Denise Marigold: Connecting Positive Psychology to Student Growth

Denise Marigold

Dr. Denise Marigold, Social Development Studies

In a program known for attracting students with a “desire to make a difference in the world,” sustaining and nurturing that desire is a fundamental challenge. Renison’s Social Development Studies (SDS) is such a program; it seeks to empower learners “to pursue lives and careers dedicated to the promotion of individual and community well-being.” For Dr. Denise Marigold, Social Psychologist and Associate Professor of SDS, supporting students in achieving the program’s objectives means equipping them with the tools they need to become thoughtful, responsible, and engaged citizens.

But how does one do that, precisely? Marigold’s approach combines experiential learning with a responsive approach to teaching that is deeply influenced by positive psychology. She wants to see students thinking critically, gathering and analyzing evidence, and applying their knowledge in her classes. She works to get students questioning what they see in the media about personal well-being—how to live the “good life,” for example, or how to have happy, successful relationships—by asking them to bring their knowledge of psychology research to bear on the validity of those claims.

The value Marigold places on experiential learning is also evident in her second-year positive psychology course. One of its four learning outcomes states that students will “have the opportunity to experience and apply positive psychology concepts and principles to personal growth and well-being.” Each week students choose one of several exercises where they are asked to do things like practice self-compassion, engage in mindfulness meditation, reflect on their personal goals, or keep a gratitude journal, to name a few.

Her classes have been among the most engaging, well-organized, and enjoyable of my undergraduate career. She exudes a positive energy, warmth, and a good sense of humour towards all of her students. 

—Kara Klein, former student

Central to the field of positive psychology, this attention to personal growth and well-being also deeply informs Marigold’s approach to teaching and learning. She highlights the importance of attempting to understand and get to know learners as individuals, recognizing that what motivates one student might not resonate with another. In this way, Marigold seeks to be responsive to her students’ needs and goals both in her day-to-day teaching and in her overall course design.

Understanding student needs and goals is not without its challenges. Marigold strives to know who her students are, how much effort they put into their learning, and the challenges they are experiencing, academic or otherwise.  She understands that personal stress and mental health issues can affect a student’s performance in diverse ways, and when students are disengaged it’s not always easy to tell when that’s primarily coming from their personal challenges. That’s something she tries to accommodate in her courses.

This responsive approach to teaching means that Marigold is prepared to make small adjustments to her courses throughout a term, adjustments that accumulate term to term into improved iterations of a course. For Marigold, it is a significant accomplishment when a change to a course makes it more engaging, even for just one student. And she sees these changes ripple outward, improving the learning environment for more and more students. That’s the real strength in Marigold’s teaching—both her willingness to understand her students, and her ability to make use of that knowledge.

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Tip Sheets

CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one is a succinct document that conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips that are relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include the following: