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The Power of Small Wins

As faculty members, one of our main goals is to maximize learning for each of our students (Cai, et al., 2021). We want to provide a learning environment that allows them the best chance to be successful in whatever the subject. When designing a course, there are countless ways in which you can organize and ensure that learning is taking place. As you design your work, do you think about how to motivate your students? In this following article, you will be challenged to consider how you can motivate your students for success. Looking specifically at the power of small wins, you are asked to consider, how can you break down the achievements in your course to create a successful learning experience.

The notion of small wins is not a new one. The desire for people to make progress and to be motivated by that continued progress is something that can find in early motivational literature. If we look back to the early work of Frederick Herzberg who looked at the underlying motivational power of achievement and the importance of people making meaningful progress (Amabile and Kramer, 2011). We can also look back to Lindblom’s notion of muddling through (Lindblom 1979). This work showed that small wins allow for there to be continuous change and development rather than more radical change. There is comfort in the continued progress. In short, small wins have the power to be able to motivate people, so what does that mean for our classrooms. To help increase the small wins within your class, the following will consider how we can use project management basics to help provide a small win approach to curriculum development.  

Well-defined project goals and objectives – When you are developing a course you are most likely working from a course description that provides the overall learning goal of the course. It is important, then to take the goal and break it down into learning objectives for the course. By breaking this down for students, they know what they need to be focusing on for the course. Ideally, instructors will take this one step further and ensure there are learning objectives for every class. Again, this type of clarity will allow students to stay focused on what is important for their growth and development in the given area.

Identify milestones – Once you have defined the objectives for the course, how are you allowing them to see that they are achieving those objectives. For example - often there will be an end-of-semester project or exam that is a culmination of the learning that demonstrates that they have achieved the required objectives. Instead of having the final project due at the end of the semester, a more effective way could be to break the task down into more manageable small wins. Instead of just giving students the end-of-semester deliverable, either provide them or have them develop a schedule for delivering components to keep them motivated and engaged. In applying this type of arrangement, students are not only more engaged because they can see their progress, but it allows for the identification of any problems early enough to help students produce a great product at the end.

Measure progress – In addition to having students develop a schedule of deliverables, it is important to measure their progress and provide feedback. One of the goals of project management is to map a project workflow by articulating the steps required to meet the project objectives. Ensuring that each step builds off the previous one, this process allows for large tasks to be broken down into digestible components and when given constructive feedback, it can build momentum.

Developing a curriculum for a course is something that is highly dependent on the content, however, trying to apply these suggestion mechanisms to create small wins for your students can enhance the overall learning experience. 


Amabile, T. M., & Kramer, S. J. (2011). The power of small wins. Harvard Business review89(5), 70-80.

Bours, S. A., Wanzenböck, I., & Frenken, K. (2021). Small wins for grand challenges. A bottom-up governance approach to regional innovation policy. European Planning Studies, 1-28.

Cai, J., Morris, A., Hohensee, C., Hwang, S., Robison, V., Cirillo, M., ... & Bakker, A. (2020). Maximizing the quality of learning opportunities for every student. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education51(1), 12-25.

Gijic, N., Lilic, V., & Djuretic, G. (2013). The importance of small wins. No. 7 Int'l J. Econ. & L.3, 39.

Uy, M. A., Jacob, G. H., Gielnik, M. M., Frese, M., Antonio, T., & Wonohadidjojo, D. M. (2021). When passions collide: Passion convergence in entrepreneurial teams. Journal of Applied Psychology106(6), 902.

Vallerand, R. J., Blanchard, C., Mageau, G. A., Koestner, R., Ratelle, C., Léonard, M., Gagné, M., & Marsolais, J. (2003). Les passions de l'âme: On obsessive and harmonious passion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(4), 756–767.


About the Author

Dr. Doreen MacAulay is an Instructor at the Muma College of Business, University of South Florida. She is passionate about helping individuals and organizations learn how to be better versions of themselves. She teaches principles of management, organizational behavior, and executive leadership at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Her research focuses on identity, gender, and history of organizational studies. MacAulay has taught in both Canada and the US. She is a member of the Academy of Management Association, the Southern Academy of Management Association, and the Midwest Academy of Management Association. She has served as a reviewer for several conferences and journals. MacAulay earned a Ph.D. in management from St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia, an MBA from the University of New Brunswick, and a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology from St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia.

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