In the magical summer of 2002, S Club 7 encouraged us ‘to reach for the stars’ and to ‘climb every mountain higher’.
Indeed, many politicians and education policy makers extoll the virtues of increasing student aspirations and expectations. But how much impact does having high aspirations and expectations have on student performance?
Does telling a student to reach for the stars make them more likely to do so?
Keen to answer these sort of questions, Nabil Khattab from the University of Bristol ran a study that measured 770 student and parental aspirations and expectations.
These students came from a large range of schools, with over 640 schools participating in the study. Several years later, these scores were then compared to the students’ GCSE results and analysed to discover what, if any, correlation existed between aspirations, expectations, and results. A little while later, these results were also measured against whether these students had applied to go onto further education.
The main findings
#1 Most students (58%) have both high aspirations and expectations.
#2 Students with low aspirations and low expectations did the worst at GCSEs, while those with higher aspirations and expectations got, on average, 2 more GCSEs graded A*-C.
#3 Having high aspirations and low expectations often led to low achievement. These students were twice as likely to get less than 5 GCSE’s at A*-C than their peers who had both high aspirations and expectations.
#4 Students whose parents expected them to go to University when they were in Year 9 were over 5 times more likely to do so than the students whose parents did not.
Subsequent research has found that the majority of aspiration interventions do little to improve educational attainment. Having high aspirations but being unable to have a chance of achieving them has been found to result in student resentment, frustration, and withdrawing socially.
The research has been far more positive on the impact and predictive power of high expectations if combined with high aspirations. Research suggests that having high expectations is most beneficial if done at the start of the school year or at the beginning of a new project, as this allows them to approach it with no negative pre-conceptions or ideas.
Having high expectations of themselves has been found to help students answer more questions correctly on a quiz. Likewise, much research has focused on the impact that parental and teacher expectations has on student performance. In most cases, this has been found to help raise student performance. A word of caution must be sounded though, as when expectations are excessively high and unrealistic, this can cause stress and anxiety.
This study suggests that having high aspirations and expectations are important. However, blanket wide interventions targeting all students may be unsuccessful as many of them already have high levels of both. Programmes targeting selected students who have low aspirations and expectations would likely yield far better results for the time, energy and cost that would be required.
Another approach would be to work with students who already have high aspirations but have low expectations. As the authors of the study note, “the data that has been presented here suggests that policy makers, teachers and other professionals in schools should encourage their students to raise and maintain high levels of aspirations. However, these high aspirations should be reinforced by equipping students, particularly those coming from poor and disadvantaged families, with necessary skills”. These skills include any that help harness the motivation that comes with having high aspirations that can be turned into better grades. These include strategies such as metacognition, self-regulation and effective memory strategies such as spacing and retrieval practice.
This study is from our book, “The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know”.
Reference: Khattab, 2015, British education research journal