I recently encountered this advice on Instagram: “If it’s too hard, you won’t keep doing it. So start easy. It’s OK.” In a culture that can be obsessed with doing more in increasingly more challenging ways, you don’t often hear this message. However, it captures a concept that is essential in teaching and learning: small wins.
The psychology behind small wins is that success sets you up for the anticipation of further success. In other words, doing well can shape the expectation that you’ll do well again, causing you to act in ways that lead you to do well. Essentially, when you create a series of small wins for your students, you’re engaging in a low-level form of cognitive behavioral change, in which a behavior creates a positive feedback loop that promotes the thoughts and actions necessary for progress.
My student Randall was an example of this phenomenon in action. High-energy, impulsive, and sweet, Randall liked people but didn’t enjoy schoolwork. He found it boring, so his MO in class was to chat it up with those around him without producing any work. In my eighth-grade English class, I saw Randall’s high energy and impulsivity, but I didn’t see the disengagement that other teachers spoke of. Instead, he did the work.
Just like everyone else, he wrote one sentence at a time, and I’d tell him what was compelling about that one sentence. He wrote descriptions of his mom and his dog, he read and thought critically about skateboarding (a subject of interest to him), and he analyzed his friends’ writing, pointing out strong sentences and occasional misspelled words. By the end of the first trimester, he had written a project he was proud of and read books that engaged him. When he and I met to discuss his trimester grade, he remarked that it was the first time he’d ever felt like he was successful in English class. I asked him to tell me more. He said, simply, that he felt encouraged.
Randall’s success wasn’t because I had singled him out for special attention and encouragement. Rather, he was in a class designed to help him feel as though his efforts were acknowledged and appreciated. Every student knew what was good in their writing; every student could select reading that inspired them. Every student experienced small wins that shaped their positive thoughts and actions.
10 Ways I Create Opportunities for Success All Year
1. Early in the year, I avoid giving summative assessments. For the first month or so, I focus on formative assessments, with lots of feedback. This takes off pressure and allows students a reasonable amount of time to practice without the practice negatively impacting their grades. In a trimester system that starts in August, this means that I avoid summative assessments until October.
2. In our formative assessment, students work in tiny increments, as in writing only one amazing sentence at a time. Eventually, we build to four or five sentences, then paragraphs, then pages.
3. The first writing activities are meant to be easy, such as descriptions of people, places, or things that the students know well. Similarly, the first reading activities are creative and playful. For example, students design marketing campaigns for their books (everyone chooses their own novels), complete with social media profiles, slogans, and hot takes on the characters.
4. For the first trimester, students focus on mastering just three learning targets: big idea, specific details, and mechanics.
5. When it’s time for the summative assessment, I allow students to choose the learning target on which they want to be assessed, which means I’m assessing only one of the three learning targets. Of course, students have to show progress in all three learning targets by the end of the grading period.
As the year progresses:
6. Summative assessments can be revised for a completely new grade.
7. Practice can be tedious, so I enliven the work by bringing in guests, like the librarian or a live tarantula, for students to observe and write about. I’ll create experiences, like the case of the missing baby doll, that students can engage in and use as inspiration for their work. The kids write instructions for each other to practice clarity and attempt to pinpoint where voice comes from in their novels so they can create voice in their own writing.
8. After every few practice attempts, students share their work out loud. Strengths are noted daily for every student’s work, by me and by fellow classmates. The complexity of the practice increases as students work to convey tone, demonstrate the development of a character, or plant the seeds of a plot twist. Sometime between January and February, there is a discernible shift in students’ abilities to capture their experiences and observations in writing. “I drove to the store” becomes “A full yellow moon hung low in the sky as I made my way to the 7-Eleven, reminding me that I wouldn’t need a flashlight later tonight when I snuck out of the house.”
9. In reading, students are inspired by hearing about each other’s books and often choose to read books that their classmates liked, which is one of those gratifying feedback loops in which students learn how to talk about books by observing how their classmates respond.
10. Students work with their friends and classmates on all elements of the class. Last year, I even had students pick writing partners to collaborate with all year long. Assignments were still mostly written individually, but the purpose of the writing partner was to act as a sounding board.
I should add here that I have only five learning targets for writing for the entire year. My eighth-grade students grow into strong writers by the end of the year because their practice is so focused. It’s no easy feat to master details or voice, yet my students do, and they recognize and feel proud of their progress.
Ultimately, adopting a small-wins approach is about understanding the steps on the path to mastery. When you know the incremental steps that students need to take in order to improve at a skill, you can guide them through those steps, one at a time. You can also help students notice how they’ve progressed by highlighting it in your feedback.
When you recognize the small wins, your class becomes more pleasant to be in because students get to experience the joy of competence. Competence builds confidence, which means that students are inspired to take on even more challenges... and on it goes. This is how learning happens.