"Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at mountains and the stars up above. ... They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education."
– David Polis
Volume 75 | Issue 2
March 2007

Student Involvement and Building Morale: A look at the Fish! philosophy

by Melissa Paradee

Student involvement is a great factor in measuring student achievement and success in college. According to Alexander Astin’s (1984) theory of involvement, an involved student typically spends more time on campus, participates in student organizations and activities, and often interacts more with faculty. Research has shown that students who are actively involved with peers and faculty in the college environment tend to have much higher student achievement, aspiration, and retention rates than would otherwise be the case (Windschitl, 1998).

Researchers have been documenting the effects of extracurricular involvement on students’ college experiences for years. Vincent Tinto (1988) suggested that social interaction with members of a new community is a prime vehicle to achieve incorporation, and that failure to achieve incorporation leads to attrition. Involved students generally establish repetitive contact with other members of the institution. This allows them to successfully integrate and feel connected to the college community (Turner & Fifer, 2003).

It is integral to not only make those connections and create a foundation for involvement, but more so to build relationships with students and stay committed to them. This can be a challenge when students (and staff) have so many things going on in their lives. It is important for student affairs professionals to be available and approachable so we can show our care and concern while gaining their trust. Astin and Astin (2000) came to the realization that “the goal of leadership development initiatives should be to instill empowering beliefs in college students” (as cited in Shertzer & Schuh, 2004, p. 113). Moreover, Astin and Astin (2000) defined empowering beliefs as “liberating thoughts that allow a student to believe that he or she can have an influence and make a difference” (as cited in Shertzer & Schuh, 2004, p. 113). Student leader perception is important. If students do not view themselves as leaders, they may not step up to various roles or challenges that their institution offers. Encouragement often gives students enough drive to consider a new leadership role or try something new.

As student affairs professionals, we have the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of our students, a difference in their outlooks and experiences. Still, how do we boost morale and keep students coming back for more leadership development and extracurricular activities while they juggle already full academic schedules? How do we keep them connected and excited about student activities? How can we inspire them when they have hit a low? How can we lead by example? What life lessons can we offer? How can we motivate them and suggest techniques that they can use in their academic as well as personal lives?

Writer and filmmaker Stephen Lundin helps us answer all of these questions. He and his team understand that student affairs professionals, “…know that 85 percent of a college student’s time is spent out of the classroom…[that] the first six weeks can help make or break a new student’s college career…[and] whose core task is nothing less than ensuring college students achieve greatness (while they’re still college students.)” (Fish! For College, 2005, ¶ 1). They believe that students want to bring their passions and authentic selves to school and the extracurricular activities that they enjoy. “Fish!” begins with meaningful conversation. Once students understand the language and feel a personal connection, they can begin to embrace the philosophy.

What is the Fish! Philosophy?

After completing a film shoot near Seattle, Lundin and a filmmaking colleague decided to go sightseeing. They came across the “most wholehearted and energetic workplace [they] had ever experienced: The World Famous Pike Place Fish Market” (Australian Institute of Management, 2003, ¶ 2). By noticing the teamwork, productivity, and fun that the fishmongers who worked there were having, the pair decided to capture on film what seemed to come naturally to the workers. The fishmongers are well known for their playful antics, which include throwing slippery fish to each other and sometimes to customers, making sure customers have a memorable visit, all while remaining focused or paying attention to one person or thing at a time, and choosing their attitudes.

These observations have translated into the four guiding principles of the Fish! Philosophy. They are: Play, Make Their Day, Be There, and Choose Your Attitude. What do these principles mean and how do they fit into student affairs? First, if students or co-workers do not enjoy what they are doing, maybe they should be doing something else. This pertains to majors, activities, and life decisions. Students need to look at their goals and see if what they are doing will help them to achieve those goals. They need to be motivated, be able to make effective decisions, and stay positive. When they lose sight of these things, student affairs professionals can help by reminding them of the Fish! Philosophy.


This seems easy and self-explanatory, but so many times students (and student affairs professionals) take things too seriously and forget to have fun. Even though student affairs professionals are often playing games and coming up with a variety of activities to get a point across or to help students get to know each other, sometimes playing “too much” is frowned upon. Play involves trust, feeling safe, and being able to put your true self out there (Fish! For College Directors Guide, 2004). When people trust each other, they tend to have more fun and are able to get more out of the icebreakers, meetings, staff trainings, and other activities offered on campus. It is important to set boundaries, have respect for one another, and to hold each other accountable. When others discover how much fun the group is having, chances are they will also want to be a part of the team (Fish! For College Directors Guide, 2004).

The act of being playful, silly, adventurous, and fun often draws people to one another. It allows them to take on the same upbeat characteristics without feeling embarrassed or self-conscious, share their humor, and truly enjoy themselves. It sparks creativity, happier moods, and gives people an outlet to get to know each other. “In play, our wildness and our humanity can safely meet. Play is the source of much of our learning and a reservoir of creativity” (Kessler, 2000, p. 87). A silly icebreaker often makes students laugh while giving them an opportunity to learn more about each other in a nonthreatening way. It also can be a good way to encourage the brainstorming of ideas or focus on a new task. In his book, “Free Play: The Power of Improvisation in Life and the Arts,” Stephen Nachmanovitch (1990) wrote:

Without play, learning and evolution are impossible. … To play is to free ourselves from arbitrary restrictions and expand our field of action. … Play enables us to rearrange our capacities and our very identity so that they can be used in unforeseen ways. (Kessler, 2000, p. 88)

Benefits of Play

• Happy people treat others well.

• Fun leads to creativity.

• The time passes quickly.

• Having a good time is healthy.

• Work becomes a reward and not just a way to rewards.
(Lundin, Paul, & Christensen, 1996, p. 88).

Make Their Day

Making someone’s day is usually not very difficult. Sometimes it can happen through a kind word or gesture. Other times, it could be buying a cup of coffee for the next person in line, bringing candy to a meeting, or some other small act of kindness. “When you make someone’s day (or moment) through a small act of kindness or unforgettable engagement, you can turn even routine encounters into special memories” (Lundin, Paul, & Christensen, with Strand, 2002, p. 6). Showing others that they are truly cared for and appreciated will not only benefit that person, but can also heighten the satisfaction and fulfillment of the person doing the good deed. Another piece worth mentioning is the “reciprocal effect”; when someone’s day has been made, that person often wants to pass on the favor (Fish! For College, Directors Guide, 2004).

A simple acknowledgment of students’ success or encouragement to keep up the good work can make a those students’ day. When asked why they get involved with activities, so many students say it is because someone asked them to. When they want to quit but instead hear a vote of confidence from a trusted supporter, they are more likely to hang in there. Make students’ days by telling them how much a team or club could use their expertise, “can do” attitudes, or creativity. Tell students how much of an asset they are to an organization. Reward a student with a compliment, card, or small token­—even a smile can go a long way. It is amazing to watch that person they make another’s day and so on.

Benefits of Make Their Day

• It is good for business (activities, daily events, relationships)

• Serving [students] well will give us the satisfaction that comes to those who serve others. It will focus our attention, away from our problems onto how we can make a positive difference to others. This is healthy, will feel good, and will unleash even more energy.
(Lundin, Paul, & Christensen, 1996, p. 93).

Be There

Be present. Be focused. Pay attention to others. Make eye contact. Being there for others is important and powerful. “Research shows the most important influence in a college student’s success is his or her peer group. Be There is the foundation of that success” (Fish! For College Directors Guide, 2004, p. 28). Be There involves listening to a friend in need and giving them the full attention they deserve. Listening means that you refrain from talking. It means paying attention to what the other person is saying and watching his or her body language. As it is often said, “Actions speak louder than words.” Effective listening is not always an easy task because your whole focus is on the other person. “To not complete others’ sentences, cut people off, or look over someone’s shoulder when they are speaking to you represent the greatest compliments (or signs of respect or praise) you can give another human being” (Denney, 2004, p. 127). Give the kind of attention that you like to receive when you want to share exciting information or need a shoulder to lean on. It takes knowledge, understanding, dedication, and lots of practice and patience.

Benefits of Be There

• Helps develop empathy for others.

• Builds trust and relationships.
(Lundin, Paul, & Christensen, 1996)

Choose Your Attitude

Everyone has good days and bad days. On a day where the better option seems to be to stay in bed, there is still a choice: a choice to stay in bed or to get up and make the most of the day. Students and college administrators alike deal with stressful situations and negative people on a frequent basis. The choice is to let the negativity take control or to be aware of the attitude and change it to something more satisfying. This does not always mean acting truly happy when it seems impossible. It means being aware of your feelings, deciding how you want to come across to others, and how your mood or attitude affects how you feel about yourself. For student leaders and student affairs professionals, “being accountable for their actions and attitudes is critical to their success. [They] have a responsibility to be a role model and set the tone of the culture within the group” (Fish! For College Directors Guide, 2004, p. 93).

Just as a poor attitude can lead to unhappiness and negativity, a positive attitude can lead to happiness, laughter, and bliss. Moods and attitudes can be and often are contagious. “The energy you exert is the energy you attract” (Denney, 2004, p. 86). If your attitude is poor, chances are that others will notice that and react to it. A poor outlook may also cause the rest of your day to be miserable. Rather than spiraling down, choose an attitude that better suits you or one that has a more effective or favorable perspective. The first step is recognizing your attitude; the rest is up to you!

Benefits of Choose Your Attitude

• If you don’t like your outlook or current attitude, you have the power to change it!

• Learning to be aware of how you feel and how it affects you and others.
(Lundin, Paul, & Christensen, 1996)

The joy your students find may be your own

To reiterate, student affairs professionals should work continuously to create and maintain meaningful involvement opportunities for students. Research has shown repeatedly the benefits of student involvement in college including better retention rates, higher student achievement, and feelings of belonging or connectedness. The Fish! Philosophy is one useful technique in creating meaningful dialogue with students, sharing care and compassion, and having fun!

The Fish! Philosophy can be implemented almost subconsciously. In some cases, student affairs professionals and students are already choosing their attitudes, making people’s days, being there for others, and playing without even putting a title to it. Being aware of the Fish! Philosophy helps us to put a name to our actions and use the same language. In an age where people are seeking self-improvement or “how to fix it” techniques, it is beneficial to embrace the simplicity of the Fish! Philosophy principles and not only channel our energy into useful and positive means but to help our students do the same. Being mindful of the “reciprocal effect” will allow the joy your students find to be reflective of your own.


Astin, A.W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel, 25(4), 297–308.
Australian Institute of Management (2003). Stephen Lundin: The fish! philosophy. Retrieved October 2, 2006 from http://www.aim.com.au/resources/article_slundin.html
Denney, N.H. (2004). How to zing! Your life and leadership. Mason, OH: Viaticum Press.
Fish! For College. (2005). Retrieved October 2, 2006 from http://www.charthouse.com/ffc.
Fish! For College Directors Guide, Vol. 1. (2004). Burnsville, MN: harthouse Learning.
Kessler, R. (2000). The soul of education. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
Lundin, S., Paul, H. & Christensen, J. (2000). Fish!: A remarkable way to boost morale and improve results. New York: Hyperion.
Lundin, S., Paul, H., & Christensen, J., with Strand, P. (2002). Fish! Tales: Real life stories to help you transform your workplace and your life. New York: Hyperion.
Shertzer, J., & Schuh, J. (2004, Fall). College student perceptions of leadership: empowering and constraining beliefs. NASPA Journal, 42(1), 111–131.
Tinto, V. (1988, July/August). Stages of student departure: Reflections on the longitudinal character of student leaving. Journal of Higher Education, 59, 438-455.
Turner, J., & Fifer, A. (2003). A focus on campus life: What type of programming is right for your campus? ACUI Bulletin, 71(6). Retrieved on April 9, 2004 from http://www.acui.org/Acui/Member/Resources/Publications/Bulletin/viewbulletin.cfm?id=15.
Windschitl, M. (1998). Participant perspectives on the learning teams experience. Journal of College Student Development, 39(4), 373–382.