Faculty Focus


Using Appreciative Inquiry with Internship Learning Contracts

internship learning contract

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a conceptual framework that intentionally asks positive questions as a process to create shared meaning among participants by integrating stories that focus on success, possibilities, and achievement. The approach can be transformational for students, especially those who are engaged in internships, practicums, and/or capstone projects. The basic tenet is to generate awareness of strengths through appreciative dialogues while implementing strategies that align with individual and organizational desired outcomes and goals. The initiative occurs first between the student and the seminar instructor and then later expands to include others, such as practicum/internship site supervisors, co-workers, and clients.

Originally, AI was used for transforming organizations to employ holistic, strength-based, system-wide changes (Mohr & Watkins, 2002). It also has been implemented to improve Higher Education communities (Chapman, 2011, Sandeen, 2004). The change process starts at the initial inquiry with each person by building on his/her self-awareness of strengths through the use of positive interchange. Ultimately this awareness permeates to new stories and ideas among members, fostering organizational growth as new partnerships are formed that integrate team strengths into initiatives.

As instructors who are co-facilitating internships and program evaluation projects, it is important to have students identify their strengths and incorporate them into their new partnerships with human service organizations. These experiences further develop their skill sets, thus enhancing their thoughts and behaviors, as well as those of the organization, while shaping future connections with one another. Using positive core strengths has been proven to enhance overall well-being for individuals and organizations (Waters & White, 2015). Furthermore, learning about one’s strengths makes employees 7.8% more productive and teams that apply strengths-based interventions in their day-to-day operations increase productivity by 12.5% (Sorenson, 2014).

According to Cooperrider and Srivasta (1987) pioneers of the Appreciative Inquiry theory, AI is a process for facilitating positive culture change within organizations. While there are slight variations among the AI models noted in literature, the 4D cyclical design is a common approach. It consists of: discovery by creating awareness of values; dream by envisioning what is possible; design by creating conversations to provoke ideals; and destiny by co-constructing future initiatives.

Recently, 18 students at a small, private, Midwestern, liberal arts college who were enrolled in two separate internship seminar classes were administered the Values In Action (VIA) Survey. They were also instructed in a seminar class how to create and implement their learning contract goals. Students were then asked to complete the VIA Survey to identify their top five character strengths (VIA Institute on Character, 2018). Furthermore, by using the AI process, students shared their strengths in class and explained how these could be incorporated in their human services internship learning contract. To apply AI, students needed to understand their strengths in the context of the agency placement, this is built into developing their learning goals, strategies, and objectives in the learning contract. Both the internship site supervisor and the internship seminar instructor reviewed the learning contract in a supportive and positive inquiry manner in an effort to ensure that the learning goals and strategies are growth-based, as indicated by AI. Using the 4D design, students were asked the following questions and their responses were incorporated in reflective journaling assignments, a final paper, and in-class discussion.

  1. Discovery – What are your strengths? How did you use particular strengths to manage ethical dilemmas that you encountered during your internship? What did you like best about your experience? What is your proudest accomplishment? What were your learning goals? Were you able to meet these goals during your internship experience?
  2. Dream – What do you hope to accomplish at this agency or organization? How do you think it will feel to work with others who may not share your values (or strengths)?
  3. Design – How viable was your strengths-based learning contract? What motivates you to be a human services professional?
  4. Destiny – Are there differences in what you planned and what you are doing? What is your destiny? What strengths were further developed? In what ways did your internship experience change (or transform) your ideals? Have some of the goals been reached?

Incorporating the AI conceptual framework, by asking positive questions and integrating strengths into human services internships, students shared transformational stories about their experiences to enhance their learning and foster organizational growth.


Chapman, V. (2011). Researching learning in higher education. Abingdon: Routledge.

Cooperrider, D.L. & Srivasta, S. (1987). Appreciative inquiry in organizational life. Research in Organizational Change and Development, 1, 129-169.

Mohr, B.J. & Watkins, J.M. (2002). The essentials of appreciative inquiry: A roadmap for creating positive futures. Pegasus Communications, Inc.

Sandeen, A. (2004). Educating the whole student: The growing importance of student affairs. Change, 36 (3), 28.

Sorenson, S. (2014). How employees’ strengths make your company stronger. Gallup Business Journal. Retrieved from http://news.gallup.com/businessjournal/167462/employees-strengths-company-stronger.aspx

VIA Institute on Character (2018). Values in action survey. Retrieved from http://www.viacharacter.org/www/Character-Strengths-Survey

Waters, L., & White, M. (2015). Case study of well-being initiative: Using appreciative inquiry to support positive change. International Journal of Well-Being, 5(1), 19-32.

Kristine Owens and Jill Sudak-Allison are assistant professors of psychology and human services at Grand View University.