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Setting clear expectations

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

The Early Career Framework states that teachers must learn that... Setting clear expectations can help communicate shared values that improve classroom and school culture.

One of the best ways to help students meet rigorous academic expectations is to first set high expectations for behaviour. With clear, consistent classroom expectations:

  • Students know and understand what’s expected of them, which gives them confidence.

  • Students monitor themselves and take more responsibility for their behaviour — and their learning.

  • Students spend more time on task and academic learning time increases.

  • Teachers can more easily recognize and motivate positive behaviours.

  • Classroom stress for students and teachers decreases.

  • Students gain a sense of safety and security.

  • The classroom culture and the school culture become more positive overall.

In contrast, in classrooms where behaviours vary day to day or minute to minute, teachers struggle to teach and students often learn less than they should. Think about all the instructional minutes that are stolen by disruptive behaviours. Those missing minutes mean students have less time to focus on and master academic standards. In an environment that’s disorderly or chaotic — or worse, unsafe — students are also less likely to ask questions, engage in classroom discussions, and take academic risks in front of their peers. Further, the problem is compounded when struggling learners miss class time because of discipline referrals or suspensions.

You can watch a classic episode from Teachers TV on Raising Expectations below:

Here are some practical strategies you could consider when trying to raise expectations.

High challenge

Set a high level of challenge while telling students you expect them to achieve “full marks”. This can have a jarring effect on some students, as they are not used to hearing it. But if you can explain to them how to get full marks on one small task, they will be able to see that it is possible. Follow this up by giving them the experience of scoring highly and often – aim for an 80 per cent success rate (this is according to Rosenshine’s Principles of Instruction).

That might mean that you do not set a very high level of challenge early on. Hold your nerve here – it is okay in the short-term. In order to raise expectations, you also need to raise students’ self-confidence and this only occurs when students are used to frequent success. Dial-up the challenge once the students can handle it academically (and emotionally).

Independent learning

Have a strategy for independent learning, or else it will not happen. Many students flounder when it comes to directing their own education. For this reason, it is often helpful for students to have their independence supported a little (at least at first).

This sounds like an oxymoron, I know. But when it comes to independent learning, students often do not know what they are looking for, where to find it, or what to do if they ever get hold of the right material.

Having a wider reading list can be a great place to start. Homework menus can also be useful, although care should be taken so that homework is meaningful and not just a selection of token activities that do not make a difference.

Another way to support independent learning can be via a shared resource folder, using Dropbox or Google Classroom, where students can share their independent resources with each other. This collaboration can really pay dividends when it comes to students supporting each other.

Crucially though, students need to see independent learning as central to their studies, rather than as an add-on. There should be no opt-out. Scheduling a weekly or fortnightly session (even just for 10 minutes) to explore what students have researched is an effective way to make this part of students’ routines. They will come to expect it and the extra depth and breadth of their subject knowledge will help boost their confidence further, making them more resilient so that they can push themselves when under greater levels of challenge.


Students are much less likely to challenge your high expectations of them if they see students in other classes also being held to high expectations.

A department, faculty, or whole-school approach is, therefore, a better way to ensure that students buy-in to the challenge you set for them. On your own, you run the risk of just being seen as “the strict one”, or worse, “the one who has no clue”.

Broaden students’ experiences

We have all been there, looking for ways to “engage” our students by reaching for resources that crowbar football-related tasks into an unrelated curriculum, for example. While we might be doing it for the right reasons, it may actually compound the problem. Students often struggle due to a lack of worldly experience. They cannot draw the analogies that other, more culturally aware students can.

So, instead of directing them back to their limited and restricting past experiences, the solution is to broaden their horizons by exposing them to completely new information. In doing so, we are trusting students with a genuine challenge; one that might just give students that confidence to keep persevering, as they begin to make more connections between ideas.

This network of connections is where new ideas stick. The more pieces of information you can add to the network, the easier it is to add further pieces. But ultimately it begins with the teacher trusting students with brand new ideas, as often as possible.

Teaching Strategies: How To Set High Expectations For Students

In this video, The Highly Effective Teacher will share with you simple and effective ways to set high expectations for your students and show them you believe they can achieve. What you do matters! As John Hattie says:

‘It is the teacher who makes the difference in the classroom’.

You have more power than you know and often much more than you feel with your students. Even with the most difficult or disadvantaged students.


[Further reading recommendations are indicated with an asterisk.]

Aronson, J. (Ed.) (2002) Improving academic achievement: Impact of psychological factors on education. New York: Academic Press.

Bandura, A. (1986) Social foundations of thought and action: a social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Campbell Collaboration (2018) School-based interventions for reducing disciplinary school exclusion: A Systematic Review. Accessible from: .

Chapman, R. L., Buckley, L., & Sheehan, M. (2013) School-Based Programs for Increasing Connectedness and Reducing Risk Behavior: A Systematic Review, 25(1), 95–114.

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., Rockoff, J. E. (2014) Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2633–2679. .

*Education Endowment Foundation (2018) Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation Teaching and Learning Toolkit: Accessible from: [retrieved 10 October 2018].

Hanushek, E. (1992) The Trade-off between Child Quantity and Quality. Journal of Political Economy, 100(4), 859–887.

*Institute of Education Sciences (2008) Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom. Accessible from

Johnson, S., Buckingham, M., Morris, S., Suzuki, S., Weiner, M., Hershberg, R., B. Weiner, Hershberg, R., Fremont, E., Batanova, M., Aymong, C., Hunter, C., Bowers, E., Lerner, J., & Lerner, R. (2016) Adolescents’ Character Role Models: Exploring Who Young People Look Up to as Examples of How to Be a Good Person. Research in Human Development, 13(2), 126–141.

Jussim, L. & Harber, K., (2005) Teacher Expectations and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Knowns and Unknowns, Resolved and Unresolved Controversies, Personality and Social Psychology Review 2005, Vol. 9, No. 2, 131–1557.

Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016) Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602–640. .

Murdock-Perriera, L. A., & Sedlacek, Q. C. (2018) Questioning Pygmalion in the twenty-first century: the formation, transmission, and attributional influence of teacher expectancies. Social Psychology of Education, 21(3), 691–707. .

*PISA (2015) PISA in Focus: Do teacher-student relations affect students’ well-being at school? Accessible from: .

Rathmann K., Herke M., Hurrelmann K., Richter M. (2018) Perceived class climate and school-aged children's life satisfaction: The role of the learning environment in classrooms. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0189335. .

Rubie-Davies, C. M., Weinstein, R. S., Huang, F. L., Gregory, A., Cowan, P. A., & Cowan, C. P. (2014) Successive teacher expectation effects across the early school years. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 35(3), 181–191. .

Slater, H., Davies, N. M., & Burgess, S. (2011) Do Teachers Matter? Measuring the Variation in Teacher Effectiveness in England. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, .

Tsiplakides, I. & Keramida, A. (2010) The relationship between teacher expectations and student achievement in the teaching of English as a foreign language. English Language Teaching, 3(2), P22. Retrieved from .

Wubbels, T., Brekelmans, M., den Brok, P., Wijsman, L., Mainhard, T., & van Tartwijk, J. (2014) Teacher-student relationships and classroom management. In E. T. Emmer, E. Sabornie, C. Evertson, & C. Weinstein (Eds.). Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (2nd ed., pp. 363–386). New York, NY: Routledge.

Zins, J. E., Bloodworth, M. R., Weissberg, R. P., & Walberg, H. J. (2007) The Scientific Base Linking Social and Emotional Learning to School Success. Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation, 17(2–3), 191–210.


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