Teacher Expectations and Academic Achievement

In popular culture, teacher expectations are perceived to play a strong role in academic achievement. In 1968, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson did a seminal study that established the notion of self-fulfilling prophecy.  In other words, the teacher produces a level of academic achievement because of the teacher’s expectations of the student’s ability.  In the study, researchers told teachers certain students in grades one through six in a San Francisco elementary school had a higher potential learning than other students. The results of the study showed the students designated with high potential had higher academic achievement than other students did in the study. In actuality, the high-potential students were picked at random and did not have higher potential. The study reported increased student achievement for those students where the teachers had higher expectations, self-fulfilling prophecy. Teachers, scholars, and the popular media ran with this information and set the groundwork for our present day expectation that teacher attitude has a significant impact on student achievement.

Over the years, this study was analysed and replicated. Several investigators (Snow 1969; Thorndike 1968; Wineburg 1987) have examined Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study and found technical defects serious enough to cast doubt upon the accuracy of its findings. The media continued to tout the findings of the original study. In addition, the conclusions of Rosenthal and Jacobson and those that replicated their study were more subtle than first reported. The teachers had a false expectation of student potential. Trouilloud, et al (2002) and others demonstrated that teachers have accurate expectations of student learning abilities and therefore do not have false expectations.

In addition, teacher expectations are not generated in the moment, or as in the Rosenthal and Jacobson’s study, before they meet their students. These expectations are generated over time, for example over two weeks. False expectations are the foundation of the Rosenthal and Lenore study, thus undermining its relevancy. Teacher expectations have weak self-fulfilling effects. In addition, student self-perceived abilities have a mediating effect on the self-fulfilling prophecy (Trouilloud, et al 2002). This is something Rosenthal and Jacobson did not address.

Therefore, teacher expectations of academic achievement have little impact on student achievement. However, teachers do have a significant impact on student achievement outcomes. They have this impact through teacher behaviour. Thomas Good outlines “ten general principles of effective teaching” that have shown time and time again in study after study teacher behaviours that impact positive academic achievement. So where does teacher expectations come into play?

Marzano and Marzano discuss the “inner game of teaching” in Robert Marzano’s book On Excellence in Teaching” (2010). This treatise on the metacognitive view of teaching identifies how our view of the world, our perspective, designs our behaviour in the classroom and elsewhere. Our perspective is the architect of our behaviours. Marzano and Marzano discuss the model of our cognitive processes. How we have basic operating principle. These basic operating principles were designed in our past and we carry them with us into the future when we encounter an event that we construe as similar. We use these schemas from the past to dictate our behaviour in the present. In my view, they operate to limit what is possible for us in how we relate to our students, our classes, and our subject matter.

I have a friend she is an adult. In first grade, she was a bright and excited student. The teacher asked my friend’s first grade class a question. My friend immediately raised her hand and the teacher called on her. She proudly jumped up and walked to the front of the room. All eyes were upon her. She stood there looking out at her classmates and the teacher asked, “Well, what’s the answer?” My friend did not know. She never did know. She did not even know the question. She was just excited, raised her hand, and jumped out of her seat. At that moment, my friend made some decisions that would dictate her actions for the rest of her life. She decided two things: 1) It was important to know, to be smart, and 2) She was never going to be caught not knowing.

This affects her behavior in very subtle ways. When someone asks her a question she does not know the answer to, she answers in a way that sounds like she knows and obfuscates the reality. This behavior is based on her general operating principles. The decisions she made back when. They are expectations of the way the world works made in the past and designs her behavior in the present. Our expectations of student achievement do not significantly affect our student’s academic achievement. However, our expectations of how the world works do affect our behavior. As Marzano and Marzano state, it is important to understand our operating principles because “it is possible for human beings to actually play the inner game by taking metacognitive control over it.”


Good, T.L. (2010). Forty Years of Research on Teaching 1968-2008: What Do We Know Now That We Didn’t Know Then? In Marzano, R. (Ed.), On Excellence in Teaching (pp. 345-367). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Marzano, J. S. & Marzano, R. J. (2010). The Inner Game of Teaching. In Marzano, R. (Ed.), On Excellence in Teaching (pp. 345-367). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Rosenthal, R., & Jacobson, L. (1968). Pygmalion in the Classroom. The Urban Review, 16-20.
Snow, R. (1969). Unfinished Pygmalion. Contemporary Psychology, 197-200.
Thorndike, R. (1968). Review of Pygmalion in the Classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 708-711.
Trouilloud, D., Sarrazin, P., Martinek, T., & Guillet, E. (2002). The Influence of Teacher Expectations on Student’s Achievement in Physical Education Classes: Pygmalion Revisited. European Journal of Social Psychology, 591-607.
Wineburg, S. (1987). The Self-Fulfillment of the Self-Fulfilling Prophecy. Educational Researcher, 28-37.

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This entry was posted in L1 – Learner centered, L2 – Classroom/school centered, P1 – Informed by professional responsibilities and policies, P2 – Enhanced by a reflective, collaborative, professional growth-centered practice, S1 – Content driven, S3 – Integrated across content areas, T2 – Intentionally planned, T3 – Influenced by multiple instructional strategies and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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