Sometimes, setting high expectations for students can help them achieve more than they would have otherwise.

This phenomenon is known as the Pygmalion Effect and has been the subject of a number studies, including one by the National Center for Education Statistics. Their Education Longitudinal Study (ELS), which drew data from a diverse selection of tenth graders over a period of a decade, found that students whose instructors set high expectations for them were more likely to graduate from college later on.

Lower expectations on the part of teachers regarding minority students also appeared to play a role in future college graduation rates. The ELS found that the African American students tracked were 47 percent less likely to graduate from college. Students from a Hispanic or economically disadvantaged background were also significantly less likely to finish a degree.

Psychologist Robert Rosenthal established the presence of the Pygmalion Effect in education through a now-famous experiment in 1964 at a California elementary school. Rosenthal disguised standard IQ tests as the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition,” a title that he invented, and administered them to to classrooms. He then selected students at random and told their teachers they had scores in the top twenty percentile, meaning that they would soon exhibit rapid intellectual growth. At the end of the year, the IQ tests were administered again as a way of measuring whether high expectations resulted in any academic changes. Particularly in younger students, those who had been marked for a performance increase actually exhibited one.

“It’s not magic, it’s not mental telepathy,” Rosenthal later told NPR. “It’s very likely these thousands of different ways of treating people in small ways every day.”

After several more decades of research, Rosenthal proposed four main factors that may influence teacher expectations and student response in the classroom:

1. Climate – how supportive a student judges the learning environment to be.
2. Input – how much energy a teacher devotes to a particular student.
3. Output – how often a teacher calls on the student for answers.
4. Feedback – the manner in which the teacher responds to student questions.

High ExpectationsHigh expectations may be self-fulfilling; when a student is expected to succeed academically, he or she is often given more resources to do so. If you set high expectations, students will typically rise to meet them. This makes the Pygmalion Effect a potentially very useful construct for improving student performance, but it can also be harmful if applied unevenly to specific groups.

Teachers can use high expectations to help students succeed by practicing reflective teaching to determine how expectations for students might vary. Are there certain behaviors that lead you to believe some students are more likely to succeed? If so, keeping a journal might help determine what those behaviors are and why they appear to predict success. If you can address your own biases and raise your expectations uniformly, you will likely see an increase in success for all of your students.

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