Home All The Positive Psychology Equivalent of Hand-to-Hand Combat

The Positive Psychology Equivalent of Hand-to-Hand Combat

written by Sean Doyle 30 December 2009

Through speaking and writing, Sean Doyle, JD, MAPP '07, explores the poetry and science of well-being. Whether it's the work place, parenting, community, home, or hardship, Sean invites us to inject more hope, affection, and meaning into the world. Check out his chapbook, On Being Human. Another book is underway. Watch its progress and let publishers know you're interested via the book page on his website. Full bio. Sean's articles are here.

Lycopene Love Song

Lycopene Love Song

This semester I taught positive psychology at North Carolina State University.  After our studies of, and exercises on, “savoring” one student lost 20 pounds by changing her relationship with food. Another, who reported she never did particularly well in school, received As in all of her classes. She said the difference was that she received so much feedback about what she was doing well that she came to believe she was capable of more. And so believing, she took the steps necessary to achieve As in all of her classes. It was a remarkable semester and we had a lot of fun.

The Peak-End Theory When Teaching a Class

However, in the waning months of the class I found myself in a bit of a dilemma. The students gave so much of themselves. I really wanted them to have a good memory of the class. Most readers of this site are likely familiar with the peak-end-theory. The general idea is that we tend to remember events based upon their peaks (highs and lows) and how they end. If something ends well, we often have a great memory of it. If it ends poorly, that is what we recall, even if the majority of the experience was pleasant.  Here are some past articles on peak-end theory when shopping, when giving feedback, and when being disciplined.

How do most classes end? With a final exam (and often stress and pressure). Just thinking back to my past exams causes my neck to stiffen. Yet I needed to measure their understanding of the material. So what to do?

Using Appreciative Inquiry to Create a Peak-End Final Exam

What I did was let the students design their own final using a modified appreciative inquiry process.

Appreciative Inquiry (AI) is a process whereby organizations identify moments in which they perform at their best, imagine what the organization would look like if they could cultivate these moments, and then implement a strategy to make that vision a reality.  (Past articles are here and a conference summary is here.)

A key to the AI process is posing the question to be explored. If my question were something like “What do you want to do for the ‘final’ ?” blah, blah, blah . . . all the solutions would likely be limited to previous exam experience (multiple choice, short answer, etc.) This might have been ok. But I wanted to see if the students could design an assessment process that was meaningful to them. So in the end, we did not have a final. Rather, I told them that they would have “an opportunity to joyously demonstrate their mastery of positive psychology.”

Competitive Sparring

Competitive Sparring

The Four Stages: Discovery-Dream-Design-Destiny

  1. DISCOVERY. The first step in the AI process is discovery: what worked in the past? Every person in the room had been tested multiple times, in multiple settings. Not just school. One student was a martial artist and had had to demonstrate her mastery of the art through competitive sparring. I said that is what I want for our class: the positive psychology equivalent of hand-to-hand combat. So in small groups, and then as a class, we talked about times that the students had been both in a state of flow and in the process of demonstrating mastery.
  2. Blue Sky Ideas

    Blue Sky Ideas

  3. DREAM.  The second step is the dream: The class looked back on what worked in the past and together began to envision what would work well in the future — that is, in this class with this material.
  4. DESIGN.  The third step is actually designing their final. The students planned and prioritized. What would work well with our class?  There were distance education students, the scientific and reading-intensive subject matter, the need for the “exam” to be comprehensive, and so on.  What the students ultimately created were two options: An oral presentation or a paper. Each student was to pick an event from real life – for example, a personal experience, something from the newspaper, a situation at work. Then the student was to demonstrate how positive psychology could be applied in that setting. Students also had to support their cases with the readings and to address multiple substantive areas from the class.
  5. DESTINY.  The final stage of the AI process is destiny. Each student joyfully demonstrated their mastery of the subject matter. The papers and presentations were powerful. Some were very personal. Others stretched the concepts of positive psychology to show applications in other realms. One student did his presentation on the “Positive Psychology of Pain.” Another talked about what could be used from positive psychology to address the conflict in Afghanistan. In the end, everyone who watched the presentations experienced a sense of elevation. For days afterwards, I continued to receive calls and emails from students and another professor who all said the same thing: “Wow.”

The process worked because the students were given the freedom to design their own expression. Each took the subject and was able to think about it, and present it in a way that was personally meaningful. In the end, it was both a great measure of how well the students had absorbed the material, as well as a high point ending to a great year. It was simultaneously a peak and an end.

Author’s Note: I would like to publicly thank all of the PPND authors for their help this semester. I directed my students to the site, and they peppered the authors with questions. The authors were kind and prolific and thoughtful in their responses, and my students were thrilled and positively influenced by the dialogue. Thank you, thank you, thank you for a great year!     ~ Sean




Cooperrider, D. and Whitney, D. (2004) Appreciative Inquiry: A Positive Revolution in Change. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Peterson, C., (2006). A Primer in Positive Psychology New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Other positive psychology university-level courses can be found here.

Lycopene Love Song courtesy of The Gifted Photographer
Competitive Sparring —Emma (blue) courtesy of Hauggen
Endlich himmelblau courtesy of extranoise

Not seeing the pictures for the book links? Disable Adblocking for this site to view them.

You may also like


Steve Borgman 30 December 2009 - 2:37 pm

Great example of using positive psychology and creativity to design a great final exam! If I ever teach again, I will use this as an example 🙂

Sean Doyle 30 December 2009 - 4:51 pm

Thanks Steve. The part that was especially nice was that the students designed the “final” themselves.


Deb Pinger 31 December 2009 - 9:26 am


Thank you for sharing this. In designing workshops, your article will be influential.

Dr. Lynn K. Jones 31 December 2009 - 11:39 am

Sean, Thanks for sharing this creative way of working with positive psychology in the classroom. I am sure that many of your student’s lives were changed as a result–that is what it is all about! kudos!!

Sean Doyle 31 December 2009 - 11:36 pm

Thank you both Lynn and Deb. I was really, really pleased with the way the class workout this year. Both all the positives that I saw on a day-to-day level, as well as the success of the final project.


Vincent Hsu 2 January 2010 - 3:01 am

As a student, I think that this method is really helpful for students! Not only absord the material completely but also have unforgettable experiences in the class !!

Sean Doyle 2 January 2010 - 9:07 am

Thank you Vincent! I appreciate your comments! Sean

Marie-Josee Salvas Shaar 8 January 2010 - 2:53 pm

You never stop to impress and inspire me, Sean. Thank you.

Sean Doyle 9 January 2010 - 8:30 am

Thank you MJ. I feel the same way about you.



Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

WP Twitter Auto Publish Powered By : XYZScripts.com