some time away from course content to develop trust with students. “When they take that time, students are more willing to go up to their instructors,” Holiday says. “They’re willing to say, ‘I don’t understand this.’ They’re willing to say, ‘Hey, I saw this in the news. Can we talk about it?’ They’re willing to engage more.”

Holiday is the first to admit developing a strengths-based approach in education is an ongoing process. However, she says the benefits are worth it in the end. “We all have to practice and check ourselves,” she explains. “In order for our students to feel seen and heard and that they belong on campus, we need to continue working to change our perspective and push each other as practitioners.”

Equity Review Tool: A Process Guide for Equity-centered Instructional Materials