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Concept/illustraed image of a woman watering a tall plant that is growing inside of a human mind in silhouette.

Laurie Schreiner, professor of higher education at Azusa Pacific University and a scholar of student thriving, defines it as being “fully engaged intellectually, socially and emotionally in the college experience.”

Maria Stavreva/DigitalVision Vectors/iStock/Getty Images Plus

What is thriving? Merriam-Webster defines it as “characterized by success or prosperity.” What is thriving in college? Laurie Schreiner, professor of higher education at Azusa Pacific University and a scholar of student thriving, defines it as being “fully engaged intellectually, socially and emotionally in the college experience.” And for nearly two decades, Schreiner has been refining a metric for student thriving—as well as helping leaders at hundreds of colleges and universities understand how they can better promote thriving on their campuses.

Key thriving scales: Schreiner’s trademarked Thriving Quotient, or TQ, for short, is a survey instrument developed to measure the academic, social and psychological aspects of the student experience that best predict intent to persist, grade point average, self-reported learning gains, institutional fit and satisfaction. The instrument originally included 198 items, adapted from positive psychology and from existing research measures of “malleable” student characteristics. Today, after being tested on tens of thousands of students across dozens of institutions, the instrument has 24 core items. All of these relate to five main scales:

  1. Engaged learning, or the degree to which students are meaningfully processing what happens in class, energized by what they’re learning and continuing to think about it outside class.
  2. Academic determination, or students’ “goal-directedness,” investment of effort and regulation of their own learning and use of time.
  3. Positive perspective, a measure of students’ optimism and their ability to reframe negative events to be learning opportunities.
  4. Social connectedness, a measure of students’ involvement in healthy relationships, on or off campus.
  5. Diverse citizenship, or students’ levels of openness to differences in others and their desire to make a difference in their communities.

Under Schreiner’s framework, thriving is optimal functioning in each of these five domains, which all contain malleable characteristics that can be cultivated in college students. All of those characteristics have been shown to be amenable to intervention and linked to specific student success outcomes. These include learning gains and degree completion.

Why it matters: Schreiner has determined that the Thriving Quotient explains an additional 8 to 24 percent of the variation in student success outcomes, after controlling for institutional features and students’ demographic characteristics and high school GPAs. In other words, changeable traits that colleges and universities can work to promote (as opposed to fixed characteristics that colleges can’t do much about) can have a significant impact on student success.

“Once you factor in the college experiences that are good for students, their background characteristics are no longer significant predictors of whether they will thrive with us or not,” Schreiner explains. “So in an environment in which we’re often doomed by our demographics—if you’re low income, if you’re a person of color, if you didn’t go to a great high school—some of these things don’t really matter anymore.”

She adds, “It’s really about what the institution is doing to help students engage in the learning process and really be able to come alive to all their potential.”

Pathways to thriving: Through a large-scale research initiative involving students in the U.S., Canada and Australia, Schreiner and colleagues have identified four primary pathways that contribute most significantly to students’ levels of thriving:

  1. Campus involvement, including peer interaction 
  2. Quality and frequency of student-faculty interaction 
  3. Spirituality, broadly defined, to include a sense of meaning and purpose 
  4. Psychological sense of community on campus  

These pathways impact different groups of students differently. For example, student-faculty interaction advantages white students more than it does nonwhite students over all. Yet this gap closes when the quality of student-faculty relationships is positive and validates sense of belonging among students of color. Involvement in campus activities is the strongest contributor to a sense of community among Latino students. For Black students, it’s spirituality. For Asian students, it’s fit within their major. And for white students, it’s interaction with faculty. For nonwhite students, institutional integrity also strongly predicts sense of community.

Over all, Schreiner says the student-level implications of her research are helping students:

  • Identify strengths of competence and character, then developing them to further so students can apply them to potential challenges
  • Build coping skills that lead to resilience and well-being

Defining the thriving campus: In addition to the main undergraduate survey, Schreiner has developed Thriving Quotient instruments geared toward adult learners, graduate students and even faculty members. (Schreiner also has an ongoing survey project for sophomores.) Lately, Schreiner says she’s most interested in what defines a thriving campus, composed of interlocking groups of students, faculty members and staff.

For institutions looking to promote thriving, Schreiner underscores that students’ sense of community and what happens in the classroom—meaning their interactions with faculty members—have outsize impacts on student success.

During COVID-19, for instance, faculty members became the face of the institution to students more than ever. And if students perceived their faculty members to be “compassionate, bringing in multiple perspectives, honoring their culture and practicing good, inclusive pedagogy,” Schreiner says, “students trusted their faculty and trusted the institution and were able to thrive.” In survey results, this held steady even among students who had lost a family member to the virus and experienced other high-stress events.

Schreiner defines a thriving campus as one in which each member of the community sees the “contribution” they can make and knows their input matters. A thriving campus also “connects people to each other.” Another key ingredient: “collaborative engagement,” or an interdependence and commitment to something greater than oneself.

A “tangible tool”: Amanda Propst Cuevas, director of the Office of Appreciative Education in educational leadership and research methodology at Florida Atlantic University, studied thriving under Schreiner as a Ph.D. student and says she remains a “strong proponent” of the concept. Cuevas also says there’s a link between thriving and her own work on appreciative advising, as the latter is “a vehicle for helping students to thrive.”

Of the Thriving Quotient specifically, Cuevas says the instrument equips student success advocates with an “extremely reliable and valid tool to measure the thriving levels of students at their respective institutions.”

As student success advocates, she continues, “we desire that our students thrive—academically, psychologically and socially—and the Thriving Project provides a tangible tool for holistically measuring these key areas of students success so that we, in turn, can help them get the most out of their college experience both during their college years and beyond.”

What is something your college is doing to improve the quality and frequency of student-faculty interaction? Share the effort so others can model it.

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