Teacher expectations and student achievement

Although it is widely accepted that teacher’s expectations affect students’ achievement, recent classroom observations have led some researchers to conclude that expectancy effects are more complex than previously thought. Claude Goldenberg, University of California/Los Angeles, believes that teachers and students affect one another in more complicated and reciprocal ways that are not easy to predict or to change. The relationship between expectancy and achievement appears to be partly the result of students’ effects on teachers. Student behaviors, such as motivation and academic focus, help shape teachers’ expectations. Some researchers suggest that teachers’ expectations may predict students’ performance, not simply because their expectations create self-fulling prophecies, but because they are accurate reflections of student behaviors that are critical for academic success.

Theory and classroom observation

Most researchers agree that expectations have at least some effect on achievement. For example, when a teacher has high expectations for his students, regards them as capable and expects them to do well, that teacher may attempt to teach more and to create a more positive atmosphere, leading to higher achievement. Conversely, a teacher who has low expectations is probably less likely to present advanced or challenging material and might unwittingly discourage learning by providing less attention, encouragement or positive feedback.

However, according to Goldenberg, it is also the way in which expectations shape a teacher’s behavior that affects a student’s achievement.

In a large study of low-income, Spanish-speaking children, classes were observed to determine the effect of expectancy on achievement. Goldenberg reported that regardless of their expectations, the teachers in this study were generally very supportive and positive with all their students. But he did identify two children in one classroom, for whom the teacher’s behavior actually counteracted any effect her expectations might have had. Goldenberg carefully observed teacher and student behavior in this classroom two to four times a week over a period of one year, and during that period, interviewed the teacher several times. He learned that the teacher’s expectations for these two children ran counter to what the children actually achieved. Goldenberg analyzed observation records and interview notes concerning these two children to determine how this came about.

In the third week of school, this teacher was asked to rate all the children in her class on attention to instruction, following directions, independent work habits and effort, and then to predict what each child’s reading level would be at the end of the year. Decoding and word-recognition tests were administered to all children in the class at the end of the school year to measure actual achievement.

Teacher’s expectations

Both children had scored in the lowest quartile on a post-kindergarten test. After observing the children during the initial weeks of first grade, the teacher stated that she had low expectations for one child, but high expectations for the other. The first child was nonverbal and timid and needed considerable help with new concepts. The teacher said that her low expectations for this child were due partly to the girl’s attitude, particularly her lack of effort. The teacher described the child’s work as carelessly done and unacceptable, and considered her a behavior problem because she had difficulty remembering class rules and routines.

Although the second child was also in the lowest reading group, her kindergarten teacher reported that she had made tremendous gains at the end of the kindergarten year. This report, and the child’s enthusiastic, attentive and well-behaved manner, led the first-grade teacher to have high expectations for the child’s success in reading. This child worked very carefully and her work was neat and correct even though she often did not finish assignments.

Teacher’s behavior

This teacher’s expectations caused her to work with these children very differently. The first child, who appeared unlikely to succeed, was closely monitored. The teacher frequently spoke to the child about her performance and kept her after school four times over the course of the year for private talks during which she told her that it was important to improve her attitude and behavior, and to be more careful with her work. The teacher also went to considerable effort to make contact with the girl’s mother in order to enlist her support. The teacher called the mother to remind her of conferences and offered to meet with her at her convenience. The teacher provided extra practice work for the mother to do with her child at home. After these meetings with the child and her mother, the child began to make significant improvements in her attitude and work. The teacher watched her progress closely, encouraged her and moved her to higher-level reading groups as she improved.

In summary, it appears that the teacher’s low expectations for this child led her to monitor the child’s progress very carefully and to take positive and decisive steps to change her behavior early in the school year. The teacher reported that her own behavior toward the student was influenced by her annoyance at the child’s behavior in class. The teacher’s expectations of poor achievement led her to expend much time and energy trying to improve the child’s attitude and performance.

In the second case, the teacher was satisfied with the child’s attitude and work and expected her to do well. During instruction, the child was motivated and attentive. During seatwork, she was much less focused, but this did not alter the teacher’s favorable expectations. As the year progressed and assignments grew longer, this child completed less and less work, although she continued to be well-behaved, enthusiastic and attentive during group lessons. What work she did complete was neat and correct. The teacher continued to see the child as basically competent and motivated and did not intervene. Near the end of the year, after a conference about the child’s lack of progress, the teacher focused more attention on the child, reducing her workload and encouraging her to work more quickly and efficiently. In the last weeks of school, this child began to finish her assignments and to make better progress in reading. Nevertheless, there was not enought time left in the school year to improve her achievement significantly. The child ended the year in the lowest reading group. In this case, the teacher’s favorable first impression led her to assume that the child would do well on her own without careful monitoring or extra help.


Goldenberg concludes that teachers and students interact in complex ways, and that it is the manner in which a teacher’s expectations influence teaching and interactions with children that has the greatest impact on children’s achievement. Tailoring instruction to individual needs, carefully monitoring progress and providing specific feedback helps students succeed regardless of the teacher’s expectations.

“The Limits of Expectations: A Case for Case Knowledge About Teacher Expectancy Effects”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 29, Number 3, pp. 517-544.

Published in ERN May/June 1993, Volume 6, Number 3.

One Response to “Teacher expectations and student achievement”

  1. Sia'a

    very useful resource to a new teacher who is dealing with all different levels of high school students. thanks.


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