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The importance of classroom expectations and how to set them

The importance of classroom expectations (and how to set them)

3 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

As the academic year is now in full swing, it is worth considering this quote from renowned educationalist, Bill Rogers: “You establish what you establish”.

What does this mean at the beginning of the year? Well, if you start establishing high expectations now, and reinforce them consistently throughout the school year, you’ll give your students the best chance of success. Let’s take a look at the research behind it – and what happens if you keep your expectations low as a teacher…

Why expectations matter in the classroom

The power of expectations has been well researched in education. Here is what we currently know…

The Pygmalion Effect

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a celebrated sculptor, who loved one of his statues so much that it turned into a real life being. This story gave its name to the Pygmalion Effect, which is the term given to the phenomenon of people raising their achievement and living up to someone’s high expectations.

This effect is reflected in research, which had found that when teachers were falsely told that randomly selected students had the potential to be high achievers, these students improved the most academically by the end of the year. Why was that? Well, since the teachers had higher hopes and standards for these students, they ended up giving them both more challenge and support.

The Golem Effect 

The opposite of the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect. In several Jewish myths, the Golem is a creature made of unfinished and raw clay which eventually becomes a violent monster. This effect describes how having low expectations of someone can lead them to meet these expectations and, as a result, perform poorly.

A study on the Golem Effect in an education setting found that lower expectations made the teachers react more negatively to the students, which made them, in turn, perform worse academically. This is because having low expectations promotes self-handicapping behaviours and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, where students fall short because they and/or their teachers do not think they can thrive.

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3 tips on managing expectations in the classroom

So, now that we know the importance of expectations, here are three ways to display and reinforce high expectations so all your students can flourish during this school year.

Start early on positive external voice

Research has found that the effect of expectations is the most prominent at the beginning of the school year. This is because students have no preconceived notions and seek support on what is realistically achievable. If you give students affirmation that they can do well before they start doubting themselves, it allows them to internalise this belief, which becomes a huge advantage.

Bring parents/guardians into the picture 

Recent research has found that high expectations from students’ parents or guardians are strongly associated with the high academic achievement of their children. Emphasise to parents that their expectations play a big role in their child’s success at school and encourage them to value education and set high expectations.

This is not the only way to involve parents and guardians – other parental strategies have been found to help their children get better grades. Read more about it here.

Don’t go overboard

Studies have found that when expectations are unrealistic and far exceed a student’s ability, it can worsen their academic performance. Moreover, these expectations can overwhelm students with pressure, leading to stress and anxiety. Try to set realistically high and positive expectations for students, make it clear to them that they can achieve them, and help them come up with a plan to do so.

Final thoughts

It is difficult to rise above low expectations. If you set your expectations just right (that is, both challenging and realistic), it will help your students reach their full potential and flourish in school. Targeting the start of a year, term or project may offer our best bet in how to do so, along with bringing family members and guardians along as well.

About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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