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Teacher expectations can affect pupil outcomes

Updated: Nov 9, 2021

The Early Career Framework states that teachers must learn that... Teacher expectations can affect pupil outcomes; setting goals that challenge and stretch pupils is essential.

Teachers are the single most important in-school factor that affects student achievement. Teacher expectations can affect pupil outcomes; setting goals that challenge and stretch pupils is essential. In general, high expectations improve performance, whereas low expectations seem to undermine achievement.

A growing body of research suggests that the expectations a teacher sets for an individual student can significantly affect the student’s performance. Teacher expectations can, for example, be based on student characteristics such as race, ethnicity, and family income level, or indicators of past performance. These expectations can cause teachers to differentiate their behaviour towards individual students, such that teachers set lower expectations for some students, provide briefer (or no) feedback on student errors—and less positive feedback after correct answers—and grant students less time to answer questions. All of these teacher behaviours, when repeated day in, day out, over the course of a year or multiple school years, can negatively impact student performance and ultimately perpetuate the achievement gaps that plague the education system. While varied expectations for students are rarely developed out of malice, teachers need to be aware of the consequences of different student expectations and understand how to correct them

The Rosenthal and Jacobson study of 1968 was the first full-length study to suggest that teacher expectations, even when based on erroneous information, can influence the academic performance of children. This harmful practice is commonly known as the Pygmalion Effect.

The theoretical counterpart to the Pygmalion Effect is the Golem Effect, in which low expectations lead to a decrease in performance. As Rosenthal and Babad (1985) note: “When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur.”

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The fact that people will rise to the expectations that others have of them has been known for centuries. Thus, whatever expectations teachers have of their students will influence student achievement.

If a teacher perceives a student to be a high achiever and asks that student a high-level question, then that student will achieve at a higher level. If a teacher perceives a student to be a lower achieving student, the teacher will subconsciously ask an easier question, resulting in that student achieving at a lower level.

Another example is latency or wait time. Teachers wait longer for high achieving students to answer, resulting in answers that are more complex and expressed in full sentences. With lower achieving students, however, teachers will wait a shorter length of time for an answer and the answers will be less complex and may be expressed in short phrases or one word.

Although teachers do not mean to do it, many teachers will

  • Ask more complex questions of higher achieving students than lower achieving students

  • Give less wait time to girls and perceived lower achieving students than to perceived higher achieving students

  • Call on higher achieving students more often than lower achieving students

  • Seemingly provide help to lower achieving students, but in actuality provide help to higher achieving students more often because they seek it

  • Spend 25% less time listening to lower achieving students than higher achieving students

  • Allow lower achieving students to sit in the back of the classroom where they can be ignored

Figure 1. Expectation effect process model (adapted from Brophy & Good, 1970).

What Do “High Expectations” Look Like

Expectations are high when teachers (or students) communicate the expectation that all members of the class can learn important knowledge and skills that are challenging for them. Students are encouraged and recognised for taking conceptual or other risks in learning. Expectations are also high when students at all levels are expected, and try, to master challenging work whether the challenge is intellectual, physical or performance-based.

Expectations are low when little is asked of students in terms of conceptual challenge or risk taking. They are also low when teachers (or students) communicate that they do not expect some students to be able to do the work.

As with most teaching strategies, having high expectations is simply about establishing a set of clear rules and routines. Doug Lemov shares a few such routines in his book, Teach Like a Champion.

For example, Mr Lemov says that teachers who have high expectations operate a “No opt out” policy. In other words, a teaching sequence that begins with a student unable to answer a question should end with the same student answering that question as often as possible.

Mr Lemov also says that teachers who have high expectations always insist that “Right is right”. In other words, they set and defend a high standard of correctness in their classroom. For example...

They use simple positive language to express their appreciation of what a student has done and to express their expectation that he or she will now complete the task. For example: “You’re almost there. Can you find the last piece?”

They insist that students answer the question they have asked not a different question entirely. These teachers are clear that the right answer to any question other than the one they have asked is, by definition, wrong.

As well as insisting on the right answer, teachers with high expectations insist that students answer the right question at the right time. They protect the integrity of their lesson by not jumping ahead to engage an exciting right answer at the wrong time.

These teachers insist their students use precise, technical vocabulary.

Mr Lemov says that teachers who have high expectations “Stretch it”. In other words, a sequence of learning does not end with a right answer; these teachers reward right answers with follow-up questions that extend knowledge and test for reliability.

For example, they ask how or why, ask for another way to answer, ask for a better word, ask for evidence, ask students to integrate a related skill, and/or ask students to apply the same skill in a new setting.

Mr Lemov says that, for the teachers who have high expectations of their students, “format matters”. In other words, it is not just what their students say that matters but how they say it. To succeed, students must take their knowledge and express it in the language of opportunity.

Further Reading:


[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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