Teacher Expectancy


Research summarized in Good & Brophy (1987), in Jussim (1986), and in Dusek (19xx) shows that there is a tendency for teachers to get what they expect from their students. This happens because teachers have (often unconscious) tendencies to treat students differently based on how likely they think it is that students will be successful. In Piaget's terms from chapter 4 of this book, what the teachers are doing is understandable. They are assimilating the current student into an existing structure and applying information from that structure to the current student. In terms of information processing and thinking skills (chapters 6 and 7), they are categorizing the new student into an existing category and reacting to that categorization. Assimilation and categorization work with other concepts. For example, it is appropriate to have an expectancy that creatures assimilated and categorized as dogs will bark at cats and chase their tails under certain circumstances. What's wrong with having similar expectancies for students?

The answer, of course, is that the categorizations are often wrong, and the expectancies may prevent the students from getting the education they deserve. As chapter 9 of this book will show, there is likely to be a wide range of differences within any group, and so it is much more useful to withhold hasty categorizations and related expectancies and to focus instead on the actual capabilities of individual learners. The main value of this discussion of teacher expectancy is to enable you to know how these expectancies work, so that you can minimize their possible negative impact and stimulate all the students you deal with to their highest level of performance.

There are really two different types of teacher expectancies, both covered in the research.



These expectancies have their impact by stimulating self-fulfilling prophecies. This term refers to the idea that a false definition of the situation evokes a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. Self-fullfilling prophecies are not magical phenomena. They have their impact in the classroom for several reasons:

  1. Teachers sometimes create a warmer socioemotional atmosphere for students they think are brighter. They may smile more often or be more friendly and supportive.

  2. Teachers may give slower students fewer chances to learn new material. They may direct new material and questions about it to students perceived to be brighter.

  3. Teachers may interact differently with students perceived to be weaker. They may allow more opportunities to make corrections for students whom they perceive to be brighter. They may make less eye contact with students they expect to perform poorly, give them fewer nonverbal signals of support, and be generally less friendly to them. They may pay more attention to the responses of brighter students and wait longer before calling on someone else during recitations. In general, they may spend more time talking to the brighter students and perhaps do more to support the motivation of the students whom they expect to succeed.

  4. Teachers tend to give more positive and corrective feedback to bright students and more criticism to students perceived as weak. When teachers praise weak students, it is often for compliant behavior rather than for academic performance.

  5. Students who experience this negatively biased teacher behavior are likely to set lower goals, attribute their failures to low ability, have lower perceptions of their own self-efficacy, and set performance goals rather than learning goals.

Similar expectancy effects occur in a wide variety of situations and are not restricted to the classroom. For example, when my son recently applied for a job, we advised him to dress nicely in order to make a good impression on the interviewer. Our tacit assumption was that if he dressed in his customary informal attire the interviewer would interpret anything he said in a less beneficial light than if he looked like a stereotypical eager young man.


Although teacher expectancy can operate on isolated students, it usually occurs because teachers engage in stereotyping. For example, teachers may have a predisposition to believe that most Blacks or Orientals, most girls, or most students with learning disabilities possess certain characteristics. Therefore, the best way to minimize the adverse effects of teacher expectancy is to be aware of the possibility of its occurrence and to avoid stereotyping. (Stereotyping and individual differences are discussed in chapter 9.)

What can teachers do to minimize the negative impact of teacher expectancy? There are several suggestions:

  1. Avoid forming inaccurate expectations. Frequent sources of inaccurate expectations are:

    • performance of siblings;

    • information from other teachers (Other teachers' negative experiences arise through an interaction between the child and the other teacher. The child may act the same way in your class; but then again, the child may act quite differently.);

    • social stereotypes (based on race, sex, or ethnic variables);

    • labeling (e.g., learning disabled).


  2. Periodically reassess expectations. A serious difficulty with holding expectations (even if they are originally plausible) is that the student's potential for performance may change without your knowing it.

  3. Reward the effort and initiative of low-performing students. By using effort as a criterion for praise, teachers can make it possible for slower students to receive positive feedback for working at their own level. This is not the same as accepting substandard performance. It is still appropriate to indicate what is wrong with student performance, but praise legitimate effort. If students believe their effort will pay off, they will eventually experience success.

  4. Be aware of the problems that are likely to arise because of teacher expectancy, and take direct steps to contradict their negative impact. For example,

    • Deliberately wait longer for slower students.

    • Deliberately smile at and create a positive socioemotional environment for students you think are weak.

    • Look for weak students to initiate contact with you, and reward them for doing so.

    • Deliberately call on weaker students. In doing so, it may be useful to ask them easier questions. (It is OK to act upon legitimate expectations.) But be sensitive to ask them more difficult questions when it seems reasonable to think they can answer them.



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