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How Do Teachers' Expectations Affect Student Learning

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

The term "self-fulfilling prophecy" is apt because once an expectation develops, even if it is wrong, people behave as if the belief were true. By behaving this way, they can actually cause their expectations to be fulfilled. Self-fulfilling prophecies occur only if the original expectation was erroneous and a change was brought about in the student's behavior as a consequence of the expectation.

Researchers have studied the ways in which teachers' beliefs about students affect their behavior toward students. Some kinds of differential behavior toward students who vary in their mastery of the curriculum are appropriate and productive. Giving some students more advanced material than others is clearly necessary when there is variability in student skill level, and students need different amounts and kinds of teacher assistance and attention. Nevertheless, most of the teacher behaviors described below, which have been shown to be associated with high versus low expectations, cannot be defended as appropriate accommodations to individual student needs.

Teacher Behavior Toward High- and Low-Expectation Students

Rosenthal (1974) divided teacher behavior associated with high or low expectations into four categories: socioemotional climate, input, output, and affective feedback. Examples of each of the four categories are described below (see also Good, 1987).

Socioemotional Climate

  • smiling and nodding
  • friendliness

Input

  • distance of seat from teacher
  • amount of teacher interaction
  • amount of information given to learn or problems to complete
  • difficulty and variability of assignments

Output

  • calling on during class discussions
  • providing clues, and repeating or rephrasing questions
  • wait time for student response to teacher question
  • level of detail and accuracy of feedback

Affective Feedback

  • amount of criticism
  • amount (and basis) of praise
  • pity or anger expressed for low performance

Some of these differential behaviors have direct effects on learning, and consequently widen the gap between relatively low- and high-achieving students. For example, students who are given more opportunities to learn, more clues, and who are called on more frequently should learn more than students who are given fewer such opportunities. Other teacher behaviors, such as those affecting the social-emotional climate or affective feedback, influence learning indirectly by affecting students' own beliefs about their competencies, their expectations for success, and consequently their effort and other achievement behaviors.

Teachers may also develop closer relationships with children who are high-achievers. Students like Safe Sally are often seen as easier to teach; they typically present fewer behavioral problems, and they may be more oriented toward pleasing the teacher. A positive, respectful relationship with the teacher gives students the sense of security they need to be active participants in class, ask questions, and seek challenges-which in turn promote learning. Teachers are less likely to develop a close relationship with Alienated AI, even though such a relationship might make a substantial difference in his attachment to school.

Teachers vary greatly in the degree to which they treat low- and high-expectancy students differently, and also in the nature of their differential treatment. Some teachers pay more attention to high-expectancy students, and some teachers engage in "compensatory" behaviors, focusing more on low-expectancy students (see Babad, 1992).

Even behaviors designed to provide extra support for low-expectancy students, however, can undermine learning. First, such compensatory behavior is sometimes accompanied by subtle negative behaviors or expressions. Babad (1992) found that teachers often displayed negative emotions (e.g., hostility, tenseness, anxiety, condescension), while they invested greater time and attention to relatively low-achieving students. Second, low-performing students can interpret teacher behavior that is meant to protect their feelings or to help them learn as evidence of their low competence, and this in turn lowers their own expectations and effort. Behavior reflecting teachers' best intentions, ironically, can do the most harm.

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