How to Increase Student Performance with High Expectations

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Psychologists have long known that the expectations of others can affect our behavior. If we perceive that other people have high expectations of us, this can lead to higher performance. Likewise, low expectations can lead to decreased performance.

How can we harness this information to help students live up to their fullest potential? Carl Sagan wrote, “The visions we offer our children shape the future. It matters what those visions are. Often they become self-fulfilling prophecies.”

Here are three practical ways you can set high expectations for students in your classroom.

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1) Every student is a gifted student

In one of the most cited psychological studies ever conducted, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson looked at how teacher expectations affect student performance.

Teachers were told that a particular group of students were “growth spurters,” and, based on test results, could be expected to perform at high levels. In fact, this group was chosen at random. After one year, however, students in that group were scoring higher on IQ tests than the control group.

Why? Perhaps because teachers, intentionally or not, provided more personalized feedback to these students, offered more challenging material, and gave students more chances to answer questions correctly.

By treating every student as a “gifted” student, perhaps we can harness the power of this psychological phenomenon, commonly known as the Pygmalion Effect, to bolster all of our students.

  • Begin by actively pointing out the positive in individual students. Although you sometimes are only able to observe students over the course of a day or an hour, your outsider’s perspective can be valuable. You have none of the assumptions or prior knowledge that their day-to-day teachers have.

Look for ways to encourage students in their work ethic, their knowledge, and their character. A small comment can go a long way:

  • “You participate so well in class discussions. Thank you!”
  • “I appreciate how helpful you’ve been today.”
  • “I can tell that you are really catching on to this stuff!”

2) Engage with the content

Students want to know that the work they’re doing is meaningful. It is a substitute teacher’s job to find the meaning and value in a lesson and to help communicate that to students.

Likewise, don’t blame the teacher or some outside entity for the content of the day’s work. (“Well, your teacher left these plans, so we’re going to have to follow them!”) This minimizes the lesson immediately and gives students little chance to engage.

Instead, point out how exciting, engaging, and important the work can be:

  • “I didn’t learn how to diagram sentences until I was in college!”
  • “All this practice is really going to help you succeed on your test.”
  • “This video brings up some ideas I’d never thought about before.”

3) Treat students like scholars

Though you might only have a day with your students, treat them like scholars. This is, after all, a professional setting.

Ask students to answer your questions in complete sentences and with proficient grammar. Although students may initially find this frustrating, it helps their cognition to begin posing their answers and thoughts as complete ideas. This, of course, is expected at the college level, and even very young children can benefit from the practice.

Additionally, request that students sit up straight and speak up so that all students can hear their responses. Expecting these sorts of behaviors teaches students that you value what they have to say, that they are important members of the classroom and that the format in which they respond is important to the work of the day. It also becomes a memorable lesson that students may take with them after the day is over.

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