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Research Brief: Improving the First-Year Student Experience

UMD students studying at the Kathryn A. Martin Library
February 7, 2020

Study by Assistant Professor Rhea Owens and her colleagues has implications for college student success.

Since half of the students who drop out of college do so in their first year, it's important to gain an understanding of the factors that can positively influence first-year students' well-being.

Rhea Owens, assistant professor in the UMD Department of Psychology, specializes in strengths research, an area of positive psychology that focuses on the identification and use of strengths and assets to improve individual well-being. 

UMD Assistant Professor Rhea Owens

Assistant Professor Rhea Owens

“I’m fascinated by what people do well and how I can help them experience well-being and be successful in everyday life,” Owens says.

Owens and her colleagues recently examined first-year college student success and life satisfaction in relation to student knowledge of personal strengths and the subsequent use of those strengths. An article outlining their research, “Strengths and satisfaction in first year undergraduate students: A longitudinal study,” appeared in The Journal of Positive Psychology

Study participants were recruited from a Midwestern university. They were asked about their awareness of personal strengths and whether or not they regularly put those strengths into action. Students also responded to questionnaires about both general life and academic satisfaction.

This study is unique because it’s one of only two longitudinal studies focused on strengths used in relation to college student well-being. The only other longitudinal study took place in China and collected data at two points. 

Owens and her colleagues followed 194 students across an entire year and had four instances of data collection: prior to beginning college, after one month of attendance, after the first semester, and at the end of the academic year. 

Findings and Recommendations

The study found that students’ knowledge of personal strengths predicted whether they used their strengths over time. Employing those strengths was associated with greater academic satisfaction.

The research results have some broad implications for strengths research. “Students who reported a high rate of using their strengths had a higher amount of academic satisfaction. That tells us it’s powerful for students to know and use their strengths in the academic domain,” explains Owens.

Contrary to what researchers expected, strengths use did not relate to overall life satisfaction. “This was counter to other studies out there,” says Owens, noting that future research in this area would be beneficial.

This surprising result could also help inform meaningful programs and targeted interventions with first-year students. “It suggests that college students can use more guidance in using their strengths to improve general life satisfaction,” Owens says. “Knowing this is helpful for improving student well-being while in college. Professors, counselors, and those involved in student life can help students become aware of and recognize their strengths.”