4.3.3 The Language and Culture of Success

by James Hadley (Director of Education, Hamilton College)

Developing a culture of success in higher education requires a shift in pedagogical attitudes and the mindful use of positive language to encourage personal and academic growth. Many educators frequently use judgmental language that discourages enhanced performance. To create a quality learning environment, it is essential to become aware of how some of these judgmental or “killer’’ phrases may be perceived and to replace them with more positive alternatives. Educators can further support the culture of success by patiently facilitating a learning-to-learn approach to knowledge and by fostering risk-taking when challenging opportunities arise. A culture of success marked by collegiality and positive language is especially beneficial for students with learning problems and other barriers to success in college.

Climate for Quality Learning

Faculty and students must engage in authentic dialogue to create a climate for learning that empowers students and holds them accountable for their performance (4.3.5 Differentiating Growth from Acquiescence). To sustain this dialogue, educators must consciously select the language they use in the classroom and in other interactions with students. Many words and phrases that are customary in higher education have a negative impact, especially on learners’ feelings about themselves and their work. Terms such as assignments, homework, projects, exams, tests, quizzes, and lectures connote a hierarchy of power from the instructor to the student. Table 1 contrasts current words and phrases that are recognized as creating an atmosphere of mediocrity and acquiescence with words that focus attention on accountability, growth, and improved performance. Although the commonly used terms have valid applications, choosing the alternative language will better support communication in a quality learning environment (3.1.1 Overview of Quality Learning Environments).

Table 1   Language of Success

Common Language Usage

Alternative Language Usage

Student headcount

Participants, active learners, self-growers, future professionals

Discipline experts

Problem solvers


Change agents

Lesson plans

Learning activities


Organizing information, identifying resources, guiding discovery

Group work

Cooperative learning, learning communities


Problem-based learning, self-assessments, opportunities for feedback

Instructional technology

Hybrid course designs, learning objects

Grading (especially to the curve)

Criterion-based grading, use of performance rubrics


Responding to a performance issue

Teaching evaluations

Mid-term assessments, peer coaching


Assessment-Centered Language

Knowledge about assessment must include not only the concept but the process, the tools, the context, and the attitudes needed to make it work. In the college context, knowledge of evaluation is stronger than knowledge of assessment. We know this because when faculty use the term “assessment” students automatically default to the idea of a test or exam that will rank them by grades that reflect their relative knowledge or performance levels. Effective assessment can take place only when mutual trust has been developed between faculty and students (4.1.1 Overview of Assessment, 3.1.3 Methodology for Creating a Quality Learning Environment).

To unleash the power of assessment, the language of feedback must focus on the specific performance rather than on the performer (4.1.9 SII Method for Assessment Reporting). Specific and quantifiable behaviors need to be concisely recorded and shared. For example, telling students that they have a “poor attitude” about an activity does not effectively communicate specifically how they can improve. To use assessment-centered language in this situation, the instructor may validate students’ strengths: namely their ability to articulate current feelings in order to elicit instructor feedback. The instructor may suggest, as an area of improvement, that students state their concerns in terms of a specific learning issue created by the activity. Faculty should frequently ask students to reflect on their performance and to discuss insights about it so they can discover and verbalize new understandings about their performance and growth.

Relation to Constructivist Pedagogy

Richardson (2003) explains how language and culture play an important role in the construction of knowledge. Gregory (2002) traces constructivist pedagogy to the thinking of John Dewey who saw learners not as passive recipients of educational content, but as active makers of meaning who would eventually exercise independent judgment and engage in democratic collaboration. In the constructivist theory of learning, people create new understanding when they improve their learning skills (such as critical thinking skills) and apply knowledge in new contexts or with greater consciousness (e.g., 2.3.3 Classification of Learning Skills and 2.3.9 Forms of Knowledge and Knowledge Tables). The following environmental characteristics are often associated with a constructivist approach to learning as it is conceptualized by educational theorists and practitioners.

  1. Instructors allocate time to give individual attention to students, and students are respected for the various backgrounds and diversity they bring to the classroom.

  2. Social learning is integrated into classroom practices using cooperative/peer learning groups, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning.

  3. New domain-specific knowledge is introduced through a mixture of direct instruction, demonstration or modeling , and performance assessment.

  4. Structured and purposeful activities are designed to provide students with an opportunity to challenge, modify, or change existing knowledge and understanding.

  5. Students’ own meta-awareness is encouraged so that they can improve their understanding of the learning process.

Table 2    Necessary Conditions for
Creating a Culture of Success
  1. Set clear and high expectations.

  2. Establish a community of learners through authentic dialogue.

  3. Focus on performance, not on performers.

  4. Develop rich and robust resources for learning.

  5. Use effective mentoring and peer coaching.

  6. Provide strong leadership.

  7. Construct knowledge through collaboration.

  8. Engage students through key learning activities.

  9. Embrace the potential and humanity of each student.

  10. Help “non-believers” to embrace performance improvement.

Creating a Culture of Success

Table 2 outlines necessary conditions for successfully implementing a culture of success, including the use of language.

1. Setting Clear and High Expectations

In order for students to grow, faculty must establish clear expectations that challenge them well beyond their comfort zone. Courses commonly focus on outcomes and objectives that are to be completed by the end of the semester or quarter; this is appropriate. In addition, however, if educators intend to foster a culture of success, there must be specific expectations and performance outcomes for each class session and assessment opportunities for each significant performance requirement.

2. Establishing a Community of Learners through Authentic Dialogue

The research of Rogers (1959) demonstrated that acceptance, genuineness, and empathy create an atmosphere of trust and commitment that facilitates cooperation for meeting goals. Therefore he vigorously promoted the authentic dialogue method in all human interactions. Authentic dialogue promotes the growth of knowledge and skills students need to be able to contribute to the kind of inquiry that leads to new discoveries. Mayo (2002) found that authentic dialogue stimulates creative thinking, critical analysis, and collaborative reasoning. Simply stated, authentic dialogue provides the opportunity to accept and appreciate the individual differences of every student and to recognize the uniqueness of the human spirit through genuine discourse.

3. Focus on Performance and Not Performers

The goal of Process Education methods is to improve performance in any area of learning or growth. It is essential to separate performance quality from students’ intelligence level or other personal characteristics. Providing specific feedback only on performance will help students to acquire an “assessment attitude” (4.1.3 Mindset for Assessment). Performance feedback must be carefully phrased so that it minimizes learner perceptions that they are being judged or evaluated for weaknesses. Keep in mind that it takes time and repeated experiences for some learners to understand when educators are using assessment versus when they are using evaluation. If learners demonstrate significant signs of frustration and resentment, they are probably making an assumption that they are being evaluated. If instructors persistently coach and model the assessment process and consistently facilitate authentic reflections and discussions, students will adopt the assessment attitude to a greater degree and instructors will see quantifiable improvement in their performance. 

4. Developing Rich and Robust Resources for Learning

The rapid rate of change in all disciplines and professions challenges the transformation of higher education institutions so they can better support the learning needs of not only students but the community and the world at large. The job of educators is to create learning experiences and activities that include a rich array of important and robust resources so learners will be able to cope with the changing world and the new knowledge required. Establishing the language and culture of success in college is a significant strategy for assuring that graduates have the reflective knowledge and skills to succeed in their future jobs and endeavors.

5. Effective Mentoring and Peer Coaching

Adult learners typically try to make the most of class time through beneficial interactions with faculty and peers. Fairchild (2003) argues that, because learners expect or assume that they will improve their life circumstances by working with faculty to gain knowledge and skills, it is important to emphasize the mentoring competencies of faculty. In addition to building their own mentoring skills, faculty can foster interaction and trust among students through the use of peer coaching. This technique gives students who have mastered particular performance expectations opportunities to coach peers who are struggling. Assessment language and authentic interactions are essential to these mentoring and peer coaching goals.

6. Provide Strong Leadership

Unwavering leadership by faculty is paramount in developing both the language of success and an environment for success in the classroom. Strong leadership in this context includes authentic dialogue, non-evaluative language, and commitment to instilling a culture of growth and performance improvement. Strong leaders provide an atmosphere that encourages risk-taking (3.1.8 Letting Students Fail So They Can Succeed), yet they hold students accountable for work assigned. Gregory (2002) emphasizes that, by recognizing when and how to intervene in student learning strategies, effective leaders facilitate students’ use of inquiry to help them meet established expectations.

7. Constructing Knowledge through Collaboration

Authentic dialogue between faculty and students includes use of language that will facilitate open-ended inquiry. Vanderstraeten (2002) argues that social construction of knowledge includes verifying new meaning through lived experience and sharing those experiences with others in order to adapt and apply them to future experiences. Many educational theorists (e.g., Davis & Sumara, 2002; Pinel, Warner, & Poh-Pheng, 2005) recommend strategies based on authentic dialogue such as peer teaching and applied experiences that lead to deepening of values, social consciousness, and personal transformation. Collaborative knowledge construction involves both faculty and students in the interactive inquiry methods that all scholars use to build their knowledge and skills.

8. Engaging Students through Key Learning Activities

The motivation of students can be greatly enhanced if they understand that active learning strategies are necessary for their growth and performance improvement. Active learning occurs to the extent that students learn to self-assess their own performances. A strong indicator of active learning is the degree to which students have internalized processes (2.3.7 Learning Processes through the Use of Methodologies). Warren (1997) provides a list of strategies that will enhance students’ active engagement in learning; most of these are consistent with Process Education emphases on taking primary responsibility for learning course material and using class time for actual performance and assessment activities.

9. Embracing the Potential and Humanity of Each Student

Adopting a humanistic perspective on growth and empowerment contributes to an academic culture that promotes student success. For example, recognizing the inherent potential of every student contributes to an atmosphere of trust, openness, and honesty during authentic dialogue. Other components of a humanistic approach are present if students are encouraged to seek out meaningful experience, to exercise choice in learning, and to view failures as opportunities for growth. Approaches to learning that recognize both human potential and the frailties of the human condition can only benefit students.

10. Assist “Non-Believers” in Embracing Performance Improvement

Generally, adults take an interest in higher education when they determine that their discovery of new knowledge and their ability to perform effectively in new domains will be worth the time and effort required (Fairchild, 2003). Recognizing improved performance by others becomes a catalyst both for students who are determined to improve their own performance and for students who have not bought into the concept of continual performance improvement in the classroom. Motivated students should share the responsibility with faculty to move those students who exhibit pessimism about learning toward actively embracing continuous performance improvement.

Concluding Thoughts

This module provides concepts and principles important for an environment based on the language and culture of success. Authentic dialogue is at the heart of Process Education strategies for improving performances through assessment. When faculty embrace the idea of collaboration with their students through guided inquiry and social learning, college classrooms will begin to resemble championship sports teams where efficiencies are maximized and synergies are the norm. Cultivation of a shared belief that risks can be taken and that frailties of the human condition can be addressed will produce a supportive and non-judgmental atmosphere that can bring classrooms alive. The ultimate goal is to create “teachable moments” by expanding opportunities to observe perfor-mance and by providing timely, constructive feedback to enhance future performance.


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