Learn more about how to focus on your own strengths when planning and designing a course.

What Are My Strengths?

As an educator I’m regularly reflecting on my instructional practice. Whether it’s thinking about my next brand-new course or how I might improve a previous class, I will often find my brain wandering in the space of, “what if…”

  • What if I want to increase engagement in my online asynchronous discussion boards? 
  • What if I want to try un-grading this semester? 
  • What if I re-design the class in a flipped modality? 

These are just a few of the “what if…” questions that may run through my mind at any given moment. But living in a constant space of “what if…” is dangerous from a productivity standpoint. At some point, we have to operationalize our course development or revision goals. What if you focused on what makes you you when designing a course? Provocative, right?

One strategy that has worked for me to catapult my course development process, is to lean into my strengths. I’ve used a variety of tools to better understand myself and my strengths, including CliftonStrengths, 16 Personalities, and even Adobe’s Creative Type. The CliftonStrengths assessment, particularly, has helped me optimize my course development processes, so throughout this post I will reference some of my CliftonStrengths as a framework for reflection. I encourage you to find a strength assessment that works best for you when it comes to analyzing just about any element of your life, but particularly course development. 

How My Strengths Support Me During Course Development

My top three CliftonStrengths are achiever, learner, and developer. These are some of my most powerful natural talents. As I look at my top strengths, I see specific ways in which these superpowers propel me at the start of any new course development or revision.  

The Achiever

First up, my Achiever strength. The achiever in me wants to create the best possible course out there for students, and because I find the process of researching and preparing for a class very enjoyable, zeroing in is never an issue for me. What IS an issue though, is finding a good chunk of time in my week to dedicate to this sort of heavy thinking work. Following is a snippet from my CliftonStrengths report: 

It’s very likely that you can mentally zero in on tasks for hours at a time when you have a goal to reach. When the assignment demands extra time, you would be wise to honor your body’s natural rhythms. In other words, if you are a “morning person,” work in the morning. Work in the afternoon if that is when you hit your stride. Work in the evening if that is when you think better. Work around midnight after everyone has gone to bed if you are someone who usually stays up very late. 

Putting my Achiever Hat On

When I have the luxury of knowing far enough in advance that I will be offering a new class, I start planning and research as early as possible. Usually that means blocking 1-2 hours a week to research and start gathering materials for the course. I create a general outline of the course in a course development note catcher where I can document and link to resources, exemplars, and more to organize the messy beginning stages of course development.

The nice thing about having a note catcher like the sample linked above, is that it acts as a sort of checklist for me. As an Achiever, it’s satisfying for me to see the progress I am making, even during an early stage like research for a new or revised course. Checking items off and hitting personal deadlines helps me feel closer to the finish line. 

The Learner

The second strength I tap into when working on a course project is the Learner within. As a lifetime learner, my brain is always looking for the next challenge, and designing a brand-new course or significantly revising another one, represents the perfect task for my knowledge-seeking brain. Following is another piece of intel from my CliftonStrengths report: 

Chances are good that you are attracted to difficult and challenging endeavors. You are not inclined to look for the easy way out. You are bold. You take risks. You dare to stretch your mind. You test the limits of your abilities in ways that timid individuals would not attempt.  

While my Learner strength definitely helps me while revisiting the subject of my course and ensuring I’m updating myself on any emerging new topics, figures, or findings, it also helps me tap into any new technologies or processes that may help me deliver my content in more engaging, innovative ways. As a Learner, I am often an early adopter of new technologies for the classroom, learn them quickly, and use them to help my students.

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Putting my Learner Hat On

While planning my last course, I wanted to give students options when it came time for them to share and display a final series of photographic images. Students could either plan and prepare a physical exhibit somewhere on campus, or a virtual display. It had been some time since I planned a virtual art exhibit myself, so I had to revisit the literature and resources out there. I conducted a mini review of virtual art gallery tools, that informed how I could mentor students who choose this option for display. I also put together my own teacher example to give me the hands-on experience needed in case a student struggles putting together their final display.

The Developer

Third, I consider my Developer strength. As a Developer, I like to consider the ways I can motivate my students throughout the new or revised course. In the beginning, it may be easy to get wrapped up in the research and development involved in course development. I force myself to regularly take a step back and consider the most important person in my future classroom – the student. According to my CliftonStrengths report: 

Because of your strengths, you periodically empower individuals by expressing your confidence in them. Perhaps you comment favorably about their knowledge, skills, talents, or successes. You might feel that life is grand when your words of encouragement or support motivate someone to excel or attempt something for the first time. 

Putting my Developer Hat On

In an earlier Teaching Innovation Blog post, I shared a strategy for how I use a simple personality test to help learners understand themselves better, as well as inform me of their learning preferences. Knowing that learners will come with a variety of strengths themselves, I have to think about differentiating my instructional strategies throughout a course.  

At the start of the planning process then, I think about all the different ways I could shake up the engagement and activity in a class. Knowing that some of my students might prefer more social learning experiences, I planned a Speed Dating critique activity.

Knowing that some of my students might prefer a quiet, solo opportunity to engage with content, I planned an asynchronous critique exercise.

Canvas page featuring a header that reads, "Step One: Preview the Voicethread Gallery Walk"

As I am thinking about different engagement exercises, I also plan for reflective touchpoints with students along the way. I build individual and whole group reflective moments into the course curriculum so that I can see what engagement strategies are working best for learners. 

Multiple Hats Make Heavy Work Lighter

As an educator, I’ve always loved working on new courses. It was often a form a release for me after a busy day of instruction. Before I took the CliftonStrengths assessment I wasn’t entirely aware of why I felt this way or why I engaged in course development in this fashion. Now that I have the language to understand my work tendencies, I can strategize further to optimize my course development process.  

For example, I know that at the start of any course project, I will spend a majority of time wearing my Achiever Hat, researching my topic and setting a solid foundation for the course. Once I feel confident in the direction of the class, then I will pop on my Learner Hat and start to imagine how my future students will engage with the content. I remind myself that my learners may be very different than me in learning preferences and motivations, so this is the time to think innovatively and broadly. I want to reach all my learners and all their preferred learning styles. Finally, during the third stage of development, I reach for that Developer Hat and roll my sleeves up. I start creating tools, resources and actual tangible items for my course. Along the way, I imagine how my students will engage with the materials.  

These are the ways I tap into my CliftonStrengths as an instructional designer. How about you? 

Have you completed the CliftonStrengths assessment, or a similar assessment? What strengths do you tap into when working on heavy projects, like designing a brand-new course for learners?

  • Sarah Ackermann

    Dr. Sarah Ackermann’s background is in educational technology, instructional design, teacher leadership, and art education. She has experience teaching and leading in online, face-to-face, and hybrid formats. Her most recent research is in the area of teacher response and professional development during the COVID pandemic. Additionally, she has written and illustrated a children’s book which encourages young learners to identify their personal strengths.

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