Redefining Success

There is one word that so many people consider the pinnacle of positivity but which actually, if mistreated, can be the number one source of anxiety for learners. It might surprise you to hear that the word is ‘success’.

We might need to change the way we talk about success.

This is not so much about using the word success, saying it or hearing it. And of course, to be successful is a great thing that generates massive amounts of motivation. This is more about how the concept of success is viewed and presented.

I am a strong believer that success is one of the essential elements needed, alongside security, interaction and several others, to create an environment conducive to effective language learning. I shall probably introduce and elaborate on the others in another post, but today I want to focus on success because I feel it is the most misapplied of all the elements.

Success for most — for almost all, in fact — is that thing that lies at the end of a learning programme. Once you’ve completed all of the material and passed all of the tests, then you have attained success. And that feels pretty wonderful, I will concede.

The problem with this widely accepted concept, however, is twofold.

Firstly, success is well understood as being one of the major sources of intrinsic motivation. When we succeed at something, we want to go on to be better, achieve more, surpass personal bests. One success is the fuel needed to reach the next success. However, the time where motivation is most needed for many is right at the beginning of a new endeavour, when we feel daunted by the challenges ahead of us, or in the face of the first major hurdle, when failure seems imminent. What a shame that success is something we won’t be able to cash in until much further down the line.

Secondly, placing all that emphasis and weight on goals of success at the end of the line generates nothing but anxiety and pressure in the meantime. Students simply have to wait for success, which might be a few months on a training course or a whole year at school. Meanwhile, they are left worrying that they won’t make the grade. While we are waiting for success, nothing is certain; the flip side of success is failure! Thus, all the while that our students are studying and working towards that end point, they are terrified that when the time comes, they might not actually succeed at all.

It is for these two reasons that it is time for us to redefine success. No longer should we allow success to be the daunting monolith of light at the end of a long and terrifying tunnel. Instead, we should create an environment where success is something that our students can have right from the beginning.

How do we do this? Surely the very definition of success is that it comes at the end? Well, yes. That is correct. I cannot deny that. But what I can do is advocate for a new way of looking at what we mean by the end. Instead of your students’ success in its entirety balancing precariously at the end of a full programme/course, break that programme into a process with stages and sections and distribute success along the way.

When approached this way, it is up to you what constitutes success. I live in a country and teach members of a culture where students are very unlikely to raise their hands to answer a question in class for fear of being wrong and thus appearing stupid. It is a culture where one of the most avoided phrases is “I don’t know”. Because of that, when I teach a new group of students, it is a considerable success the moment a student even tries to answer a question, whether they are correct or not. If you teach in a community where truancy is high and many of your students do not value a school education, for example, then simply attending the class could be seen as a success for a student who has avoided coming previously.

For many courses and learning programmes, that end-of-course success is determined by the student’s performance in some form of final exam, in which they are required to regurgitate all of the material they have covered during the programme. But each of those materials is a learned item in its own right, and at each point along the way that a student demonstrates that he or she has learned something new, that should be considered a success and should be celebrated and rewarded as such.

Each unit that a student completes, each new skill that she develops, make sure she feels successful, show him how to be proud. Use this as motivation to take the next step. This way, when the end of the course comes along and it is time to take the test, two magical things happen: first, the student has not spent months on end dreading this moment, because she has been focused at different times on the different stages of the learning process, and secondly, he is not nearly as afraid of the test because he has already celebrated success at some point in each topic that is to be tested.

It also takes some of the pressure off the test itself. These types of test expect students to demonstrate in one day, probably one hour, all of the hard work and studying they have put in over a period of perhaps dozens of hours. And if they get something wrong, because they have forgotten or because they made a mistake or because the particular question was worded in a strange way, then they fail. But by awarding success in small units throughout the course, we as assessors also get a better idea of what our students can and cannot do without relying on that one single test, which is much fairer to them and much more useful for our own lesson planning.

So do your students and yourself a favour and introduce success at the very earliest moment possible. Give them that source of motivation as soon as you can and watch as it propels them through the learning process and keeps anxiety and fear at bay.

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