Association of American Colleges and Universities, November 2001

Greater Expectations National Panel

Greater Expectations to Improve Student Learning

prepared by Ross Miller, AAC&U

Whether you think you can or think you can't— you are right. (Henry Ford)

The foundations of the Greater Expectations Initiative are twin beliefs that a) many of our students are achieving less than they should at both secondary and postsecondary levels and b) that by raising our expectations and support for learning, higher achievement will result. Extensive research shows that expectations exert powerful influences upon both student and teacher behavior whether the expectations come from an external source or are held internally as self-expectations. The Hawthorne effect (in which mere awareness of being in an experiment brings about improved performance) is one familiar source of experimental invalidity that acknowledges the ubiquitous power of expectations on learning and performance.


Expectations are double-edged swords, raising or lowering student and teacher outcomes according to the positive or negative nature of the expectations. For Greater Expectations and other education reform efforts to succeed, a system-wide effort to raise institutional, faculty, student, and other stakeholder expectations will be necessary.


General Effects of Expectations

Schilling and Schilling (1999) capture well the broad idea that expectations are vital to education.


... the literature on motivation and school performance in younger school children suggests that expectations shape the learning experience very powerfully. For example, classic studies in the psychology literature have found that merely stating an expectation results in enhanced performance, that higher expectations result in higher performance, and that persons with high expectations perform at a higher level than those with low expectations, even though their measured abilities are equal.


High expectations may give rise to the "Pygmalion effect," a transformation in belief and behavior that can change a low-expectations student (like Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady) into a successful learner. That students will achieve what is expected of them is a maxim in teacher education programs and is one important belief that propels standards-based school reforms. Effective action in concert with the belief is far less common. Tauber (1998) states that "few educators understand exactly how to use the Pygmalion effect or self-fulfilling prophecy (SFP) as a purposeful pedagogical tool to convey positive expectations and, maybe even more importantly, to avoid conveying negative expectations." A shameful artifact of the low-expectations education practice in the United States is the persistence of "general track" curricula in high schools, dead-end education that leads neither to college nor challenging employment.


Tauber goes on to cite four factors that teachers could use to advance higher expectations. A "climate" conducive to learning must be created; this is often communicated non-verbally. Both affective and cognitive "feedback" must be provided to learners. "Input" is increased as teachers teach more to students of whom they expect more. "Output" is also increased as teachers encourage greater responsiveness from students for whom they hold high-expectations.


Attributions of Success and Failure

Expectations are also shaped by teacher and student perceptions of the reasons for successes and failures. Teachers may attribute successes and failures to factors such as ability, effort, task difficulty, and luck. Teachers often project high expectations for the future if they believe that a student's success is due to her high ability, and will attribute a high achiever's failure to bad luck. When a student's failure is attributed to low ability, a teacher will begin to expect less in the future. Subsequent "lucky" successes of such a student are unlikely to be taken as evidence that the low ability label should be changed.


Students attribute successes and failures to either changeable or unchangeable factors (e.g., effort and ability, respectively), influenced by beliefs and expectations that they pick up from, among others, their teachers. A "low ability" student, who views failures as lack of ability and successes as luck, will lose his motivation, feeling that there is little he can change to improve his learning. The teacher who makes similar attributions, will feel helpless to intervene, believing that the student is not "cut out" for challenging academic work.


The interplay of expectations with changeable and unchangeable attribution factors is moderately complex when looked at in detail. But while recognizing that there will always be slower and faster learners in every classroom, there would seem to be a great advantage to American education at all levels if teachers and students alike believed that successes were linked more to effort and less to ability.


In the U.S...innate ability is viewed as the main determinant of academic success. The role played by effort, amount and quality of instruction, and parental involvement is discounted....Poor performance in school is often attributed to low ability, and ability is viewed as being immune to alteration, much like eye or skin color. Therefore, poorly performing students often come to believe that no matter how much effort they put forth, it will not be reflected in improved performance. (Lumsden 1997)


It is a peculiarity of American culture that assigns so much of a learner's success to their ability. Education research of Japanese and Chinese schools show that teachers and students alike attribute successes and failure more to training received and effort expended than to ability.


For instance, many Americans blame their failure to draw a credible representation of an object on lack of ability, explaining, "I am no good at drawing." In Chinese and Japanese cultures, the response to a person who had difficulty drawing would be, "Isn't it a shame that no one taught you how to draw." (Bamburg 1994)


Teacher Attitudes and Expectations

Public speakers commonly relate stories about a tough old teacher from their past who refused to let students slack off and achieve less than their best. Some of this "tough teacher" behavior may be a shared trait of effective teachers.


A characteristic shared by most highly effective teachers is their adherence to uniformly high expectations. They refuse to alter their attitudes or expectations for their students—regardless of the students' race or ethnicity, life experiences and interest, and family wealth or stability (Lumsden 1997).


Brophy (1986) advises teachers to "routinely project attitudes, beliefs, expectations, and attributions...that imply that your students share your own enthusiasm for learning. To the extent that you treat your students as if they already are eager learners, they will be more likely to become eager learners."


Another vital part of expectations for teachers is their own belief about their effectiveness.


Teachers who produce the greatest learning gains, accept responsibility for teaching their students. They believe that students are capable of learning and that they (the teachers) can teach them (Encyclopedia of Educational Research 1992).


The Encyclopedia goes on to cite research that shows how teachers who doubt their own efficacy exert little effort in reshaping their instruction to help their students. They may have a low tolerance threshold for students with learning difficulties and not persist in helping such students through their difficulties. Teachers with high sense of efficacy exhibit the opposite tendencies—adapting instruction to student characteristics and showing a high level of tolerance for a variety of student learning styles.


Improvement of ineffective teachers is possible, however. High-quality staff development efforts can change both teachers' self-expectations and foster improved student learning (Guskey, 1982, cited in Bamburg 1994). It appears that teacher and student expectations are intertwined in the classroom and both must receive attention to ensure success.


Unifying Expectations of Institutions and Groups

Schilling cites the need for a college faculty collectively to have fairly uniform expectations for students. Faculty members who have markedly higher expectations than their colleagues may be "punished" by students through poor student evaluations and/or through low course enrollments. A coherent vision or mission may contribute, in part, to the student learning successes of certain Catholic and magnet schools: there is a sharing of expectations among administrators, teachers, parents, and students.


A school without vision or mission may end up with as many different sets of expectations for students as there are teachers in the school....School staff must share high expectations for all students and for themselves (Bamburg 1994).


Conflicting social and academic expectations with complex historical origins may pressure individuals in specific ethnic and racial groups to achieve less in school than they might do otherwise. African-American students are sometime accused by peers of "acting white" if they are serious students. Such mixed messages need to be resolved if our hope is for all students to take full advantage of learning opportunities. Bamburg suggests "developing programs to teach black children that academic pursuit is not synonymous with one-way acculturation into acting white."


Working to Change College Students' Expectations

Schilling cites research that reveals a significant difference between the amount of homework that professors say that they expect of students and the amount that students actually do. Many students receive excellent grades even while maintaining minimal effort in their college studies. Student expectations for how much time they will need to study start out low in the freshman year and then decrease!


Schilling believes that the first year on campus is critical to setting high expectations both for the quantity and quality of work. Setting high expectations in the first semester establishes the tone for the rest of a student's time on campus. Higher expectations do not simply translate to harder grading: the level of intellectual challenge should be high, with students engaged in critical analysis, problem solving, etc. Such engagement in higher order learning motivates students and makes learning more exciting.


Local efforts to change expectations should begin by collecting data on the actual level of student academic effort at a particular campus. After broad sharing of the data, a campus effort to identify policies and ways of working that either promote or inhibit efforts to raise expectations and outcomes can be conducted. (See National Panel briefing paper #7B for a more details on Schilling's work.)



As a music educator, this author battled constantly with student and parent misconceptions such as "music is a gift" or "either you've got it or you don't." Music, like so many other human endeavors, is learned and the expectations that the teacher holds for each and every student are not only important, but perhaps determinant of outcomes. Teachers must develop their own teaching skills (also learned!), believe both in their own effectiveness and in a student's potential to learn, and act to foster the learning they expect.


Students, for their part, should believe that sustained effort will help them to learn, see a correlation between their efforts and their achievement, and expect that their teachers will assist them and stick with them when they have trouble. Attributions of success to native ability by teachers, students, parents, or society, should perhaps be avoided.


It is instructive to think about what really is meant when a student exceeds a teacher's expectations and is called an "over-achiever." Such a label implies established moderate or low expectations for a student, who is probably seen as having moderate or low ability. Projects and assessments can reveal great variations in what individual students know and are able to do, but those revelations should change our teaching, not our high expectations.



Bamburg, Jerry D. 1994. Raising expectations to improve student learning. ERIC document ED 378 290.


Brophy, Jere. 1986. On motivating students. ERIC document ED 276 724. (cited in Lumsden, 1997).


Encyclopedia of Educational Research. 1992. Sixth Edition. Marvin C. Alkin, editor. New York: Macmillan.


Lumsden, Linda. 1997. Expectations for students. ERIC document ED 409 609.


Schilling, Karen Maitland and Karl L. Schilling 1999. Increasing expectations for student effort. About Campus, 4:2.


Tauber, Robert T. 1998. Good or bad, what teachers expect from students they generally get! ERIC document ED 426 985.


Additional background information gathered from Handbook of Research on Teaching, third edition, 1986, published by Macmillan (a project of the American Educational Research Association—AERA).