This is my second blog about how teachers may unconsciously affect their learners’ motivation. In the first, I discussed the teacher’s own feelings and attitudes toward their subject and their work. In this one, I will focus on ‘expectations’ and the surprising effect they can have on behaviour – both the teacher’s and the learners.
A considerable amount of research has been conducted on this topic in recent decades, which is very well summarized in David Robson’s 2022 book The Expectation Effect. Perhaps the most well-known of these effects is the ‘Placebo’ – the way patients’ condition can improve if they are given a medicine which they believe is real, even if it isn’t. The reverse is the ‘Nocebo effect’, In diverse fields of human endeavour, both mental and physical, it appears that people’s expectations of success or failure profoundly influence their performance.
In education, this has been demonstrated by experiments on the ‘Pygmalion Effect’. In a 1960s experiment, American Psychologist Robert Rosenthal conducted a study in which elementary school students were given an IQ test at the beginning of the school year. The teacher was then informed that, based on the test, certain pupils were ‘bloomers’ i.e., had very high potential for learning. At the end of the school year, it was found that these pupils had indeed achieved much better than average scores. Yet in actual fact, the ‘bloomers’ had been randomly picked.
What had evidently occurred was that the teacher’s expectations had transferred to the learners themselves, leading them to feel more self-confident and motivated, and to act as if they were smart, which reinforced the teacher’s expectations, and so on in a virtuous circle. As the researchers wrote, “When we expect certain behaviours of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behaviour more likely to occur” (Rosenthal & Babad 1985: 36).
Over 50 years on from the original experiments, we now understand the ‘Pygmalion Effect’ in education much better. We know that teachers do differentiate among their pupils, forming expectations very early in their courses. These expectations then affect the way they behave towards them, which in turn impacts student outcomes. Teachers of all subjects tend to have unconscious biases too, for example, some teachers may have higher expectations for pupils from more prosperous backgrounds and lower expectations for those with Special Educational Needs.
Now obviously it’s not a problem when a language teacher identifies a learner as having a high aptitude for languages and consciously or unconsciously encourages them in the classroom –– by asking more complex questions or assigning more challenging tasks. But it certainly matters when the teacher has low expectations because learners are likely to notice them, lose confidence and motivation, and ultimately achieve less than they could. This has been termed the ‘Golem Effect’.
As teachers, how can we counter the Golem Effect in our classrooms?
Be more self-aware
It is natural for us to form expectations of our learners based on past experience, and maybe our predictions have come right more often than not. But armed with an understanding of the ‘Pygmalion’ and ‘Golem Effects’, we should now acknowledge that the different levels of achievement may in part have been a result of the expectations we had for different learners.
Never under-estimate your learners
When we recognize we do have low expectations of certain learners, we should also realize that we are almost certainly underestimating their potential. With the right treatment from us, they could achieve much more. So…
- pay them more attention.
- be deliberately encouraging.
- call on them to answer questions more often.
- set realistic but demanding goals and show personal interest in their progress.
- give them feedback which emphasizes how to improve, rather than focusing on failure.
It can impact the whole group
Research shows that the negative effects of low expectations can apply to groups as well as individuals. The implication is: to avoid ability-based groupings wherever possible because they lower the expectations of those placed in the weaker groups. Instead, use mixed-ability groups, change them regularly, and stress that each individual will bring something valuable to the group that others can learn from.
Finally, it may even be the whole institution or even the wider community of parents and education authorities which has unnecessarily low expectations. I’m thinking here of schools in English-speaking countries, where expectations for the foreign language achievement of pupils may be far lower than they should be; lower for example than their peers across the world who learn English. Why should they be, when in the digital age the resources available for learning any major language are plentiful? It is hard for individual teachers to do anything about this, but the first step towards righting this wrong is to become aware of it.
Armed with these insights into the expectation effect, teachers can change their beliefs about what it is possible to achieve in the classroom – and once they have done that, they can confidently expect to see improvements in learning.
Robson, D. (2022). The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Transform Your Life. Canongate.
Rosenthal, R., & Babad. E. Y. (1985). Pygmalion in the gymnasium. Educational Leadership, 43(1), 36–39.
An excellent short video on the Pygmalion Effect and its implications for teachers can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R1Yl9nvXIE0
Martin Lamb is Senior Lecturer in TESOL and International Lead at the School of Education, University of Leeds, where he teaches undergraduate and postgraduate courses in language teaching methodology, second language acquisition, and assessment. He has worked as an ELT teacher and trainer in Indonesia, Bulgaria, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia. His main research interest is in learner and teacher motivation and its interaction with aspects of social context, including technology. He has published in multiple academic journals and was recently chief editor of The Palgrave Handbook of Motivation for Language Learning (2019).