This is the third of four posts exploring what motivates students in my series examining the Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education’s report on the Top 20 Principles From Psychology for Teaching and Learning. This time I turn my attention to Principle 11: “Teachers’ expectations about their students affect students’ opportunities to learn, their motivation, and their learning outcomes.”

It’s no surprise that we usually experience what we expect to experience. You will, of course, be aware of the placebo effect – the phenomenon that a placebo triggers a psychological response, which in turn impacts on a patient’s health. Sometimes a patient’s symptoms may improve, but equally they may suffer what appear to be side effects from the treatment. Research on the placebo effect has focused on the relationship between mind and body. One of the most common theories is that it may be due to our expectations: if we expect a pill to do something, then it’s possible that our body’s chemistry can trigger effects similar to those the medication might have caused. It seems reasonable to suggest that a pupil’s belief about their learning might be influenced in a similar way.

Less well-known is the Hawthorne effect. This is the name given to the tendency to work harder and perform better when we know that we’re taking part in an experiment. It seems we change our behaviour due to the attention we receive from researchers rather than because of any manipulation of independent variables. Henry A. Landsberger first described the effect in the 1950s in his analysis of experiments conducted during the 1920s and 1930s at the Hawthorne Works electric company to determine if there was a relationship between productivity and work environment. The focus of the studies was to determine if the amount of light workers received had an effect on their productivity. Productivity seemed to increase due to the changes, but then decreased when the experiment was over. Researchers suggested that productivity increased due to attention from the research team and not because of changes to the experimental variables. Landsberger defined the Hawthorne effect as a short-term improvement in performance caused by observing workers.

We should also be aware of the Pygmalion effect. According to ancient Greek legend, Pygmalion invested so much love and care in sculpting a statue of the most beautiful and inspiring woman he could imagine that he fell in love with it. Too scared to admit he’d fallen for a statue, he prayed for a bride who would be a living likeness of his impossibly beautiful sculpture. The gods granted his wish and the statue became flesh.

Pygmalion’s impossibly high expectations for the woman of his desires resulted in him getting what he wanted. Likewise, teachers’ expectations are often a self-fulfilling prophecy. Our beliefs about pupils have a tremendous impact on their progress and attainment. The self-defeating corollary of the Pygmalion effect is the Golem effect – that negative beliefs lead to a decrease in performance. In 1968, Rosenthal and Jacobson ran a landmark experiment which demonstrated that if teachers were led to expect enhanced performance from children, then their performance was indeed enhanced. Pupils were given a disguised IQ test at the beginning of the study. Teachers were told that some of their students (about 20% of the school chosen at random) would likely be ‘spurters’ that year, doing better than expected in comparison to their classmates. At the end of the study, all pupils were retested and showed statistically significant gains favouring the experimental group. This led to the conclusion that teacher expectations influence pupil achievement.

And so they do. But maybe not as much as is commonly believed. Jussim and Harber argue that “Self-fulfilling prophecies in the classroom do occur, but these effects are typically small, they do not accumulate greatly across perceivers or over time, and they may be more likely to dissipate than accumulate”. They conclude that there appears to be a high degree of correlation between teacher expectations and reality. Maybe the reason our expectations come true is because they’re accurate?

In some cases though, particularly when students are from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, teachers do seem to often expect less of students than they can actually achieve. If we signal, intentionally or otherwise that ‘kids like these’ are capable of less then they may well begin to perform in ways that conform to our confirm expectations. For instance if we give certain students less challenging material to study we guarantee that they will achieve less than those given the opportunity to study more challenging material. This might be due to accurate predictions about ability, but in the case of students from less affluent or ethnic minority backgrounds this tends not to be the case.

Erroneous expectations are more likely to occur when children first start school, at the beginning of a new school year, and d during transitions between phases of schooling. It turns out that predictions about students’ ability are least accurate when we are most uncertain. This uncertainty causes us to come up with answers based not on evidence but on bias.

Despite our ignorance we make decisions based on irrelevant and available information. The halo effect is a form of confirmation bias which prevents us from becoming aware of the uncertainty we really ought to feel. The term was first coined by educational psychologist Edward Thorndike back in the 1920s, and has since been thoroughly established as a real and powerful bias.

In one study designed to test how people reacted when given information that made no apparent sense, business school students were grouped into threes. Each group was asked to estimate the sales and earnings per share for a company based on its financial reports from the previous five years. Researchers told the business students they had previously analysed the performance of groups of five people on this task, and were now keen to see how smaller groups would perform. When the students were told they had performed very well, they attributed that success to things like great communication, group cohesion, openness to change, competence, a lack of conflict and so on. Groups told that they’d performed very poorly did just the opposite. They explained their poor results as a lack of communication, differences in ability, closed-mindedness, sparks of conflict and a variety of other confounding variables. In truth, neither group was able to explain their performance as the results had been rigged. Regardless of how well they performed, each group were randomly told either that they had done extremely well or spectacularly badly. In an effort to explain the unexplainable, they resorted to plucking causes from the air.

How often might this desperate hunt for reasons be enacted to explain unexpected exam performance? When we are uncertain, our brains use a heuristic and then cover up the evidence so we won’t notice that we had no idea what we were doing. ‘Communication skills’ are too vague to quantify, so when the business school students were asked to rate their communication skills, they looked for something more concrete to go on. In this case it was the randomly assigned rating. That rating then became a halo whose light affected the way they were able to see their experiences. This might have worked except that the rating was a lie, and consequently so were their explanations. When target grades are applied to individual students, instead of cohorts, they are also a lie and can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman relates how the halo effect led him to systematically mis-grade students’ essays. Quite reasonably, if a students’ first essay was awarded a high score, mistakes in later essays were ignored or excused. But Kahneman noticed problem:

If a student had written two essays, one strong one weak, I would end up with a different final grade depending on which essay I read first. I had told students that the two essays had equal weigh but this was not true: the first one had a much great impact on the final grade than the second. (p.83)

You might think we could pick up these sorts of mistakes through a process of introspectively retracing our mental steps back to the original mistake, but you’d be wrong. Research into the halo effect suggests this sort of thing happens all the time. In a study into the way students make judgements about their lecturers, students were told the experimenters were interested in whether judgements varied depending on the amount of exposure students had to a particular lecturer. This was another of those pesky lies psychology researchers tell their participants. The American students were divided into two groups to watch two different videos of the same lecturer, who happened to have a thick accent. In one video the professor was cold and distant, in the other he was warm and approachable. Both groups of students were asked to rate his appearance, mannerisms and accent. As you’re no doubt expecting, the students who’d seen a warm, friendly professor rated him as more attractive and his accent as more pleasant, while those who’d seen an unfriendly professor rated him as unattractive and his accent as distracting.

It probably comes as no surprise to know we make decisions about people’s intelligence and competence based on our perception of their attractiveness, but the extent to which we do this is terrifying. In studies where teachers were told that a student had a learning disability, they rated that student’s performance as weaker than did other teachers who were told nothing at all about the student before the assessment began. The fact that we treat students according to the halo cast by superficial traits is well-known. We assume that “well-behaved students are also bright, diligent, and engaged”.

Very sensibly, the report suggests that the best course of action is for “teachers to communicate high expectations to all students and maintain appropriately high standards for everyone in order to avoid negative self-fulfilling prophecies”. We should make it a habit to look at more than one source of information when making judgements about students’ ability especially for ethnic minority and socially disadvantaged students.

Because teachers will mostly be unaware that they are treating students differently based on often invisible judgments of ability, we should ask ourselves the following questions:

  • Who is seated at the front of the class?
  • Who is being asked the majority of questions?
  • Who is getting the most feedback?

If it turns out ‘high-expectancy’ students are being favoured, maybe some positive discrimination is in order. The report concludes by recommending, “Probably the best antidote to negative expectancy effects is to never give up on a student.” I wholeheartedly agree.

References cited by the report

Other sources