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The Power of the Pygmalion Effect

People do better when more is expected of them. In education circles, this is called the Pygmalion Effect. It has been demonstrated in study after study, and the results can sometimes be quite significant. Raising student expectations has been in the news a lot recently as part of a larger conversation about improving learning outcomes. A lot of research findings reveal the following results:


  1. High school students whose teachers have higher expectations about their future success are far more likely to graduate from college. All else equal, 10th grade students who had teachers with higher expectations were more than three times more likely to graduate from college than students who had teachers with lower expectations.

  2. College-preparation programs and other factors that support higher expectations are significant predictors of college graduation rates. High school students who enroll in college-preparation programs are more likely to graduate from college—all else equal—as are students who indicate that they work hard in high school.

These findings build on a large body of research on the power of expectations. Expectations also often have long-term effects. For example, education researchers in the Netherlands found that biased teacher expectations at the end of primary school predicted secondary school outcomes. Psychologists from the University of Michigan and Rutgers University concluded that teacher expectations can predict student achievement for years. Specifically, they found that teacher expectations in sixth and seventh grade predicted student achievement six years later.blogpic_6

Teachers themselves also say that high expectations are important for student achievement.

Looking forward, teachers must continue to raise expectations for students. At the same time, we need to improve teacher instructional capacity. We need to provide support to teachers in terms of their social and emotional learning. A lot many times even before entering the classroom, some teachers have low expectations of students coming from low-income strata. Teachers need to be trained about the Pygmalion effect as it can go a long way toward helping our children succeed in college and in life.

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