Thriving in College

Grades and graduation have defined college student success for decades. But research conducted by faculty and students in APU’s doctoral programs in higher education offers a new vision for student success—one that encompasses the whole person and focuses on not just surviving college, but also thriving. Studying what helps students thrive provides a way for researchers at APU to accomplish its mission to “advance the work of God in the world” by identifying the abundant living possible during the college years.

The faculty and student research team that I lead defines thriving as optimal functioning in three key areas: academic, relational, and emotional. Based on this definition, we developed an instrument called the Thriving Quotient and have conducted studies with thousands of college students to understand how to help students thrive. Results showed that thriving students succeed academically, are energized by the learning process, set and achieve goals, manage the demands of college, participate in healthy relationships, appreciate others’ differences, want to make a contribution to the world, possess a positive outlook on life and the future, enjoy their college experience, and benefit from it in significant ways that influence their view of themselves and their future.

Our team uses the Thriving Quotient to discover ways of elevating the college experience for all students. Although students from low-income families, deficient high school preparation, and populations historically underrepresented in higher education stand at a disadvantage in navigating college life, thriving focuses on aspects of students that are changeable. Unlike ethnicity or prior education, these psychological characteristics can be influenced by intentional efforts to assist students. The roadmap for thriving includes such campus experiences as student-faculty interaction, engaging pedagogy in the classroom, academic advising that helps students envision their future and select the right major, meaningful service opportunities, and feeling a sense of community on campus. It also comprises support from family and friends outside the college environment, and the presence of a strong spiritual foundation.

Given the critical role family plays throughout the academic journey, what can family members do to help their students thrive in college? Regardless of whether the student recently graduated high school, returned to college after raising a family, or studies at the graduate level, family members can support the thriving process in several key ways. And for those whose students just started kindergarten and for whom the college experience seems far off, early parenting messages are critical in developing the kind of children who more easily thrive throughout their lives.

Emphasize the role of effort in success.

Research reveals that the quality of effort invested is the best predictor of student success. When parents or teachers praise children for being smart, rather than for putting in the time and energy to do something well, it sends the message that smart people don’t have to try (Dweck, 2006). Effort plays a key role in learning to master a skill or a subject area. Attribute successes and failures to the effort invested and strategies used, rather than to innate abilities or perceived lack thereof. It takes time and energy, as well as consistent practice, to gain skills and succeed. In the midst of a culture that promises easy paths to fame and fortune, children whose parents have encouraged and rewarded hard work and their best efforts are likely to continue investing effort when they get to college, and will be more likely to get the most out of their college experience.

Encourage students to take responsibility for their learning.

Students who have “learned how to learn” and developed strategies for monitoring their own learning process and making progress toward meaningful goals are positioned to thrive in the college environment. Thriving students make meaning for themselves, even in classes that are not inherently interesting to them, by connecting concepts to other aspects of their life or future goals. Encourage college students to seek help from faculty—a connection common in thriving students.

In the growing years, parents can equip their children to thrive by instilling in them a high value for the learning process and encouraging their curiosity. Giving children increasing and appropriate levels of responsibility and independence, while holding them accountable for the choices they make, will equip them to thrive throughout their lives.

Identify, affirm, and develop students’ strengths.

Identifying students’ talents and helping them develop strengths provides them with an effective foundation for approaching the challenges of college. When family members articulate and affirm the strengths of their student, it communicates that students have within themselves the necessary ingredients for success. Playing to one’s strengths not only energizes and fulfills, but it also leads to a greater likelihood of success.

The messages children hear shape their view of themselves and others, potentially for a lifetime. When the messages are about all the ways in which they are not measuring up, or things they do not do well, they can become demoralized and unmotivated, feeling as if nothing they do will ever be good enough. In contrast, when messages from parents, teachers, and pastors are about how God has designed them to do good work and glimpses of those talents are noticed and affirmed, children not only view themselves differently, but also view God and other people in healthier ways.

APU incorporates this strengths development philosophy into programming for first-year students, as well as in other areas of undergraduate and graduate study. The StrengthsFinder tool (Gallup, 1999) helps all first-year students identify their areas of greatest talent, then peer leaders in alpha groups and the Beginnings class, faculty, advisors, and staff help them develop and apply those talents as a foundation for addressing the challenges that college life brings. Believing that God has gifted students uniquely, we strive to help them become the persons God created them to be and to do the work they were designed to do. When students learn who they are as children of God, discover how God has equipped and designed them for Kingdom work, see what they can become when they invest their time and energy into their academic tasks, and realize that APU faculty and staff walk alongside them in that journey, they thrive.


Clifton, D., Anderson, E., & Schreiner, L. (2006). StrengthsQuest: Discover and develop your strengths in academics, career, and beyond, 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: The Gallup Press.

Dweck, C.S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.

The Gallup Organization. (1999). Clifton StrengthsFinder. Washington, D.C.: Author. Available at

Schreiner, L. (2010). The “Thriving Quotient”: A new vision for student success. About Campus, 15(2), 2-10.

Schreiner, L. (2010). Thriving in the classroom. About Campus, 15(3), 2-10.

Schreiner, L. (2010). Thriving in community. About Campus, 15(4), 2-11.

Seligman, M.E.P. (1990). Learned optimism. New York: Knopf.