Create Public Success for Students

by Nancy Motley


Doesn’t everyone want to be successful? I know I do! I spend the majority of my time trying to be better…a better parent, a better friend, a better employee, and certainly a better teacher. In fact I can honestly say, I have never met anyone who likes to fail. I have, however, encountered many students who, because of their previous school experiences, begin to expect failure. I see it in a defeated look, in a tear falling down a cheek, and in the “eye roll” of my most apathetic student. These students do not like being called on in class, because they don’t know the answer or maybe because they lack confidence. Either way, they expect that they will be wrong. Compounding their uneasiness is the knowledge that all of their peers will be watching them as they fail.

What if instead, every student (especially our most struggling and disengaged) experienced an alternative reaction to being called upon? What if they automatically expected success instead of failure? Can you imagine the transformative effect this could have on our students?

Every student wants to be correct. Think about yourself as a student: if you get called on and answer correctly, you feel good. It makes you feel smart and increases the likelihood that you’ll participate in the future. Simply put, success breeds motivation. Once they experience success, they will undoubtedly want more. I believe one great way each of us can create “avenues for success” in our classrooms is through the type of feedback we offer.

When interacting with students in a small-group or whole-group setting, try focusing on public success. The idea is to make sure that each time the “spotlight” is shined on a particular student, that student leaves the exchange having experienced success. More specifically, when you call on a student to answer a question, be deliberate in your feedback and actions to ensure that your student experiences success before moving on.

Let’s look at an example.

Imagine you are teaching an Economics lesson. Your students have been learning about the differences among five industries (primary, secondary, tertiary, quaternary, and quinary). To check student understanding you ask, “Based on your notes, which type of industry are hotels and resorts? And why would they be classified that way?” You give students a few seconds to think about it and then call on Rosa. She does not look very confident and shrugs her shoulders, indicating that she isn’t really sure.

What would you do as her teacher?

Would you tell her, “That’s ok,” and then ask, “Can anyone help Rosa out?” Would you give her the answer, saying, “Rosa, hotels are a tertiary industry because they provide a service to immediate customers.” Would you say, “Come on Rosa. I know you remember this from yesterday.”

In each of the above responses, did Rosa experience success? I would argue no. She was unable to respond, passed over (response 1 & 2), and possibly embarrassed (response 3).

So how do you create an experience of public success for Rosa? What can you do when she is hesitant or unsure of the answer? There are many ways to treat this situation so that Rosa is successful at the end of the interaction. Here are a few ways to ensure her public success (and the success of any other student who is selected to answer a question):

Give a clue, tip, or hint, and re-ask the question:

When Rosa shrugs, you can give her some help and then re-ask the question.

“Rosa, look back up here at our chart (while pointing to it). Hotels and resorts provide a service to their customers, so which industry does our chart show does that?”

Direct all students to a resource that can help, while “checking-in” privately with the first student:

When Rosa shrugs, you can prompt her to get her own help, saying: “Everyone go back and find your chart from yesterday in your notes, and reread it. Think about where hotels would fit.” As everyone rereads their notes, you can quickly walk toward Rosa and provide her some one-on-one help so that when you come back to the whole group to re-ask Rosa the question, you and she both know that she will have a correct answer.

Give the student an opportunity to collaborate with peers:

When Rosa shrugs, you can give her (and the rest of the class) an opportunity to quickly collaborate with peers, saying, “Everyone, check in with your table partner. See if together you guys can agree on which industry hotels and resorts would be classified as.” Like in the previous example, this creates time for you to quickly provide support to Rosa in case her partner is also struggling.

In each of the scenarios above, when you come back to Rosa, she has an answer that she can feel good about. When she responds with the class observing, she will experience public success. This interaction will likely increase her motivation to participate in the future because of the positive emotion attached to her experience.

A few other ways to foster public success:

  • Make pronunciation practice and choral response a regular habit in your classroom. English learners are being exposed to huge volumes of new words. Even when they understand the meaning of new vocabulary, our students are often reticent to use it because they aren’t sure how to say it.
  • During collaborative tasks, ask students to share something they learned from their partner or something their partner did really well. Sharing the ideas of others removes some of the pressure students may feel when sharing their own thinking.
  • When monitoring students, share specific things you observe that are positive.  An example might sound like: “As I’m walking, I notice that Davis and Mareka both remembered to label the units on their coordinate grid. Attention to details like that is important.” Comments like this indirectly promote the success of all learners in the class as they each quickly check to see if they labeled their units.

Finish with a smile

Whether you try out the techniques above or come up with your own, focusing on public success will benefit all of your students. You will see both confidence and motivation increase, while the tears and eye-rolls transform into smiles.


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