Teacher Expectations Research Paper

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All teachers have expectations for students, as they should. Teacher expectations are notions teachers hold about students’ long- and short-term performance—beliefs teachers hold about what students are capable of achieving on a daily and long-term basis. They are important because teachers base planning and instruction on expectations for student achievement, behavior, and success. Hence teacher expectations can have both direct and indirect effects on student performance.

Various types of teacher expectation effects have been identified, but the most commonly acknowledged are self-fulfilling prophecy and sustaining expectation effects. Self-fulfilling prophecy effects were originally identified by Merton (1948). When applied to education they are originally false expectations of a student that lead to a teacher acting toward a student in particular ways so the student eventually fulfills the teachers’ originally erroneous expectations. For example, a teacher interacted with Peter before he was assigned to her class. Based on these casual interactions, the teacher decides Peter is able. When he arrives in her class she ignores portfolio information indicating he is average. Instead she plans challenging learning experiences for Peter, actively encourages his success, provides clear learning feedback, and assigns him good grades. By year’s end Peter is performing at levels the teacher expected.

Sustaining expectation effects, originally identified by Cooper and Good (1983), are probably more common in education but are also more difficult to identify because sustaining expectation effects do not change student performance levels. Indeed the teacher can frustrate the potential for change (Good, 1987). In this scenario a teacher carefully reads portfolio information related to Charlotte before the child enters his class. The information indicates Charlotte is average, so the teacher plans work for her at an appropriate level despite noticing Charlotte appears to complete tasks easily and quickly. Not wanting to pressure her, the teacher ignores these observations and continues to plan average-level work. Thus Charlotte’s average performance is maintained despite possibilities of greater achievement given the opportunity.

Researchers agree teacher expectations and teacher expectation effects exist, but disagree about the strength and significance of these effects. For example, Brophy (1983) reported teacher expectation effects are mostly quite small, whereas Blatchford, Burke, Farquhar, Plewis, and Tizard (1989) described quite large effects. This may be because opportunity to learn is often considered a mediating variable for teacher expectation effects. In the British classrooms Blatchford et al. studied, students had fairly individualized programs that offered more variable opportunities to learn than in American classrooms where there is more whole-class teaching. It could be argued that if expectation effects are cumulative, however large or small, over time they may result in large effects, at least for some students. On the other hand, most teacher expectations are accurate and learning opportunities for students appropriate; this may explain why expectation effects are sometimes regarded as being less consequential for student learning (Jussim, Eccles, & Madon, 1996). But where expectations are inaccurate, especially where they are well below student potential, there can be profound effects on student achievement, particularly when compounding factors are considered.

Teacher Expectations research paper f1Figure 27.1  The Role of Proximal and Distal Behaviors in the Communication of Teacher Expectations

Expectations are evidenced through both proximal and distal interactions of the teacher with students. In this research-paper proximal interactions are deemed to be direct interactions teachers have with students, including both verbal and nonverbal messages teachers provide. Distal interactions are interactions over which students mostly have little control. They include teacher’s planning and subsequent learning opportunities for the student, and the classroom instructional and socioemotional environments. Figure 27.1 illustrates the mediation of teacher expectation effects and shows the importance of proximal and distal teacher interactions for student outcomes.

Teachers form expectations based on information they have about prior student performance. For example, Mrs. Bailey is a teacher. Her expectations will interact with her pedagogical and implicit beliefs about Michael, her student, and about how best to implement teaching to support his learning. She will then plan learning experiences for Michael. The upper section of the model indicates the role of the teacher’s proximal behaviors in communicating teacher expectations. Mrs. Bailey communicates her expectations for Michael’s learning through verbal interactions, behavior toward him, and nonverbal messages. Michael interprets his teacher’s interactions and behaviors as illustrating her high or low expectations for him. He can choose to accept his teacher’s expectations as accurate and complete his learning experiences accordingly. Alternatively, if he perceives his teacher’s expectations as low he may put in additional effort to demonstrate his capabilities, hoping to change Mrs. Bailey’s expectations. At this level the student does have some control over whether or not he accepts the teacher’s expectations.

The lower section of the model relates to the role of the teacher’s distal behaviors in communicating teacher expectations. On this side of the model, Mrs. Bailey plans learning opportunities for Michael based on her expectations for his achievement. She provides him with learning experiences she decides will help him to make progress in his learning. Michael participates in these activities, and his active engagement results in learning at the level planned and delivered. On this side of the model, however, Michael has little input. The opportunities for learning are decided by his teacher, and depending on the appropriateness and challenge of the learning activities, Michael can make average, advanced, or slow progress.

The teacher expectation model has solid lines between most aspects and a dotted line from student to teacher. The dotted line shows the influence of the student’s performance and behavior on the teacher and plays a lesser role than the teachers’ expectations for the student. It could be argued the relationship between student performance and teacher expectations is reciprocal. Indeed some students will influence teachers more than others, but research by Kuklinski and Weinstein (2001) suggests overall the influence is greater from the teacher to the student than the opposite. These researchers further suggest that younger students (below Grade 5) are more vulnerable to teachers’ expectations than older students such that teachers may have self-fulfilling prophecy effects on younger students and sustaining expectation effects on older students (Grades 5 and above).

A Brief Background of Teacher Expectation Research

Teacher expectation research began with the seminal work of Robert Rosenthal. He had previously conducted experiments with laboratory assistants who trained rats to go through a maze. Rosenthal (1963) told some assistants their rats were maze-bright and would learn quickly while others were told their rats were maze-dull. Rosenthal showed when assistants believed their rats were smart they did indeed learn more quickly than rats whose assistants had been told were slow. Rosenthal reasoned that when assistants held particular expectations about their rats, they interacted with the rats in ways which meant the rats learned to go through the maze in congruence with the assistants’ expectations. It seemed logical to apply this reasoning to teachers and students.

In the now famous Pygmalion experiment (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968), Rosenthal told teachers in one elementary school that some students had been identified as ones who would bloom during that year. When students were tested at the end of the year, Rosenthal found indeed the bloomers had made larger improvements than others. Rosenthal argued teachers must have interacted differently with the randomly identified bloomers and these interactions led the students to advance beyond what was previously anticipated. Although this research was both hailed and severely criticized at the time, it became the founding study for a very fruitful area of psychological research.

Rosenthal’s contention that teachers interacted differently with students for whom they held high or low expectations led other researchers to attempt to identify differential teacher behaviors. In a classic early study, Brophy and Good (1970) conducted observations in four first-grade classrooms to isolate teacher behaviors that differed when interacting with high- or low-expectation students. This study formed the basis for a later review of several studies in which Brophy (1983) identified 17 teacher behaviors that varied depending on whether teachers were interacting with high- or low-expectation students. His review showed that teachers demanded less of low-expectation students. Brophy’s review also demonstrated that teachers criticized low-expectation students for failure more often than other students and yet praised low-expectation students less frequently for success. Cooper and Good (1983) focused on direct verbal interactions between teachers and students. They reported that teachers interacted more often with high-expectation students in public and low-expectation students in private. This differential interaction was explained by teachers as an endeavor to preserve student self-esteem; high-expectation students were questioned more in public because they were more likely to respond correctly, whereas low-expectation students were questioned in private because they were less likely to feel embarrassed if their answers were incorrect.

The Unintended Curriculum

Students, however, are aware of teachers’ differential interactions and consequently infer whether their teacher considers them smart or not. From these interactions students may learn lessons that were not intended. Students gain the impression some are considered better than others. Such messages are conveyed not only through direct verbal teacher-student interactions but also nonverbally through smiling, nodding, leaning toward or away from students, sighing, or rolling eyes. Weinstein (2002) showed that students can clearly articulate teacher behaviors that inform them of their classroom status. Sadly, all too many children could recall critical incidents where a student was publicly humiliated or insulted by their teacher.

Students can identify specific teacher and instructional practices that reveal information about their teacher’s expectations. They report that teachers praise and reward high achievers and criticize and punish low achievers. They talk about teachers more frequently calling on high achievers than low achievers. Students also describe teachers making comments like, “You are so smart!” when high-expectation students are successful and teachers merely praising effort when low-expectation students accomplish something. Another practice students relate is differences in assigned work; only certain students are given remedial work and the teacher spends more time helping them. Although students recognize teachers should give such students additional support, they are aware other students are allowed far more independence; such teacher practices provide students with notions about their place in class. Some teachers publicly displayed charts indicating student achievement levels in particular curriculum areas (sometimes trying to disguise these by using group names). But more worrisome is that many students report teachers who frequently point out able and less able students in class by announcing test results publicly or informing students if they work hard they could reach the top group (and the converse).

Some students are particularly vulnerable to teachers’ expectations. These include students from minority groups, lower socioeconomic groups, and girls in math and science. Such students are more likely to accept teachers’ low expectations for their achievement, adhere to stereotypes for their groups, and reduce self-expectations. In turn they may achieve at levels lower than their potential might suggest.

Mechanisms of the unintended Curriculum

So far this research-paper has explored some proximal behaviors of teachers that communicate expectations to students.

It seems likely some teachers will have greater expectation effects than others, and so this section will concentrate on differential teacher factors that could contribute to expectation effects. The following section will explore some distal behaviors and teacher characteristics that contribute to the expression of teacher expectations. Specifically, this section will describe the importance of opportunity to learn, teacher efficacy, and teacher beliefs as distal means by which teachers’ expectations can influence students.

Arguably the most significant distal factor in communicating teacher expectations is opportunity to learn. Students learn when and what they are given the opportunity to learn. Students who are given challenging learning experiences are more likely to achieve at higher levels than students of similar ability who are given low-level, repetitive activities. Students are mostly assigned work by teachers that they complete, and these learning experiences contribute to what is learned. Student achievement is influenced largely by the learning opportunities students receive.

Grade assignment is coupled with task allocation. Teachers tend to reward the academically rich. They believe students who achieve at high levels work harder than students who do not. Jussim and Eccles (1992) showed that teachers do not accurately judge the amount of effort students expend in completing homework. They found low-ability students often spent more time on homework than high-ability students but were not rewarded by their teachers. Yet this perception of high achievers expending greater effort is pervasive and can lead to teachers allocating grades to students above what they deserve. This bias is evident particularly where student work is borderline. If a teacher has high expectations for a student, a higher grade is likely to be allocated to that student’s work, whereas if the teachers’ expectations for a student are low, then there is greater probability a lower grade will be assigned.

In addition, teachers tend to accept work from low-expectation students they would not accept from high-expectation students. Whereas high-expectation students performing below expectation may be encouraged to improve their efforts, low achievers working below capability may not.

Cognitive engagement also influences what students learn. Tasks that are exciting and interesting for students are more likely to result in cognitive engagement and improved progress than mundane activities, yet researchers (Gamoran, 1992) report low-expectation students are more often given structured, repetitive activities than high achievers. It is important that such students are challenged by and enthused about learning if they are to cognitively engage in tasks. Such students should be given more opportunities to learn, not less. Similarly, researchers (Zohar, Degani, & Vaaknin, 2001) have shown higher order questioning is often reserved for the academically able. If low-expectation students are not given opportunities to think at higher levels, or time to process and extend thinking, lower levels of cognitive processing is a possible outcome. Again, student opportunity to learn may be constrained.

Teacher factors can provide a mechanism for the unintended curriculum. One such factor is a teacher’s self-efficacy for teaching. Teaching efficacy is the belief teachers hold about their ability to teach. Ross (1998) showed that teachers high in self-efficacy for teaching have positive beliefs about their ability to make a difference to student learning and their expectations are likely to be higher. Such teachers set challenging learning goals for students rather than adhering strictly to the curriculum. They are more likely to use a wide range of teaching strategies (such as small-group learning and individualized programs) and to implement creative and experimental techniques to assist learning.

Conversely, teachers with low teaching efficacy may feel less competent in their ability to make a difference to student learning and are less able to improve the skills of low-expectation students. Less confident in their teaching ability, low-efficacy teachers are more likely to structure lessons at a whole-class level rather than teaching students in small groups (which is more difficult but more effective). Such teachers can exacerbate the differences between low- and high-ability students as they spend less productive time with them.

Teacher beliefs about learning and teaching also play a role in teacher expectations and the unintended curriculum. Often, teacher beliefs are implicit but can affect teacher planning and therefore student learning. For example, when teachers are influenced by societal stereotypes related to ethnicity or social class it affects their instructional practices. Beliefs may include the attitude that White students are superior to African American students or that students from low socioeconomic areas lack discipline and appropriate academic support for schooling. Such beliefs may lead teachers to carefully structure the instructional environment so that students are controlled. When this happens students are likely to be given fewer intellectually stimulating tasks, less autonomy, and diminished opportunities to work in collaborative groupings with peers. A rigid, nonstimulating environment may reduce students’ opportunities to learn.

Student Characteristics

Ethnicity and social class are student characteristics that can influence teachers’ expectations for students and translate to differing instructional environments. Teachers may pay attention to particular student attributes and form expectations according to stereotypes and beliefs held about students with those attributes. The influence of ethnicity and social class will be more fully discussed later. Other student characteristics investigated in relation to teacher expectations include diagnostic labels, gender, physical attractiveness, personality and social skills, language style, teacher/student background, names, and other siblings. The influence of each of these student characteristics on teachers’ expectations will be discussed briefly.

Diagnostic labels can have a powerful influence on teachers’ expectations. In one experiment (Stinnett, Crawford, Gillespie, Cruce, & Langford, 2001), researchers provided 144 preservice teachers with a written description of an elementary school child. The description was held constant but labels included in the description varied. The preservice teachers were told that the child had no label, had attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), was in special education, or was on Ritalin (used to medicate children with ADHD). Where the child had no label but was said to be on Ritalin, he was judged to have greater attentional difficulties than if he was in special education. When the child was said to have ADHD and to be in special education, he was described as having more difficulties than when the child had no label. The authors of this experiment suggested the label evoked negative judgments in teachers and low expectations for student behavior.

It is generally acknowledged gender can influence teachers’ expectations. The available evidence suggests teachers have lower expectations for girls than boys in science and mathematics, particularly at upper secondary school and college levels. Low expectations can negatively influence girls’ choices in furthering their education in advanced science and math as well as in pursuing careers in these areas. In an experimental study (Page & Rosenthal, 1990), teachers were asked to design and teach a math lesson for students who were White, Asian, male, and female. They found when students were male, and particularly if they were Asian, teachers taught the lesson at a faster pace and included more concepts than when students were White and female. Consequently, Asian and male students learned more by the end of the lesson. The opposite scenario occurred for reading where White females were at a small advantage. This study suggested stereotypes can have an effect on teachers’ beliefs and expectations, in turn affecting instructional practice.

Teachers have higher expectations for students regarded as attractive than for the physically less appealing; however, this biasing of expectations is moderated once teachers become familiar with their students. In other words, teachers favor attractive students when shown photos before meeting their students but once interacting daily, attractiveness becomes less meaningful in affecting teachers’ expectations (Dusek & Joseph, 1985).

Not surprisingly, teachers have higher expectations for students with engaging personalities and high levels of social skills. Such students are likeable, and this may influence teachers’ expectations. Moreover, engaging students tend to be compliant and demonstrate appropriate classroom behavior, which may contribute to their teachers’ positive assessments and expectations.

A teacher may have lower expectations of a student whose language style differs from the teacher’s. Similarly, incongruent student and teacher backgrounds may result in low expectations for learning. Moreover, teachers tend to have lower expectations for students who do not speak English as their first language. Considering increasing numbers of students who have dissimilar backgrounds to their teachers and alternative languages and language patterns, larger proportions of students may be disadvantaged by teachers’ low expectations than previously believed. Minority groups are more likely taught by teachers who are White and middle class than by teachers from their own cultural and social background.

Small effects on teachers’ expectations have been found for student names, although this influence is more likely when students have an experienced rather than inexperienced teacher (Dusek & Joseph, 1985). When a teacher has had a particularly difficult student whose name was, for example, Jeremy, expectations for another student named Jeremy may be low. The resulting interactions with the teacher can influence student behavior and achievement, which in turn may confirm the teacher’s beliefs about how “Jeremys” might behave.

Previous experience with an older sibling can affect a teacher’s expectations (Dusek & Joseph, 1985). For example, if an older sibling is particularly able the teacher may expect a younger sibling to perform comparably. This may not be borne out. As with names and attractiveness, the teacher is likely to adjust expectations in line with performance once the younger sibling and his or her achievement levels become more obvious.

Ethnicity and Social Class

Much teacher expectation research has concentrated on the salience of student ethnicity and social class for teachers’ expectations. Researchers generally agree social class affects teachers’ expectations; teachers have higher expectations for middle-class students than they do for students from low socioeconomic areas. Researchers are divided over whether ethnicity plays a more or less relevant role in teachers’ expectations. This section will explore a small sample of studies that have investigated the effect of ethnicity and social class on teachers’ expectations.

Wigfield and colleagues (Wigfield, Galper, Denton, & Seefeldt, 1999) investigated beliefs of first-grade teachers about former Head Start and non-Head Start children’s motivation, academic performance, social skills, and future educational prospects. The researchers found differences in teachers’ attitudes toward students in line with ethnicity rather than Head Start status. They found teachers rated White students higher than African American students on ability (although there were no differences), on ease in making friends, on teachers’ enjoyment in working with them, and on teachers’ expectations for students’ grades the following year. This study showed that teachers had low expectations and beliefs about students who were African American.

Recently, McKown and Weinstein (2008) showed that in particular classrooms, teachers’ expectations for European American and Asian American students were much higher (between .75 and 1.00 standard deviations higher) than for African American and Latino students with similar achievement. This disparity was evident in classes where teachers differentiated in several discriminatory ways between treatment and interaction with high- and low-expectation students. The large differences in expectations and teacher expectancy effects evident for teachers considered high-differentiating were not found in classes where high- and low-expectation students were treated similarly.

In New Zealand there has been much debate about the low achievement of Maori and Pacific Island students. Several intervention programs have attempted to alter the achievement of these groups, but little change has been documented. Rubie-Davies, Hattie, and Hamilton (2006) investigated teachers’ expectations in reading of European, Asian, Maori, and Pacific Island elementary school students (the four largest ethnic groups in New Zealand). The researchers found teachers’ expectations for the achievement of all students other than Maori were well above student achievement. The beginning of year achievement of Maori was similar to European and Asian students’ attainment (and all were well above Pacific Island students). By year’s end, however, Maori students had made much less progress than other groups and achieved significantly below their Asian and European counterparts. An interesting aspect of this study was that teachers’ expectations for Pacific Island students were high and were not for Maori. Both groups are mostly found in lower socioeconomic groups. The researchers suggested teachers may have higher expectations for Pacific Island students because teachers perceive more home support for Pacific Island students and greater parental interest in education.

The instructional practices of teachers in low socioeconomic areas differ from those of teachers in middle-class areas. Researchers (Solomon, Battistich, & Hom, 1996, April) reported teachers working in low socioeconomic areas believed students’ behavior was poor and so kept tight control of them. Student autonomy was reduced, and students were engaged in structured whole-class activities with little opportunity for interaction with peers. Hence students received less engaging and challenging forms of education that could have enhanced their performance. Ennis (1998) poignantly revealed teacher attitudes and expectations of inner-city high school students through interviews with teachers and students. Many teachers expressed harsh, unconstructive views about students and pessimistic attitudes toward their futures. But when students (classified as disruptive and disengaged) were interviewed they articulated extreme disenchantment from allegedly inferior teaching and expressed a desire for quality teaching from more caring teachers. Successful teachers in inner-city high schools emphasized the importance of developing trusting, caring relationships with students. They recognized a need to build bridges, have high expectations for students, offer lots of genuine positive attention, and give students second chances while increasing student responsibility for learning.

Class Level Expectations

It would seem some inner-city teachers believe students are disruptive and lack interest in schooling while other inner-city teachers believe they can motivate students to succeed. Differing expectations of students possibly result in teachers practicing differently, and hence the lived experiences of students in discrete classrooms can be quite dissimilar. The differing expectations of individual teachers may be thought of as class level expectations since teachers tend to have such expectations for all students in their classes. Although much has been written about teacher expectations for individual students, there has been little focus on class level expectations in the literature. This is despite calls from Brophy (1985) two decades ago signaling class level expectations may well have greater importance for student achievement than individual teacher-student expectations. Indeed a meta-analysis (a synthesis of research findings) of 136 expectation studies (Harris & Rosenthal, 1985) showed that class level teacher behaviors, such as creating a warm socioemotional climate and developing a friendly classroom environment, had greater effects on students than individual teacher-student interactions, such as wait time and smiling more at high-expectation students, which had been the focus of research.

Several years ago Babad, Inbar, and Rosenthal (1982) identified teachers they classified as high- and low-bias. High-bias teachers could be readily influenced by biasing information. When given false information about some students, teachers responded and planned using the false information rather than using their observations of student performance. Conversely, low-bias teachers were not readily swayed, and they interacted with students according to observable achievement. Different teachers and their responses resulted in differing outcomes for students.

In extensive research over several years, Weinstein (2002) identified teachers she called high- and low-differentiating. High-differentiating teachers discriminated in several ways between high- and low-expectation students, constantly reinforcing ability differences. In contrast, low-differentiating teachers made differences in expectations and ability much less obvious. For example, high-differentiating teachers made frequent reference to students being in or aiming for the top group, whereas this discrimination was uncommon among low-differentiating teachers. Brattesani, Weinstein, and Marshall (1984) showed that for low-differentiating teachers, expectations explained around 3% of the variance in student end-of-year achievement, whereas for high-differentiating teachers this variance was 14%—a marked difference. This divergence may offer an explanation for variations in the magnitude of teacher expectation effects found by researchers. Teacher propensities differ and expectation effects can also differ.

Rubie-Davies (2007) identified high- and low-expectation teachers as those whose expectations for their classes were well above or well below students’ achievement.

Students of high-expectation teachers made very large improvements in reading (d = 1.01), and those of low-expectation teachers made only very small gains (d = .05). Additionally, student self-perceptions changed in the expected direction over one year (Rubie-Davies, 2006), that is, self-perceptions of students with high-expectation teachers increased and those of students with low-expectation teachers declined dramatically. Substantial differences were found in the pedagogical beliefs and instructional practices of the respective teachers (Rubie-Davies, 2005, 2007). Beliefs and practices of high- and low-expectation teachers and high- and low-differentiating teachers appear to be similar. Those that seem to make a difference for student learning are highlighted below.

Expecting Student Success

Weinstein (2002) described the facilitative practices of low-differentiating teachers and the directive practices of their counterparts. The identified practices aligned closely with those of high- and low-expectation teachers described by Rubie-Davies (2005, 2006, 2007). The differences appear to lie largely in the following areas: grouping, materials and activities, the evaluation system, the motivational system, and classroom relationships. These will be discussed in the following sections. Where the findings were similar for both high-expectation and low-differentiating teachers, only high-expectation teachers will be referred to with comparable reference to low-expectation teachers when there are similarities with teachers who are high-differentiating.


Many teachers group students for instruction in some curriculum areas, particularly those showing linear development of skills such as reading and math. Ability groups can, however, provide students with clues about expected capabilities, especially where students are seated in ability groups or where teachers make frequent reference to the relative standing of such groups. High-expectation teachers offset this differentiation by instructing students in ability groups but not seating students in these groups. Moreover, reading activities were completed in mixed ability groupings. Sometimes groupings were socially based, sometimes students chose activities and worked with varying peers depending on the activity; at other times students worked on whole-class or mixed ability group activities assigned by the teacher.

Materials and Activities

The classroom tasks students are assigned, ways they are paced, and how they are monitored can provide students with information about ability. When curriculum material is sequential, students readily decide their placement in class, and when instructional activities are highly differentiated such differences become salient. In low-expectation classrooms, teachers tend to closely monitor low-ability students whereas high-ability students are often allowed to complete work independently. Arguably, differences in assignment of curriculum and monitoring of students may be effective teacher practices. Students, however, readily interpret such differences as conveying meaning about teachers’ expectations. Effects can be minimized by ensuring students work in a variety of groupings and engage in similar challenging and interesting learning activities. Comparable tasks may have divergent processes for achieving learning, and individual learning can be enhanced through participation in exciting tasks that encourage high level thinking in all students.

The Evaluation System

The evaluation system can deliver powerful messages about teachers’ expectations. High-differentiating teachers believe intelligence is fixed and are far more likely to provide students with direct feedback about ability than low-differentiating teachers. Practices include achievement charts in the classroom, asking students to raise their hands if they answered test questions correctly, or frequent references to top and bottom groups (even with disguised group names). Belief in fixed ability translates into expectations about student achievement that can affect teachers’ conceptions about their influence on student learning. If teachers believe ability is fixed, they are less likely to believe they can have much effect on student learning. Conversely, teachers who believe ability is malleable tend to take responsibility when students do not learn a concept and try creative approaches to teaching. High-expectation teachers understand achievement of all students will improve with appropriate help and feedback from the teacher and peers. Success is attributed to effort and failure to task difficulty (Weinstein, 2002).

The Motivational System

Teachers can create an extrinsic or intrinsic motivational system. Low-expectation teachers stress performance goals with emphasis on competition. Students achieve status through gaining individual points, stickers, and public teacher recognition. In contrast, high-expectation teachers foster task mastery goals with emphasis on setting individual goals and monitoring progress. These teachers consider student interests in planning learning experiences that are interesting and fun for students, which fosters intrinsic motivation. High-expectation teachers provide students with choices of learning activities and peers groups, which may further stimulated student motivation. If points and stars are allocated by low-differentiating teachers at a group level, students are encouraged to support and help each other. Hence cooperation rather than competition is promoted.

Classroom Relationships

The ways high- and low-expectation teachers structure grouping, materials and activities, and the evaluation and motivational systems affect the instructional environment students engage in. Differences in the instructional environment appear to parallel differences in the socioemotional environment. In regard to high- and low-expectation teachers, these apply particularly to student-teacher relationships, teacher responses to students, and peer relationships.

It is recognized that some students perceive the affective environment of any classroom differently from others. But some core variations in teacher behaviors may create similar rather than dissimilar socioemotional environments for most students. For example, high-expectation teachers maintained student dignity, praised students for their efforts, and respected students, who in turn respected their teachers. In contrast, low-expectation teachers at times criticized low-achieving students, used put downs, and called them names when their achievements were not viewed favorably. Furthermore, high-expectation teachers used largely positive preventive management techniques, appropriate praise, and encouraging statements. Low-expectation teachers were inclined to use negative reactive classroom management and inappropriate praise.

This section has explored teacher expectations and beliefs at the class level. The implicit beliefs that high- and low-expectation teachers hold about grouping, appropriate activities for more and less able students, and how students are evaluated and motivated translate into differing instructional and socioemotional environments for students. It is possibly these class environments that account for differing effects of teacher expectations on student academic and social outcomes.

Future Directions

Teacher expectations and their effects have been studied for around 40 years. A large body of findings supports the notion that teacher expectations are important for student learning. Expectations may have greater salience for some students than others, particularly in classrooms where teachers differentiate markedly in treatment and support of high- and low-ability students. It is common to hear calls for teachers to have high expectations for all students, yet there is a paucity of research into the phenomenon of class level expectations. This is an obvious direction for future research.

Expectation studies undertaken at the whole-class level indicate possible relationships between teachers’ expectations, implicit beliefs, and instructional practices that emanate from pedagogical conceptions. These notions and practices contribute to instructional and socioemotional environments in which students learn and perhaps speak to the quantity and quality of what is learned. Because this is a further neglected area in teacher expectation research, future studies could more clearly establish relationships between teachers’ expectations, beliefs, and practices. The unraveling of such associations could serve to inform teacher professional development and teacher education programs.

Concerns about effects of teacher expectations relate to issues about equality for all students. All students are entitled to quality schooling. Questions about teachers’ expectations and implicit beliefs are questions about fairness and social justice. Answers to these questions can lead to enhanced educational outcomes for all students.


Teacher expectation research began in the 1960s and has burgeoned ever since. This is partially because of a universal acceptance of the existence of teacher expectations and consequent attempts to discover their significance for student outcomes. Researchers have investigated specific teacher behaviors that provide salient clues to students about teachers’ expectations. Both self-fulfilling prophecy effects (where originally false conceptions are ultimately confirmed) and sustaining expectation effects (where teachers do not adjust teaching in line with student performance) have been documented in some classrooms.

Students can identify proximal teacher behaviors (verbal and nonverbal) that provide them with information about teachers’ expectations for achievement. These include nodding, smiling, and praising high-expectation students more than low achievers. But there are distal teacher behaviors that may have greater effects on student learning. These include teacher efficacy, pedagogical beliefs, and opportunity to learn. Arguably, opportunity to learn has most effect on student learning since students will learn what they are given the opportunity to learn. They are likely to learn more in classrooms where learning experiences are challenging and exciting and where higher order thinking skills are fostered.

Some student characteristics appear to influence teacher expectations more than others. Those that have greater effects are ethnicity, social class, gender, and diagnostic labels, but other characteristics that can have effects are student attractiveness, language style, student background, personality and social skills, names, and other siblings. This research-paper has discussed in depth the effects of social class and ethnicity on expectancy and argued that teacher expectations tend to be lower for students from low socioeconomic areas and some ethnic minorities.

It appears some teachers have greater effects on students than others when expectations are at the whole-class rather than the individual level, because they affect all students. There may be relationships between teacher expectations and implicit beliefs that translate into differences in instructional and socioemotional classroom environments. Teachers with high expectations for all students have differing beliefs about grouping, materials and learning activities, evaluation and monitoring systems, student autonomy, and types of relationships they foster with students and their peers.

The investigation of class level teacher expectations is an appropriate direction for future research offering opportunities to evaluate the equality of education. Arguments about differences in teachers’ expectations and differential practices with some students are debates about fairness of treatment and provision of equal opportunities to learn for all students.

See also:


  1. Babad, E., Inbar, J., & Rosenthal, R. (1982). Pygmalion, Galatea and the Golem: Investigations of biased and unbiased teachers. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 459-474.
  2. Blatchford, P., Burke, J., Farquhar, C., Plewis, I., & Tizard, B. (1989). Teacher expectations in infant school: Associations with attainment and progress, curriculum coverage and classroom interaction. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 59, 19-30.
  3. Brattesani, K. A., Weinstein, R. S., & Marshall, H. H. (1984). Student perceptions of differential teacher treatment as moderators of teacher expectation effects. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76, 236-247.
  4. Brophy, J. E. (1983). Research on the self-fulfilling prophecy and teacher expectations. Journal of Educational Psychology, 75(5), 631-661.
  5. Brophy, J. E. (1985). Teacher-student interaction. In J. B. Dusek (Ed.), Teacher expectancies (pp. 303-328). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  6. Brophy, J. E., & Good, T. L. (1970). Teachers’ communication of differential expectations for children’s classroom performance: Some behavioral data. Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, 365-374.
  7. Cooper, H., & Good, T. (1983). Pygmalion grows up: Studies in the expectation communication process. New York: Longman.
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