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Walla Walla University

Walla Walla University designed a college course to help students develop relationship skills that are critical for success after graduation. The 10-week course helped build greater understanding among students of other peoples’ motives and equipped them with a set of skills to communicate more effectively. Students raved about the course and applied the lessons long after its completion.

“The Psychology of Motivation” was well received immediately by students given its practical nature. One student commented, “It was the best course I have taken at Walla Walla University” and another noted, “It was the most practical course I have ever taken.”

The Challenge

Colleges today are struggling to provide the skills that students will need when they enter the workforce, according to Dr. Peter Gleason, Associate Professor of Psychology at Walla Walla University. “Work culture is becoming more collaborative and we don’t do enough to teach skills around collaboration,” said Dr. Gleason.

At the same time, students are yearning for practical lessons that can be used after graduating to bolster the lessons taught in standard college courses. “Now we are faced with a challenge, ‘Are we really giving students the skills they need?’” said Dr. Gleason.

As a certified Core Strengths facilitator, Dr. Gleason has a trove of experience in introducing the Strengths Deployment Inventory 2.0 (SDI) to organizations across the globe. Given this, he wanted to bring the same experiences he provides to corporate clients via Core Strengths workshops to a university setting so that students could be equipped with the tools and insight to improve communications, collaborate more effectively, and reduce conflict. “As both a facilitator and faculty, I see both sides,” noted Dr. Gleason.

“I see the skills that employees need to have so therefore I have a sensitivity to the skills students are not getting in college,” he continued. “The challenge before me was, ‘How can I bring these same employee skills to our students so that college would be relevant again and students would go out of here with the skills that companies want them to have.’”

The Core Strengths Answer

In 2018, Dr. Gleason and Walla Walla University offered the “The Psychology of Motivation” course for the first time as an elective for undergraduate students. The 10-week course was an adapted version of the full-day SDI workshop.

The course was designed to use the same flow as the standard workshop, but expanded the learning moments and conversations over 10 weeks. This allows students the time to slow down, absorb the content gradually and have a series of conversations over time. Revisiting the content for 1-hour daily, day-after-day, helped increase the learning and application of SDI tools and methods.

To enhance the course, Dr. Gleason innovated new exercises such as one to help in trying to diagnose a person’s motive through an interview and in-person interactions. Walla Walla University’s President was invited in to participate, and the students diagnosed what they thought his motive was based on the interview. From the interview, the class built a communications strategy for how to communicate and work with him in the most effective manner. Later, students were shown his actual motive based on the results of the SDI 2.0 assessment and the class discussed who was right, who was wrong, and why. The rich discussion gave them a set of practical tools to help diagnose a person’s motive that could be applied to people outside of the course.

Dr. Gleason also plans to integrate the SDI 2.0 into his General Psychology course in the Fall of 2019. In doing so, all students attending Walla Walla University will take the SDI 2.0 and learn a powerful set of tools to improve interactions and to make them more productive while in college and in the workforce upon graduation.

The buzz created by the course has led other professors to ask about using the SDI 2.0 in their classes. To address the increasing demand for the SDI 2.0, Walla Walla University plans to hold a train-the-trainer certification session so that additional instructors can become certified to use the SDI 2.0 in other areas including business and religion classes.


“The Psychology of Motivation” was well received immediately by students given its practical nature. One student commented, “It was the best course I have taken at Walla Walla University” and another noted, “It was the most practical course I have ever taken.”

Over the course of 10 weeks, students learned to communicate more effectively and to both recognize and deal with conflict more efficiently. The course also proved to be sticky in that students continued to talk about their results and how they use them in their decision-making long after the class ended. The content proved to be relevant outside of the psychology department as the business department cross-listed the class as a business course. Ultimately, students walked out of the course with an actual suite of skills that could be applied on the first day on the job after graduation. Dr. Gleason concluded, “My hope is that it becomes core curriculum for colleges. It will make school relevant again and help support our students.”

Dr. Gleason launched a survey in 2019 to measure the adoption of the SDI 2.0 insights and tools. In fact, students showed significant improvement across all 9 dimensions evaluated including improvement in “understanding the motives and intentions of other people”, “recognizing behavior on others that indicate conflict”, and “communicating and behaving during conflict in ways that will achieve productive results.”

About the Company:

Walla Walla University is a private university, which was founded in 1892, based in College Place, Washington. In addition to its headquarters, the university operates four satellite campuses, including a School of Nursing in Portland, Oregon, a marine biology station near Anacortes, Washington, and School of Social Work and Sociology campuses in Missoula and Billings, Montana. The university offers more than 100 areas of study in professional and technical programs as well as the liberal arts.

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