Avoid teacher burnout by signing up NOW to get these evidence-based practical tools delivered to you monthly. They will boost your motivation AND your student’s learning.

The 50-year drought is over!

Imagine your best friend has set you up on another blind date. Based on the limited information you have about this person, you are certain this first date will also be your last date with them. And guess what? You are probably right! But maybe not for the reasons you think.

The expectations you have about your students work the same way. Think that student is going to excel in your class? You are probably right! Think the student sitting in front of her is going to perform poorly? Right again!

To modify the words of Henry Ford: “If you think your students can or think they can’t – you’re right!” If you’re going to be right either way, then read on to learn the 3 areas to focus on to make sure you are using your expectations to move students in the direction that leads to higher achievement.

The Research

Teachers with high expectations are more likely to enhance student learning. Teachers with low expectations hardly change a student’s growth over a year (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968).

Those were the general findings of the well-known Rosenthal & Jacobson research study back in 1968. As you might recall, that was the study in which students were pre-tested and then randomly assigned to different teachers. The teachers, however, were told that one class contained all the high achieving students, and the other class did not.

The results spoke of the power of teacher expectations. The students in the class led by the teacher who believed their class was high achieving significantly outperformed the other class (Rosenthal & Jacobson, 1968). The Rosenthal Effect, sometimes called the Pygmalion Effect, was an important research study because of the following two conclusions:

  1. Teacher’s expectations of students can be manipulated.
  2. Teacher’s expectations can affect student’s academic performance.

But that was 50 years ago.

Since then, there has not been a single research study on teacher expectations … at least not one that was conducted as a randomized control trial (RCT) like the Rosenthal study. Sure, there has been a lot written on teacher expectations. A lot of observational studies, and other less profound studies. But a randomized control study (we’re talking control group, experimental group, random assignment to a group, and controlling for other factors) is the “golden standard” of good research and we haven’t had anything of that quality since 1968.

And for understandable reasons. Randomized control studies that include an intervention are very rare in education. They are often expensive, logistically complicated, and very time intensive. And it can be real tough to find a large sample size of teachers or students to be the “experimental group” and commit to doing something different for a substantial amount of time, not knowing if it will produce any positive results. Hence, we’ve had a severe drought on high quality research in the field of teacher expectations. … Until now!

The 50-year drought is over!

And it is a good thing, considering the HUGE effect size of this topic: teacher expectations. The effect size of “teacher estimates of achievement” is 1.29 (Hattie, 2017). Anything with an effect size THAT big should have you leaning in and eager to master. (BTW – Student expectations of themselves has an effect size only slightly higher than YOU, the teacher, at 1.33). Your expectations of your students have a TREMENDOUS influence on their achievement level. Please, please, use that influence for good.

The results of this new research are impressive! The best news of all is this new research shows EXACTLY HOW you, the teacher, can become a “high-expecting teacher” and achieve similarly impressive results. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you probably know that having high expectations of your students is a good thing. It’s the how-to be a high-expecting teacher that is likely keeping teachers distanced from the results you want. Turns out there are three specific areas for you to focus on that help transform your teaching practices to be aligned with those who have high expectations. We’ll get to the how-to part in just a minute. But first …

What is a high-expecting teacher?

The foundation of teachers with high expectations is a core belief in opportunity to learn. Teachers with high expectations believe that ALL students can and WILL succeed. Hence, they have high expectations of ALL students.

Most teachers want to be high expecting teachers. But many struggle with preconceived beliefs or mindsets about certain types of students or learning that holds them back from truly being a high-expecting teacher. Consider if you share any of the following beliefs that lead to low expectations:

  • Math comes more naturally to boys than girls
  • Students can’t learn on a Friday afternoon
  • Students who speak English as their second language won’t do as well in school as those who speak English as their first language
  • These character concepts are too advanced for elementary-aged students
  • Students diagnosed with ADD/ADHD/etc. will always struggle to focus in class
  • Students living in poverty simply don’t have the resources to be successful as middle and upper-class students

Teachers with these kinds of beliefs can negatively influence their students’ achievement. Good thing that is not you! Remember – your beliefs influence your actions, so it is critical to confront any negative beliefs you might have about teaching, learning, and your students … for the benefit of your students and their learning.

In contrast, here are some habits of high-expecting teachers. As you read through the list below, consider which describe you and which don’t describe you … yet!

Teachers with high expectations:

  • Provide all students with high-level thought-provoking activities
  • Set challenging goals for all students
  • Closely monitor student progress and provide frequent feedback
  • Celebrate successes with their students
  • Create a positive climate in the classroom
  • Expect high standards of behavior
  • Implement positive, preventive classroom management techniques
  • Let their students know they care about them and their learning
  • Are personally motivated by their students learning success (Rubie-Davies & Rosenthal, 2016).

THOSE are the habits you want to aim for. Those are the habits of teachers with high expectations that consistently see impressive results in their students’ learning.

All these habits fit nicely into three categories of teaching practices. Master these three and you are on your way to incredible results for your students.

Before I share the three areas to master, you might be curious how they pulled off this “golden standard” study – the first ever randomized controlled experiment of teacher expectations across multiple schools, grade levels, ability levels, and more … all within naturally occurring classroom situations.

First, the results – students in the “experimental group” scored on average 28% higher in mathematics than the students in the control group. You don’t need to be a statistician to know those results are statistically significant.

How did they pull it off?

The short version is they trained half the teachers in the practices of teachers who have high expectations of all students. They trained them several times throughout the year and offered continuous support and feedback. Drawing upon half a century worth of research in the field, the researchers knew to focus their training on three main areas that are consistent among teachers with high expectations:

1. Grouping and learning activities

Teachers being trained to have high expectations for ALL students were taught to create flexible student groups rather than groupings by ability level. This leads to greater levels of self-efficacy. Ability-level groupings are detrimental to students’ self-belief (Dumont, Protsch, Jansen, & Becker, 2017).

Teachers in the experimental group were also taught to provide students with greater levels of autonomy by offering choices in learning activities. Autonomy increases student motivation. Self-efficacy and motivation both contribute to student achievement (Ryan & Deci, 2013).

These teachers were trained in how to create appropriately challenging learning activities. Challenging activities increase student motivation and thus improve learning (McDonald, Flint, Rubie-Davies, Peterson, Watson, & Garrett, 2014). 

2. Class climate

Teachers trained to have high expectations learned specific tools to create a positive climate within the classroom. Positive teacher-student relationships, along with student-to-student relationships are a priority, as they have been shown to improve academic achievement (Pianta, Hamre, & Allen, 2012).

These teachers were trained to care about ALL of their students and encourage them all. They learned positive behavior modification strategies (rather than punishments) to teach students appropriate classroom behaviors. Show students a new success role model (who looks just like the other students) every month or so. They need to see their “older version” being a success to create a reality about their expectations. Ask students to visualize being the success you know they can be.

3. Goal setting ­

Teachers learning to have high expectations were taught how to set clear, specific, and CHALLENGING goals with their students. Goal-setting can enhance student achievement (Travers, Morisano, & Locke, 2015). This is especially true when teachers monitor the student’s progress toward the goals and provide feedback on their progress.

These teachers also learned how goal-setting can be used to promote student motivation and autonomy. They were trained in how to use regular formative assessments to give clear feedback to students on their goals.

What kind of goals should you be setting with your students?

Mastery goals are best because they focus on students mastering a new skill, attempting to accomplish something challenging, and seeking to understand new learning material. With a mastery goal, success is accomplished through self-improvement. Students find mastery goals motivating because of the challenge and interest Inherent in the task (Meece, Anderman, & Anderman, 2006).

Mastery goals are NOT the same as a performance goal. A focus on performance goals uses social comparisons to judge ability or performance. Am I doing better than David? Am I at the top of my class? In this realm of goal setting, the aim is to be better than others (instead of being better than you used to be yourself). These types of goals do NOT produce the same level of intrinsic motivation and achievement as mastery goals.

Students who are aiming for mastery goals demonstrate higher levels of perseverance with difficult tasks, give more effort, and higher levels of self-efficacy. In addition, mastery-focused students have more positive perceptions of their academic abilities. Who doesn’t want all of that in a student? Focus on mastery goals rather than performance goals.

How difficult do these challenging goals need to be? The simple answer is: VERY challenging. The not-so-simple answer is: Because every student’s ability is unique, there isn’t a quick quantifiable way to calculate the appropriate level of challenge. Read on to learn how to guide your students to set goals that are at the right level of challenge for them.

Students can learn to set challenging, mastery-focused goals for their academics at an early age. In this study, they worked with students as young as grade 2. It is likely students can learn to set goals at an even earlier age than that.

By improving their practices in these three areas the teachers in this study were able to improve student’s math scores by an average of 28% compared to the students in the control group (Rubie-Davies & Rosenthal, 2016). 

Practical Application

If you are serious about becoming a “high-expecting teacher”, here is what you do. You focus on the three main categories mentioned above and you relentlessly pursue excellence in these areas. Here are some SPECIFIC suggestions to get you started:

1. Grouping and learning activities

  • Eliminate ability level grouping. It doesn’t help them academically and it sure doesn’t help a students’ belief in themselves (self-efficacy) knowing they have been officially placed in a group with other “LOW” kids. Social groups are a POWERFUL messaging tool to influence students. They learn from the teacher by WHICH group they are in. Just as importantly, they learn from their peers how to be more competent when they are NOT in a lower group.
  • Allow students to make choices regarding which learning activity they complete (all related to the same learning goal). “To demonstrate mastery of your knowledge of clouds, you can either choose to write a creative story outlining the differences between cloud types or create a short skit to perform for the class.” Student autonomy is a huge predictor of student motivation.
  • Provide opportunities for students to work with a variety of their peers. Switch groups weekly, or at the end of a unit. Or even with each assignment. “Today you’ll be working with people born in the same month (or neighboring month) as you.” Or, “Your partner for this next activity is exactly 17 steps away from where you are standing now.”
  • Assign challenging tasks. How challenging is too challenging? Well, the answer you probably don’t want to hear (but is true) is it depends on the student. You wouldn’t take all your students out to the track and expect them all to run a mile in seven minutes or less. But I hope you would expect them all to improve their time by some percentage over time.The same is true for their academic performance. Each student is unique. Look for signs of boredom, and then increase the challenge for that student. When you see signs of frustration or anxiety, decrease the level of challenge.

2. Class climate

  • Relationships rule as much as ever! Establish rules in your classroom that foster safety, trust, and a mutual sense of belonging. Help students know that bullying will not be tolerated, that each student is valued and an important member of their learning community. 
  • Give personalized attention to students individually. Create classroom traditions for celebrating birthdays. Notice when students are absent and ask them about it. Get to know each student as an individual and use that information to strengthen your relationship with them. “At the bottom of your paper write one sentence about your weekend that you’d like to share with me; tell me something about your family that you’d like me to know; etc.”
  • Use more positive language patterns when teaching students appropriate classroom behavior. “Remember to walk as a class to the assembly” or “Please make sure your cell phone is put away for this next portion of our lesson” creates a better climate and relationships than “DON’T, DO NOT and STOP THAT!”

3. Goal setting

  • Teach students the basics of goal setting. Show them how to create a goal that is specific and MAYBE achievable. Walk them through the process of creating progress-based goals for their academic achievement. Check out the WOOP model over at for the only science-backed goal setting frame I am aware of. The website has everything you need to get started setting goals with your class.At the start of the year, to set a strong, gutsy goal, encourage students to take their current level and add 2 grade levels of growth to it for each school year. This makes the goal achievable and challenging. If your students are hesitant to set a goal that high, it is either because they don’t believe in you (why not?) or don’t believe in themselves (how do you shift that low expectation?).
  • Guide your students to set goals that are challenging … for them. If their goal is too easy they won’t be motivated because it doesn’t feel important. Goals can rarely be too hard; they CAN lack the “why”, or lack support, or a clear doable path. In these circumstances, help students create “super short-term micro goals” to keep them excited about continual progress. “Here’s what I am going to get done THIS week.” Then help them notice the small progress that keeps them excited about the long-term BIG goal.
  • Help them set goals that feel like a challenge, get them excited, and possibly even a bit nervous. Challenging goals feel significant so students work harder to achieve them.
  • Have students take some type of pre-assessment that is only used as a reference point for their progress. You can’t track progress without having a starting point to measure against.
  • Allow students some creative time to create a visual measuring tool (thermometer, football field, speedometer, etc.) to fill in as they monitor their progress toward their goal.
  • Schedule regular check-ins with students to discuss their progress. This can be done face-to-face, in writing using your school’s intranet system, through personalized videos using technology like FlipGrid, etc. To maximize the motivational benefits of goal-setting, students should be receiving feedback every day on their learning, and then weekly on their progress toward their learning goal.

Are there more areas than these three that can help you be a high-expecting teacher? Possibly. If so, they just haven’t been researched at such a high level as these to be included in this newsletter. You can trust me to keep an eye on the research – I’ll let you know when any credible research comes out with new information. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait another 50 years!

Until then, chose one of the three areas above to focus on this next month. Believe all students can succeed, because they can! P.S. So can you!


Dumont, H., Protsch, P., Jansen, M., & Becker, M. (2017). Fish swimming into the ocean: How tracking relates to students’ self-beliefs and school disengagement at the end of schooling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 109(6), 855-870.

Hattie, J. (December 2017). Hattie’s 2018 updated list of factors related to student achievement: 252 influences and effect sizes (Cohen’s d). Retrieved from

Mcdonald, L., Flint, A., Rubie-Davies, C. M., Peterson, E. R., Watson, P., & Garrett, L. (2014). Teaching high-expectation strategies to teachers through an intervention process. Professional Development in Education, 42(2), 290-307.

Meece, J. L., Anderman, E. M., & Anderman, L. H. (2006). Classroom Goal Structure, Student Motivation, and Academic Achievement. Annual Review of Psychology, 57(1), 487-503.

Pianta, R. C., Hamre, B. K., & Allen, J. P. (2012). Teacher-Student Relationships and Engagement: Conceptualizing, Measuring, and Improving the Capacity of Classroom Interactions. Handbook of Research on Student Engagement, 365-386.

Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. (1969). Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils Intellectual Development. Psychology in the Schools, 6(2), 212-214.

Rubie-Davies, C. M., & Rosenthal, R. (2016). Intervening in teacher’s expectations: A random effects meta-analytic approach to examining the effectiveness of an intervention. Learning and Individual Differences, 50, 83-92.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2013). Toward a social psychology of assimilation: Self-determination theory in cognitive development and education. In B. W. Sokol, F. M. E. Grouzet, U. Muller (Eds.), Self-regulation and autonomy: Social and developmental dimensions of human conduct (pp. 191-207). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Travers, C., Morisano, D., & Locke, E. (2015). Self-reflection, growth goals, and academic outcomes: A qualitative study. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(2), 224-241.

Share this post

Leave a Reply