INTRODUCTION: I have found that helping my students develop ‘soft skills’ such as personal responsibility, self-motivation, persistence, and interdependence (among others) empowers many of them to make wiser choices and, therefore, achieve greater academic success. One of my favorite strategies for helping students strengthen these inner qualities is to help them build a unique vocabulary of success derived from brief parables.

Although I use this activity in my Strategic Learning course, it could be used in any academic class or ongoing counseling/advising sessions. It could even be used with athletic teams. What makes this strategy so adaptable is that it can be implemented in brief time periods (5-10 minutes) throughout the semester. As such, this strategy makes a great first-day activity as well as a way to generate an engaging change of pace within any class throughout the semester.

All that is needed is 1) a parable that generates a discussion about what it takes to be successful in college and in life and 2) an engaging discussion that helps students find a few memorable phrases that sum up the success strategy. It is these phrases that become the group’s “common ground” vocabulary of success.


Often the characters in a parable must make decisions related to life’s dilemmas, and my students quickly see the connection between the characters’ challenges and their own. Here are some parables that have contributed effectively to building my students’ vocabulary of success.

THE CROW AND THE PITCHER: A Crow, exhausted and dying of thirst, came upon a pitcher with water in the bottom; but when the Crow put its beak into the mouth of the pitcher, he found that, no matter how hard he tried, he could not reach far enough to drink. He tried for five minutes, almost giving up in despair. But, continuing to think of other options, a creative thought came to him. He took a pebble and dropped it into the pitcher. He repeated the process, dropping in one pebble after another. At last, he saw the water level rising, and after casting in a few more pebbles, he was able to quench his thirst and save his life.

As we explore the meaning of this parable, students identify the importance of changing strategies when what they are doing isn’t working. As the semester progresses and a student is getting frustrated by lack of success, someone may remind her to try something different, but the words are, “Find some pebbles!” For instructors of an On Course class, this is a great activity to accompany the discussion of making wise choices in Chapter 2.

THE FROG IN A MILK PAIL: A frog was hopping around a farmyard when it decided to investigate the barn. Being somewhat careless, and maybe a little too curious, he fell into a pail half-filled with fresh milk. As he attempted to get out of the pail, he found that the sides were too high to reach. When he tried to stretch his back legs to push off of the bottom of the pail, he found the milk too deep. However, this frog was determined to succeed. He kicked and squirmed and kicked and squirmed, until at last, all of his churning turned the milk into butter, and he was able to hop out of the pail!

In our discussion of the lesson of this parable, students inevitably arrive at the success principle of persisting and never giving up. Later in the semester, when a student talks about quitting in the face of an academic or personal challenge, someone will remind her, “Keep churning until you make butter!” or just “Keep churning.” The vocabulary of parables has even extended beyond the classroom on our campus. Our tutor coordinator, for example, shares the frog tale in the campus tutoring center, and she gently reminds struggling students to “Keep making butter,” a phrase that motivates persistence more effectively for some students than simply, “Keep trying.” For instructors of On Course, this is an engaging activity to accompany the exploration of persistence in Chapter 4.

THE LION AND THE MOUSE: Once while a Lion was sleeping, a little Mouse began running up and down his back. This woke the Lion, who placed his huge paw upon the little Mouse and opened his big jaws to swallow him. “Pardon, O King,” cried the little Mouse. “Forgive me this time, and I shall never forget it. Who knows? I may be able to help you one day.” The Lion was so amused at the idea of the tiny Mouse being able to help him that he lifted his paw and let the creature go. Not long after, the mighty Lion was caught in a net by hunters. Just then the little Mouse happened by and offered the Lion his assistance. The Lion was skeptical that the little Mouse could help, but the Mouse started chewing on the heavy cords, one strand at a time. Before long, he gnawed through the ropes that had bound the mighty beast, and the grateful Lion admitted that he had been wrong to think that a creature so small could be of no help to him.

In our discussion of this parable, students express the importance of building mutually supportive relationships, of offering help to others as well as seeking and accepting help, sometimes from the most unlikely places. Later on, when a student is feeling overwhelmed, a classmate or I will remind him, “Find a mouse!” For instructors of On Course, this is a helpful activity to accompany the exploration of interdependence in Chapter 5.

A lengthier parable that I use is the book (or video) “C and the Box: A Paradigm Parable” by Frank A. Prince (Pfeiffer & Company, 1993). Once employed to motivate and train corporate employees, this story relays the tale of the letter “C” and “C’s” co-workers. “C” goes to school and establishes a career, but eventually discovers the pitfalls of counterproductive habits and monotonous routines. Entrenched in a comfort zone, “C” initially resists change, but eventually “C” becomes intrigued with rediscovering tools to work “out of the box” and teaches co-workers to do the same.

After reading the book and/or viewing the video, I distribute white sheets of paper with a bold letter “C” in the center of the page. I ask students to brainstorm independently and write any words on their page that begin with the letter “C” which remind them of characters or behaviors in the story. They can choose adjectives, nouns, adverbs, or verbs—but their choices must begin with the letter “C.”

After some initial pondering, student begin to write words such as challenge, cautious, certain, college, choice, and creative. After several minutes, I invite the students to work together in small groups to add more words to their lists. Without realizing it, students are talking about success principles evident in the story in order to explain their choice of a particular word. After several more minutes (or when the noise level becomes unbearable), I bring the groups together as a class, and individuals take turns calling out “C” words until everyone’s list has been exhausted. I write the words on the board or on a flip chart, and everyone is amazed at the lengthy compilation, knowing that the process began with a single letter “C.” For those of you familiar with On Course, it will come as no surprise that for many of my students, “C” comes to stand for “Creator.”

This activity can be replicated with other applicable stories containing lessons about success, such as the book (or video) “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson, M.D. (Putnam, 1998). A great source of other parables is “The Book of Virtues,” edited by William J. Bennett.

The opportunity for the students to reflect on these (and other) parables though journaling, paired conversations and classroom discussion teaches them powerful attitudes and behaviors for creating success. As a final benefit, students’ eagerness to develop their own “in group” vocabulary of success helps to quicken the process of moving from a room full of students to a community of learners. 

–Gail Janecka, Counselor, The Victoria College, TX

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