Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

5.6: What is the effect of having high expectations for students?

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \(\newcommand{\avec}{\mathbf a}\) \(\newcommand{\bvec}{\mathbf b}\) \(\newcommand{\cvec}{\mathbf c}\) \(\newcommand{\dvec}{\mathbf d}\) \(\newcommand{\dtil}{\widetilde{\mathbf d}}\) \(\newcommand{\evec}{\mathbf e}\) \(\newcommand{\fvec}{\mathbf f}\) \(\newcommand{\nvec}{\mathbf n}\) \(\newcommand{\pvec}{\mathbf p}\) \(\newcommand{\qvec}{\mathbf q}\) \(\newcommand{\svec}{\mathbf s}\) \(\newcommand{\tvec}{\mathbf t}\) \(\newcommand{\uvec}{\mathbf u}\) \(\newcommand{\vvec}{\mathbf v}\) \(\newcommand{\wvec}{\mathbf w}\) \(\newcommand{\xvec}{\mathbf x}\) \(\newcommand{\yvec}{\mathbf y}\) \(\newcommand{\zvec}{\mathbf z}\) \(\newcommand{\rvec}{\mathbf r}\) \(\newcommand{\mvec}{\mathbf m}\) \(\newcommand{\zerovec}{\mathbf 0}\) \(\newcommand{\onevec}{\mathbf 1}\) \(\newcommand{\real}{\mathbb R}\) \(\newcommand{\twovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\ctwovec}[2]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\threevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cthreevec}[3]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfourvec}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\fivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{r}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\cfivevec}[5]{\left[\begin{array}{c}#1 \\ #2 \\ #3 \\ #4 \\ #5 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\mattwo}[4]{\left[\begin{array}{rr}#1 \amp #2 \\ #3 \amp #4 \\ \end{array}\right]}\) \(\newcommand{\laspan}[1]{\text{Span}\{#1\}}\) \(\newcommand{\bcal}{\cal B}\) \(\newcommand{\ccal}{\cal C}\) \(\newcommand{\scal}{\cal S}\) \(\newcommand{\wcal}{\cal W}\) \(\newcommand{\ecal}{\cal E}\) \(\newcommand{\coords}[2]{\left\{#1\right\}_{#2}}\) \(\newcommand{\gray}[1]{\color{gray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\lgray}[1]{\color{lightgray}{#1}}\) \(\newcommand{\rank}{\operatorname{rank}}\) \(\newcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\col}{\text{Col}}\) \(\renewcommand{\row}{\text{Row}}\) \(\newcommand{\nul}{\text{Nul}}\) \(\newcommand{\var}{\text{Var}}\) \(\newcommand{\corr}{\text{corr}}\) \(\newcommand{\len}[1]{\left|#1\right|}\) \(\newcommand{\bbar}{\overline{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bhat}{\widehat{\bvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\bperp}{\bvec^\perp}\) \(\newcommand{\xhat}{\widehat{\xvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\vhat}{\widehat{\vvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\uhat}{\widehat{\uvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\what}{\widehat{\wvec}}\) \(\newcommand{\Sighat}{\widehat{\Sigma}}\) \(\newcommand{\lt}{<}\) \(\newcommand{\gt}{>}\) \(\newcommand{\amp}{&}\) \(\definecolor{fillinmathshade}{gray}{0.9}\)

    by Kathleen Crossin


    Most of us are guilty of forming opinions of people based on our first impressions. What happens when a teacher forms an opinion of a student based on first impressions, cognitive abilities, economic status, ethnicity, gender, or perceived achievement level? Are the teacher's expectations of the student likely to have an effect on student performance?

    Pygmalion Effect and Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

    Researchers Rosenthal and Jacobson published a study of the effects of teacher expectations. The Pygmalion effect, also known as the "teacher expectancy effect" ("Pygmalion effect," 2008, para.1) explains that students will meet the expectations they feel the teacher has for them. If the student feels that the teacher expects them to do well, they will meet those expectations. Conversely, if a teacher has low expectations for a student, the teacher's behavior toward that student will ensure that the expectation was accurate (Tauber, 1998, para. 5). The Pygmalion effect is closely associated with the self-fulfilling prophecy ("Self-fulfilling prophecy, 2008). Robert Merton is credited with this term (Tauber, 1998). He explained the five points involved:

    • "The teacher forms expectations."
    • "Based upon these expectations, the teacher acts in a different manner."
    • "The teacher's treatment tells each student (loud and clear) what behavior and what achievement the teacher expects."
    • "If this treatment is consistent, it will tend to shape the student's behavior and achievement."
    • "With time, the student's behavior and achievement will conform more and more closely to that expected of him or her."(Tauber, 1998, para. 8)


    “Whatever we expect with confidence becomes our own self-fulfilling prophecy”--- Brian Tracy

    How Perceptive are Children to a Teacher's Expectations?

    According to research studies (Rubie-Davies, 2006, para. 3), students are very attuned to the differences in which teachers teach and interact with students according to the teacher's expectations (Rubie-Davies, 2006). In a study (Rubie-Davies, 2006) fourth graders were asked how they knew if the teacher labeled them as smart. The students were able to discern this information from the type of instruction the teacher used, the teacher's style of assessment, and the teacher's use of non-verbal actions (Rubie-Davies, 2006, para. 3). A further research experiment (Rubie-Davies, 2006, para. 3) illustrated that fourth graders were able to merely watch a teacher's non-verbal cues and determine if the teacher was speaking to high or low expectation students (Rubie-Davies, 2006, para. 4). As we can see from these studies, children are very conscious of a teacher's expectations.

    Is it Possible to Have High Expectations for all Students?


    "Treat a man as he is, he will remain so. Treat a man the way he can be and ought to be, and he will become as he can be and should be".---Goethe

    Students with Cognitive Disabilities

    So crucial is the need for high expectations that there are two laws that deal with ensuring high expectations for all children (Quenemoen & Thurlow, 2007). No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) both "require that all children count in school accountability measures so high expectations will result in high achievement for every child" (Quenemoen & Thurlow, 2007, para. 4). In a national survey (McGrew & Evans, 2003, para. 13), 84% of teachers questioned did not believe that children with special needs should be required to achieve the same goals as other students (McGrew & Evans, 2003, para. 13). These low expectations are communicated to students by the labels they receive in school. Labeling puts an emphasis on the student's shortcomings (McGrew & Evans, 2003, para. 50). While it may not be possible to meet the same standards as other children, a teacher with high expectations for students with cognitive disabilities can help establish an environment that is not conducive to further inhibiting a student's achievements (McGrew & Evans, 2003, para. 88).

    Income and Racial Diversity

    Do teachers have low expectations of students from low-income families? Do minority students face bias due to stereotypes? Alfinio Flores (2007) studied this topic in reference to the differences in math scores between low-income minority students and White students (Flores, 2007, para. 1). Flores (2007) states that the percentage of White teachers is 88%, while the minority students make up 33% of the student population (Flores, 2007, para. 15). Flores feels that many factors account for the differences in test scores. Teachers, who have low expectations of these minority students and as a result do not teach students more advanced math, are one of the problems (Flores, 2007, para. 16). Research (Flores, 2007) has shown that the achievement gap in poor and minority students is due to a lack of opportunity, not a lack of intelligence (Flores, 2007, para. 40). He concludes that “there is nothing intrinsic to the students’ backgrounds or cultures that would prevent them from achievement” (Flores, 2007, para. 28). Researcher, Richard Elmore, a researcher who studies schools with racial diversity and high poverty levels, found that schools that were successful, were schools in which teachers and administrators had high expectations for students (Elmore, 2006, para. 4). In a study (Brown & Medway, 2007) of a school (with 10 years of unsatisfactory student progress) with a high percentage of low-income students, 70% population of African-American students, and 34% of students in special education classes, a plan that focused on high expectations brought about national awards for their subsequent accomplishments(Brown & Medway, 2007, para. 9).


    Are male and female students afforded the same opportunities for academic achievement? Society has clearly shown us that we expect different behaviors from males and females (Lindley & Keithley, 1991, para. 1). In the classroom, males benefit from high expectations and are encouraged to achieve their goals. Conversely, females are encouraged to be model students (Lindley & Keithley, 1991, para. 7, 8). Evidence of this bias is shown by males out-scoring females on college entrance standardized tests (Lindley & Keithley, 1991, para. 9). In an effort to address this inequality, the GESA (Gender/Ethnic/Racial Expectations and Student Achievement) Program was developed (Lindley & Keithley, 1991, para. 1). Results from this program showed an increase in classroom opportunities for females, increases in math and reading scores, and the teachers felt that the program was beneficial in raising their cognizance of the issues addressed (Lindley & Keithley, 1991, para. 20).

    "Average" Students

    Does the "average" student get left out? So much attention is paid to special needs students, but what about the average student (Gonder, 1993, para. 1)? A variety of methods have been successfully used to engage these students (Gonder, 1993, para. 3). One of the methods involves increasing expectations by changing the curriculum focus from basic recall to a curriculum focused on analysis and concepts. (Gonder, 1993, para. 13). This curriculum change lets the student know that you expect more from them and you feel them capable of succeeding (Gonder, 1993, para. 13). Another way some high schools are delivering the message of high expectations is through personalized attention (Gonder, 1993, para. 11). In these schools, once a semester "the adviser, student, and parent meet to discusss the student's educational goals and develop a plan to meet them" (Gonder, 1993, para. 11).

    Gifted Students

    Underachieving gifted students sounds like an oxymoron, when compared to the stereotypical views of gifted children (Kolb & Jussim, 1994, para. 18). For many teachers, the label of "gifted" means that the student is motivated to excel(Kolb & Jussim, 1994, para. 18). For some students, the lack of challenging work, causes them to behave poorly in class causing the teacher to lower their expectations of that student (Kolb & Jussim, 1994, para. 20). Some gifted children rise to the challenge of changing the teacher's new perception, but others may "fall victim to self-fulfilling prophecies" (Kolb & Jussim, 1994, para. 21). To prevent this cycle of low expectations leading to a negative self-fulfilling prophecy, teachers need to be aware of the ways in which gifted students react to boredom in the classroom (Kolb & Jussim, 1994, para. 28). If teachers realize these reactions for what they are, they will not lower their expectations (Kolb & Jussim, 1994, para. 21).

    Do All Students Fall Victim to Low Expectations?

    As a parent, I feel strongly that all teachers should hold high expectations for their students. I know that my children look up to their teachers and are influenced by what happens in the classroom. I cannot imagine a better feeling than someone telling you that you are full of potential and ability. As we have seen from various research experiments, teachers can convey these thoughts merely in the manner in which they teach. I also feel that it is my responsibility as a parent to help my child develop a strong sense of self efficacy. As we go through life, we are going to be faced with people who do not have high expectations of us. Should we fall victim to the self-fulfilling prophecy each time we meet someone who does not hold us in high regard? Fortunately, not everyone is susceptible to the expectancy effects (EE). Kolb & Jussim (1994) state that "it is important to realize that some vulnerable or 'at risk' students, nevertheless, are more resilient than others and seem impervious to the deleterious impact of negative EE" (Kolb & Jussim, 1994, para. 43).


    While not all students are negatively impacted by low expectations, research (Mavi & Sharpe, 2000) clearly shows that students benefit from high expectations (Mavi & Sharpe, 2000, para. 15). We are all individuals with our own unique abilities. I will never be an impressive artist, but I can make progress to the best of my ability. Authors Hasan and Sharpe (2000) sum it up nicely, "Clearly defining success in terms of individual progress is one means to avoiding inappropriately placed standards; standards which may act to drive low expectancies placed on some students" (Hasan & Sharpe, 2000, para. 15). Having high expectations for all students does not mean that we expect all students to accomplish the same goals. We expect students to reach their own potential. Teachers can help students obtain their goals by maintaining high expectations for all.


    Brown, K., & Medway, F. J. School climate and teacher beliefs in a school effectively serving poor South Carolina (USA) African-American students: A case study. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ756898). Retrieved from ERIC database.

    Elmore, R. F. What (so-called) low-performing schools can teach (so-called) high-performing schools. Journal of Staff Development v. 27 no. 2 (Spring 2006) p. 43-5 Retrieved from Education full text database.

    Flores, A. Examining Disparities in Mathematics Education: Achievement Gap or Opportunity Gap? The High School Journal v. 91 no. 1 (October/November 2007) p. 29-42. Retrieved from Education full text database.

    Gonder, P. Getting kids out of the muddle of middle-ability education [excerpt from Caught in the middle]. The Education Digest v. 59 (September 1993) p. 18-22. Retrieved from Education full text database.

    Kolb, K. J., & Jussim, L. Teacher expectations and underachieving gifted children. Roeper Review v. 17 (September 1994) p. 26-30. Retrieved from Education full text database.

    Learning opportunities for your child through alternate assessments. (2007). [Brochure] Quenemoen, R. & Thurlow, M.: Authors.

    Lindley, H. A. & Keithley, M. Gender expectations and student achievement [GESA Program for professional development]. Roeper Review v. 13 (June 1991) p. 213-15. Retrieved from Education full text database.

    Mavi, H. F. & Sharpe, Tom. Reviewing the literature on teacher and coach expectations with implications for future research and practice. The Physical Educator v. 57 no. 3 (Fall 2000) p. 161-8

    McGrew, K. S., & Evans, J. (2003) Expectations for students with cognitive disabilities: Is the cup half empty or half full? Can the cup flow over? (Synthesis Report 55). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, National Center on Educational Outcomes. Retrieved from

    Pygmalion effect. (2008, January 17). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved January 29, 2008, from

    Rubie-Davies, C. M. Teacher Expectations and Student Self-Perceptions: Exploring Relationships. Psychology in the Schools v. 43 no. 5 (May 2006) p. 537-52. Retrieved from Education full text database.

    Self-fulfilling prophecy. (2008, February 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 22:32, February 3, 2008, from

    Tauber, Robert T. (1998) Good or bad, what teachers expect from students they generally get! ERIC Digest (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. 426985). Retrieved from ERIC database.

    Bamburg, Jerry. Raising Expectations To Improve Student Learning. Oak Brook, Illinois: North Central Regional Educational Laboratory, 1994. 33 pages. ED378 290. Retrieved April 17, 2008,

    This reference includes all of the information give in Kathleen’s article, but one topic that should be explained is teacher efficacy. It is important for teachers to have expectations for their own performance as well as the expectations of the students. One of the difficulties that teachers run into is the number of goals they want to accomplish with such little time that they have. To overcome that issue, teachers simplify their efforts on the goals that they feel is the most important. This issue leads to important differences in the student’s achievement. This topic contributes to Kathleen’s article because it is important to know that teacher’s expectations also rely on the expectations of their students and their performance in the classroom. “Intellectual and professional potential of teachers has been drastically underestimated by the education community as a result of the same mindset that has caused teachers to underestimate the intellectual potential of their students” (Hilliard, A. (1991). Do we have the will to educate all children?, Educational Leadership, 49(1), 31-36).