April 26, 1998
How do teacher expectations affect student achievement?
The Self-fulfilling Prophecy
I. Preliminary Research
For generations, people have often pondered the idea that a person's preconceived notions about a situation could actually lead to these perspectives becoming a reality. Influential figures such as Freud and Karl Marx, in their studies of human society, examined the question of whether expectations lead to reality.
W.I. Thomas, a dean of American sociologists, developed a theorem that states: "If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences". This theorem is valid because the phenomenon Thomas describes has been observed for centuries. People from various cultures have believed that a person's thoughts could influence his or her reality. According to this theorem, people are not only influenced by the physical details of a situation, but also by the individual meaning a situation has for them. Thomas' concept of expectations that become a reality has been termed "the self-fulfilling prophecy" by the sociologist, Robert Merton.
An example of self-fulfilling prophecy is a student who is extremely nervous about failing a test. This student devotes more time and energy to worrying about failure than studying for the exam. As a result, the student does poorly on the exam and does fail. The student's expectations of having difficulty with the exam have resulted in him failing the exam in reality.
Merton described the self-fulfilling prophecy as "a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true" (423). The self-fulfilling prophecy is relevant to many social realms, including education. It can be observed in the interaction between students and teachers.
In 1968, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted a famous study that tested the self-fulfilling prophecy in a classroom environment. The Oak School Experiment was designed to test the hypothesis that children from whom a teacher expects greater intellectual growth will display this attribute. Rosenthal and Jacobson randomly designated 20% of the classroom as "special" or "gifted" students. At the end of an eight month period, they gave the students an IQ test and compared it to previous IQ results. The "special" students were shown to display significant gains over the control group.
Rosenthal and Jacobson believe that standardized tests of intelligence are one of the factors that play a key role in teachers' expectations about their students' achievement. This does not mean that they view standardized testing as negative, but they believe that the results may influence a teacher's assumptions about his or her student's potential ability. Rosenthal and Jacobson feel that their study proved that one person's expectations for another's behavior serves as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
We are proposing an inquiry in which we observe how teachers convey their expectations onto their students. We believe that the self-fulfilling prophesy is a subconscious construction that involves the assumptions of both the student and the teacher. According to Hayman, "after an extensive review of studies pertaining to school achievement, I have concluded that if certain attitudes are held and reinforced consistently in the same direction, they lead to a particular self-concept which influences a student's expectation of future achievement" (311). We feel that if a student consistently receives a certain message from his or her teacher the student begins to internalize these messages. Hayman defines internalization as, "adopting as one's own the ideas, practices, standards, or values of another person or society" (312). In the classroom, a student may begin to accept the teacher's signals as a reflection of reality.
If teachers consistently use actions and language to reinforce what they believe to be a student's potential, students will begin to put limits on their own possibilities based on the teachers' messages of expected achievement. Rosenthal and Jacobson believe that teachers convey their expectations through their behaviors. In their findings they state, "we may say that by what she said, by how and when she said it, by her facial expressions, postures, and perhaps by her touch, the teacher may have communicated to the children of the experimental group that she expected improved intellectual performance" (180). Rosenthal and Jacobson found that a teacher's behavior toward individual students along with the communications used, may aid the learning of certain students by increasing their self-concept, self-expectations, and their motivation (180).
Sam Kerman is more concerned with how teacher expectations affect low achievers. He states, "extensive research shows that teacher interaction with students perceived as low achievers is less motivating and less supportive than interaction with students perceived as high achievers. Research also tells us that high achievers receive more time to respond to questions. When high achievers do have difficulty, teachers tend to delve, give clues, or rephrase the question more frequently than with low achievers" (716). This places low achievers at a considerable disadvantage to high achievers because they do not have an equal opportunity to develop their answers and voice their responses. By not acknowledging the responses of low-achieving students, teachers reinforce the students' feelings of inadequacy and lessen their desire to learn.
During our pre-student teaching experience at Delta School, we intend to observe how teachers convey their expectations to students through their classroom demeanor and teaching techniques. We hope that we will be able to gain insight into the methods of teaching that are most beneficial and detrimental to student achievement. In this way, we can alter and shape our own teaching style in a way that will benefit our future students.
II. Implementation and Reflection
We have explored the effect that researchers believe teachers expectations have on student achievement. We have read many books and articles that discuss the self-fulfilling prophecy and studies that investigated beliefs about students and the achievement levels that the students exhibited. From these studies, we hypothesized that consistent positive or negative reinforcement has an effect on a student's perception of his or her academic potential.
Our unique placement situation positioned us in a classroom environment in which classes were composed of students from various grades and ability levels. This is different from most schools, in which students are tracked according to age and ability. We were unable to view two sections of the same class, one section that would be considered advanced and one that would be considered academic. To thoroughly conduct this study, we decided to privately interview teachers, students, and our fellow pre-service teachers to gain "real world" insight and information into our topic.
During our first few weeks of observation in the classroom, we focused on the ways in which teachers' actions and language were a reinforcement of what they believed to be the students' potentials. Through the frequency of student-teacher interactions, we noted why some students were called on and others were not, the type of feedback the teachers gave to their students, and the expectations teachers seemed to express to their classes.
During our interviews, a key factor was brought to our attention that we had not previously considered. Many students felt that the teacher's overall enthusiasm for the class affected their desire to succeed. They believe that if a teacher is excited about the material he or she teaches, then he will convey this appreciation for the subject to his students. It is only logical that if a student likes a subject or is interested in it, they will put forth the effort required to excel.
Many teachers felt that it was equally beneficial for students to receive both positive and negative feedback. Positive feedback is useful because a student gets a feeling of achievement and success. This gives the student incentive to continue with his or her progress. However, negative feedback is also useful and necessary. Teachers believe that students learn from their mistakes and that it is pertinent to address what they have done wrong and how it can be improved upon. When used at the proper times, both positive and negative feedback are powerful tools for advancing a student's motivation to achieve.
During our observation, we noticed that not all students were expected to participate during classroom discussions or activities. Our cooperative teacher informed us that there is an "unwritten contract" that occurs between some students and the teacher. The stipulations of this contract are based upon the student's feeling of security in the classroom. Some students are insecure about speaking in front of their peers in a classroom environment. The teacher becomes aware of this through the student's demeanor, shyness, and lack of input into class discussions. The student avoids making eye contact with the teacher and often sits with his or her head down on the desk. This is the student's effort to avoid a possible interaction with the teacher. The teacher agrees not to call on the student and avoid drawing attention to him or her. This occurs as long as the teacher receives an indication that the student is understanding the material through the assignments that he or she completes. According to the teachers we interviewed, a student's willingness to participate in class discussions is not necessarily a reflection of their academic achievement . This situation is not uncommon and it is possible to have one or more of these "unsigned agreements" in a single classroom.
Both the students and teachers that we interviewed feel that it is more beneficial to set high expectations for students to reach rather than low expectations, which they can reach with little effort. Many teachers believe that these goals are more effectively reached if they are set in increments, with the ultimate agenda being high. In this way, students can achieve success and build confidence to face the next challenge. Students believe that they have greater interest in a subject if they feel challenged. Students said that if they did not have appropriate expectations placed upon them, they did not have the motivation to strive for success.
We found that, in many cases, expectations are a personal issue for teachers. It is very difficult for them to reflect upon how their personal actions and beliefs may have affected a student in a positive or negative way. No teacher wants to believe that he hindered a student's progress with something he said or did. Every teacher wants her students to work hard and do well in her class. We found this expectation to be universal among teachers.
Every teacher we spoke to felt that teacher expectations affect student achievement. In their opinions, it is impossible to enter a classroom without having certain expectations. However, we believe, from our experience, that there are certain things that we can do to aid our students academic achievement. First, we can convey an enthusiasm for the material that we are teaching. It is our job to keep the students interested and engaged in the classroom activities. If we are not excited by the material that we are teaching, how can we expect our students to be?
Second, we need to understand that not all students are comfortable with participating in a classroom setting. We should not assume that students who are less willing to partake in class activities have less academic ability. If a teacher calls on some students more than others it may simply be due to the classroom dynamics, not teacher expectations. Some students are simply more willing to participate and readily volunteer answers.
Third, we have learned that it is beneficial to provide students with both positive and negative feedback, yet many teachers voiced that it really depends on the student and the situation. Many students need positive feedback to help build confidence and a feeling of achievement. Yet, many teachers said that students learn from negative feedback and the expectation of being held responsible to correct their errors. As we enter the teaching profession, we have discovered that it will be crucial for us to maintain a balance between positive and negative feedback. We believe that there is a fine line between giving a student too much confidence and too little recognition, which may result in false assurance or a feeling of failure.
Forth, we believe that our expectations for students must be high, but we should not expect them to achieve these goals all at once. We should strive to provide our students with reasonable goals that culminate in the achievement of the ultimate objective.
Many teachers view their students as their own "children." In light of this fact, we realize that a teacher can never escape having expectations for his or her students. However, it is the way in which these expectations are conveyed to these students that is important. One teacher summed it all up by saying, "students are very perceptive, they pick up on everything."
Hayman, John. "Culture, the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy, and Quality of Life in the Black Belt Region of the Southeastern United States." High School Journal 64 (1981): 310-16.
Kerman, Sam. "Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement." Phi Delta Kappan 60 (1979): 716-18.
Merton, Robert K. Social Theory and Social Structure. Illinois, The Free Press, 1957.
Rosenthal, Robert and Lenore Jacobson. Pygmalion in the Classroom.
New York, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968.