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The one about high expectations: Studies every teacher needs to know

The one about high expectations: Studies every teacher needs to know

3 min read
  • Becoming evidence-informed
  • The science of learning

Why this study

In Greek mythology, Pygmalion was a renowned sculptor. One day, Pygmalion carved a female statue out of ivory. Upon seeing his work, he fell completely in love with it. He loved his statue so much that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, turned it into a real life being. The Pygmalion effect, therefore, is the term given to the phenomenon of people achieving and living up to someone else’s high standards.  

During the late 1960s, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson wanted to examine how much impact the Pygmalion effect has in our classrooms. Do teacher expectations have much impact on student motivation and performance? To test this, they falsely told teachers that some of their students had been identified as potential high achievers and that they would bloom over the course of the year. These students were in fact chosen at random. They then went back at the end of the school year to find out how these students had got on.

The one about high expectations: Studies every teacher needs to know

The main findings

#1 Students who had been chosen at random were more likely to make larger gains in their academic performance over the course of the year. The researchers attributed this to their teachers having high expectations of them, and subsequently altering their behaviours.

#2 This expectancy advantage was most pronounced in the younger students, with students aged 7-8 years old gaining an average of 10 verbal IQ points compared to their peers in the control group.

#3 Students’ previous performance and ability did not impact on how much benefit they got from high expectations. Both low and high ability students benefited accordingly.

#4 The most significant benefit for male students came with an increase in verbal IQ, with girls mainly benefiting from an increase in reasoning IQ.

Related research

The Pygmalion Effect has been found to be most pronounced if you start the school year with high expectations. It is also good to have high expectations at the beginning of new tasks/topics, so that students start with no preconceived negative notions of how they will fare. On their own, high teacher expectations will help some, but not all students. Research suggests that also helping the students to have high expectations of themselves, as well as high parental expectations, will work well.

The opposite of the Pygmalion Effect is the ‘Golem Effect’. This describes how having low expectations can lead to either self-handicapping behaviours or a self-fulfilling prophecy – where students fail because they and/or their teachers do not believe that they will succeed.

It is also important to distinguish between aspirations and expectations. Aspirations are about wanting to be better, whereas expectations convey a belief about the likelihood of succeeding. Raising expectations has been proven to help, whereas the same can’t be said for aspirations. This is likely due to students already having high expectations. Research suggests that students who have high aspirations but low expectations are twice as likely to get fewer than 5 GCSEs at A*-C. The disconnect occurs in the gap between having these high ambitions and the daily behaviours and habits required to achieve them. 

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Classroom implications

No-one rises to low expectations. Having high expectations of each and every student and then providing the necessary support needed to achieve said expectations seem key to all students achieving. As the authors of this study noted, “when teachers expected that certain children would show greater intellectual development, those children did show greater intellectual development”.

How can a teacher tangibly demonstrate their high expectations for their students? Not lowering standards, expecting all students to contribute, and making sure differentiation means varying support whilst not lowering expectation of what they can achieve -these are good starting points. Furthermore, taking time to verbalise your high expectations for students, and explaining that you believe in them and that you will work hard with them to help them achieve these goals will help drive an increase in standards and self-belief.

This study is from our book, “The Science of Learning: 99 studies that every teacher needs to know”.

Reference: Rosenthal and Jacobson, 1966, The urban review

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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