Education resources › Blog › The power of expectations

The power of expectations

The power of expectations

5 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset

How much influence do the expectations of teachers and parents/guardians have on a student’s learning and performance? The answer may be found in a fascinating study from the 1960s that forever altered our understanding of the power of expectations – and still rings true today.

Researchers informed a group of teachers that some of their students had been identified as potential high achievers who would blossom over the academic year. In reality, these students were chosen at random. And yet, by the end of the year, these randomly selected students had made significantly more progress than their peers.

This phenomenon became known as the Pygmalion Effect, illustrating the transformative impact of high expectations on student achievement. But what happens when expectations are low? And how can we as educators leverage the power of expectations to maximise student success?

The impact of expectations on students – High or low

The Pygmalion Effect: The power of high expectations

The term “Pygmalion Effect” originates from Greek mythology. Pygmalion, a renowned sculptor, fell in love with a beautiful statue he had carved out of ivory. His deep affection for his creation was so profound that the statue transformed into a living being.

In an educational context, The Pygmalion Effect refers to the phenomenon where students rise to meet the high standards and expectations set by others.

The Golem Effect: The negative impact of low expectations

Conversely, the Golem Effect demonstrates the negative consequences of low expectations. Named after a mythical violent monster made of clay (but, unlike Pygmalion’s statue, raw and unfinished), this effect highlights how students may underperform when little is expected of them.

In a study on the Golem Effect in education, researchers found two key outcomes of low expectations:

  • The teachers reacted more negatively toward the students
  • The students, in turn, performed worse
Help your staff understand and apply the latest and most important Cognitive Science research.

5 ways to harness the power of expectations

So, having high expectations for your students can have a strong influence on their learning and performance. But what does that look like in practice?

1. Distinguish between aspirations and expectations

A crucial aspect of managing expectations involves understanding how they differ from expectations. Aspirations denote a desire for improvement, while expectations convey beliefs about the likelihood of success. While raising expectations has been proven beneficial, the same cannot be said for aspirations.

According to a review by The Education Endowment Foundation, interventions aimed at raising aspirations have minimal impact on educational attainment. This is because many students already possess high aspirations. The disconnect lies in the gap between these and the habits necessary to achieve their lofty goals.

A recent study found that students with high aspirations but low expectations are twice as likely to score less than 5 GCSEs at A*-C than their peers with both high aspirations and expectations. Sam Baars, Director of Research from LKMco, suggests that “low expectations are far more widespread than low aspirations. Teachers should arguably focus on whether their pupils believe they will do well, rather than on whether they want to do well.”

2. Early is better than later

Research indicates that the effect of expectations is most pronounced at the start of the school year or at the onset of new tasks and topics. Students approach these times with fewer preconceived notions of their capabilities and want guidance on what they can realistically achieve.

If students hear a positive external voice full of belief and conviction that they can succeed before their own self-doubt sets in, this can provide a significant advantage. So, set and communicate high expectations early on. This can play a critical role in shaping your students’ academic trajectory.

3. The role of parental expectations

While high teacher expectations can enhance some students’ performance, psychologists suggest that this alone may only benefit a minority of students. Parents and guardians play a pivotal role in shaping students’ self-perceptions. Recent research on parental strategies for helping children succeed at school found that the most significant impact was achieved through high expectations.

When parents and guardians value education and anticipate their child’s success, they communicate the importance and likelihood of academic achievement. Other beneficial parental strategies include high expectations, regular communication, fostering positive reading habits and clear rules regarding homework and leisure time.

4. Balancing expectations: The Goldilocks Principle

However, a word of caution is warranted when dealing with expectations. More isn’t always better. As with many aspects of psychology, the situation becomes more nuanced and complex once we delve beneath the surface.

Research indicates that unrealistic expectations (i.e., those that far exceed a student’s ability) can harm academic performance. Excessive expectations can also induce stress and anxiety in students. That’s where the Goldilocks Principle applies: too little or too much can be detrimental. The key lies in setting expectations that are challenging yet realistic.

5. Fostering high self-expectations by building positive self-perception

Studies suggest that students’ self-perceptions significantly influence their behavior. An intriguing experiment had participants spend 5 minutes thinking about the attributes of a college professor before answering trivia questions. The results? They answered more questions correctly than those who hadn’t been primed to think like a professor.

Clearly, how students perceive themselves and their expectations of success can influence their thought processes and effort levels. Encouraging students to reflect on their learning processes, focus less on innate ability and develop positive self-talk can help with this.

Final thoughts

It’s hard to flourish if no one believes in you. No one rises to low expectations or to demands that heavily outweigh their capabilities. However, expectations are pitched at the right level – challenging but realistic – can propel students to elevate their performance and academic achievement.

If the high expectations that staff, parents/guardians and the students themselves hold align with one another, are accurate and are established early, the chances of making a meaningful impact increase dramatically. So, let’s harness the power of expectations, set the bar high, and watch our students soar to meet it.


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.

Follow on XConnect on LinkedIn