Expectations explained: The key role high expectations play in student outcomes

Written by: Caroline Sherwood | Published:
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If you think your expectations are high enough, they’re not. Caroline Sherwood draws on a wealth of research evidence to look at how our expectations of students affect our teaching and their outcomes

Our expectations need to grow and be challenged every day, every lesson, every encounter with the human beings we teach.

Our expectations shouldn’t just dare to survive in a school, in a classroom – but should transform, balloon, reconstruct in a process of metamorphosis until they become unrecognisable.

Do we believe we have high enough expectations of the students in front of us? They’ll never be high enough.

Our expectations shouldn’t be based on test results or target grades, they should be forged on student potential – and who can predict that?

Human beings have walked on the moon, mastered flight, domesticated fire. We will never expect enough from our students – and that is both thrilling and terrifying in equal measure.

Rosenthal (1974) divided teacher behaviours related to high (or low) expectations into four categories:

Socio-emotional climate

This includes teachers’ non-verbal communication: How much they smile and nod for example, and how friendly a teacher is in the classroom. It is the thousands of seemingly invisible, unconscious moments which reveal how high our expectations are.

The work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968) among others found that expectations affect teachers’ moment-to-moment interactions with their students. Teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more non-verbal approval – they consistently touch, nod and smile at those children more.

“When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)

If a teacher has low expectations of their students, they will be less likely to smile warmly and welcome those students with positive eye contact. Atta and Ayaz (Use of Teacher’s Eye, 2014) reflect that eye contact for just two to three seconds with a student acts as an “invitation”. They continue: “It pulls them in ... and causes them to become invested and committed to seeing them through to the end.”

The research concluded: “A teacher can easily control, maintain discipline, interest, confidence and increase performance of (students) by using eye contact.”

Teachers must master these infinitesimal moments because they affect student outcomes – just like planning and marking do. We must be attentive and mindful and turn the unconscious to the conscious.
In The Impact of the Teachers’ Non-verbal Communication on Success in Teaching (2017), Bambaeeroo and Shokrpour summarised that “attention to non-verbal communication skills can make a positive change in the future of a student’s life”.

Mackay (Coat of Many Pockets: Managing classroom interactions, 2006) further examines the development and use of non-verbal cues in the classroom. Mackay explores the idea that students often respond first to the non-verbal body language used by the teacher.

Interestingly, Mackay reflected that the mood and tenor for the day or lesson is established in the first few minutes. At the outset of every class, students and teacher both instinctively assess how they should act and respond to each other. As students become familiar with the teacher’s ways their responses don’t change unless the teacher gives due cause (p54).

A teacher cannot let low expectations control their non-verbal communication. It seems necessary, therefore, for teachers to practise and learn effective non-verbal communication skills. However, it is the expectations which fuel the non-verbal communication that may also need addressing.

“No-one can hide anything in the unseen since it is evident in his/her thoughtless words and his/her face” (Imam Ali). It is hard for teachers to police and marshal their own beliefs - but it must be done.

“Students can always do more than you expect of them.” (Don’t Change the Light Bulb, Tomsett, 2014)


The second teacher behaviour that Rosenthal linked to expectations is input, which consists of: The distance of a student’s seat from the teacher, amount of teacher interaction, amount of information given to learn or problems to complete, and difficulty and variability of assignments and tasks.

Hansen reflects on his practice in The Pygmalion Effect (2015): “I also know that how I think about students and their abilities influences how I teach them. Be careful of those jaded student-bashing conversations, not because students are perfect, but because research shows that your perceptions about students’ abilities influence how you act toward them.”

Hansen goes on to ask: What kind of learning climate are you creating through your expectations? Are you part of a team who complain about students and consequently establish a climate of failure, or do you value your students’ abilities and create a climate of success. Are you part of a team that talks about their students as being of high or low-ability? Have you heard: “They can’t do that?”

David Didau states: “It appears that children who are deemed to be ‘low-ability’ fall behind pupils with equivalent prior attainment at the rate of one to two months per year when placed in ability groups.” (Ability is the Consequence not the Cause of What Children Learn, 2017)

How much of this is due to the teacher expecting less of them? Avoid at all costs using derogatory language – “bottom set”, “low ability”, “dumb it down” – this establishes a culture of failure for your students, your team and for yourself. Never forecast failure.

Susan McLeod explores the impact of thinking in this limiting way – departments and institutions develop their own cultures; the prevailing attitudes of teachers toward students tend to become organisational norms.

If most teachers in the department have a low sense of efficacy and tacitly agree that certain groups of students (sometimes even all students) can’t learn to write, then newcomers are pressured to accept the same low sense of efficacy and accompanying low expectations (McLeod, Pygmalion or Golem? Teacher affect and efficacy, 1995).

Talking about our students in this way forces us to find evidence back in our classroom that abet our expectations, regardless of whether or not such evidence exists (the Golem Effect). A dangerous, inhibiting self-fulfilling belief.

So never forecast failure – because you’ll make it happen. We will very quickly – perhaps without realising – become prisoners of our assumptions, and so do our students. They become captive, cemented, not able to break free from our limiting assumptions of them.

Shahram Heshmat (What is Confirmation Bias?, 2015) explores what confirmation bias means to our beliefs and assumptions: “Once we have formed a view, we embrace information that confirms that view while ignoring, or rejecting, information that casts doubt on it.”

Demand of yourself and all your students rigour, determination and courage, and believe, really believe that your students are capable of anything. What you expect is what you get.


The third teacher behaviour Rosenthal identified was output, including: The type of questions asked and the language used, the time teachers give students to respond to questions, the level of detail and accuracy given when feeding back, and the amount of times students are actively engaged by the teacher.

In Teachers’ Expectations Can Influence How Students Perform (2012), Alex Spigel states that “teachers give the students that they expect to succeed more time to answer questions, more specific feedback, and more approval”.

If we ask a question of a student we expect to provide an appropriate response, we assume any waiting time is being used to formulate a great answer.

In contrast, if we ask a question of a student of whom we don’t have such high expectations, their wait time looks to us like confirmation of what we think we already know – the student doesn’t know the answer. As a consequence, we offer less wait time, differentiate the question down too quickly, or give them a get-out (phone a friend, or simply provide the correct answer).

“Teachers frequently give affectively balanced feedback to low-expectation students as a mechanism for interaction control. High-expectation students more frequently receive feedback based on their effort expenditure. These different evaluation contingencies may lead lows to believe less strongly than highs that effort will influence academic outcomes.” (Pygmalion Grows Up: A model for teacher expectation communication and performance influence, Cooper, 1979).

Affective feedback

The final teacher behaviour identified by Rosenthal includes: Amount of criticism, amount of praise and how the teacher responds to low performance.

“Students for whom … high expectations exist are more likely to enjoy school receive more constructive comments from teachers on their mistakes, and work harder to try to improve.” (Forty Studies that Changed Psychology, Hock, 2008).

Gaining a new year 11 class half way through the year forced me to rethink my expectations. I avoided forecasting failure, I avoided (although it was a challenge) creating excuses for them and for myself: “Well, I’ve only been teaching them for a term.”

I avoided adopting negative assumptions based on past performance – both academically and behaviourally. When I told one of the girls in the class I thought her work was excellent because she’d worked hard, her response floored me: “No-one has told me I’m excellent since year 7.” There is, however, a fine line. What Makes Great Teaching, produced by Professor Robert Coe for the Sutton Trust, concluded, among other things, that too much praise for students who do not perform well “conveys a message of low expectations”.

Praise must be earned and must be sincere – but it absolutely must be present.

Be excellent in all ways

Everything speaks. We can’t expect students to be excellent if we don’t model that for them in every element of our classroom. I may not be able to infuse excellence into every classroom and hallway of my school or into every interaction that a student has outside of school, so I must leverage and maximise every element that I do control.

“Excellence is a habit that is cultivated. When we model this every day, we communicate to students that excellence is the expectation.” (The Pygmalion Effect: Communicating High Expectations, Solomon, 2014).
In Teach Like a Champion (2010), Lemov highlights that one consistent finding of academic research is that high expectations are the most reliable driver of high student achievement, even in students who do not have a history of successful achievement.

Various studies have been undertaken in which teachers have been given inflated student targets and predictions. These groups of students outperformed other groups whose teachers were not given false, inflated data. When teachers expect an enhanced performance from their students, their students’ performance is indeed enhanced.

There is a common proverb: your value doesn’t decrease based on someone’s inability to see your worth – but actually it does, and that’s the problem. Be excellent in all ways – and that way, your students can too.

  • Caroline Sherwood teaches English at South Molton Community College in Devon, is Pupil Premium champion and teaching and learning lead. Caroline is also a Specialist Leader in Education with the Dartmoor Teaching School Alliance and is project director for Women Leaders in Education in the South West.


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