1 Unexpected Way Thinking Can Improve Student Grades
Are you using the powerful 'Pygmalion effect' in your classroom?
You can improve your students' results by thinking differently.
Sounds like magic? It seems like it, but the concept is simple. If you have high expectations of your students, they'll perform better than if you have low expectations of them.
It's called the Pygmalion Effect, and you can start using it immediately.
Read to the end for practical tips to use in your classes.
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What is the Pygmalion Effect?
It's a psychological phenomenon, not wishing or praying for your students to get better grades.
It's the idea that expectations are a self-fulfilling prophecy. High expectations lead to improved performance, and low expectations lead to worse performance.
The effect holds in other areas of life, not just the classroom. In their book Pygmalion in the Classroom, psychologists Rosenthal and Lenore give examples of self-fulfilling prophecies:
A bowling team player will perform to their team’s expectations.
A shy person can become extroverted if treated as a social favourite.
A belief that a bank is failing (even if untrue) can cause a panic and the bank to fail.
The Classroom Experiment
The psychologists Rosenthal and Lenore gave a disguised IQ test to all of the students in a Californian school. Teachers weren't told the scores but were told that 20% of the students were 'intellectually gifted' and told the names of these students.
The catch? The 20% were chosen at random.
Later, the students were tested again with the same test. The so-called 'gifted' learners showed an increase in performance beyond their peers. This was especially true for the younger learners in grades 1 and 2.
The study concluded that teacher expectations can influence learner achievement, particularly younger learners.
Why Does the Pygmalion Effect Work?
Rosenthal considered these possibilities:
Teachers may pay have paid closer attention to the target students.
Teachers may have treated the target students differently when they had difficulties.
He also suggested that even a teacher's mood might affect students.
I'm sure teacher expectations are communicated through posture, tone of voice, and choice of words. Imagine the motivational effect on your students if you used positive versus negative reinforcement!
I speculate that another phenomenon might have a substantial effect: the social pressure of wanting to belong to a tribe or social group.
It’s well documented that people conform to their social group. So if an authority figure tells you the standard that needs to be met to continue to be a member of the group, then students will conform to that standard.
In an educational setting, this would be the teacher setting the standards.
Criticisms of the Pygmalion Effect
The study has been criticised over the years, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence to support it. So even if the findings aren't totally accurate, it's highly likely to be directionally accurate (i.e. the effect exists, but we're not sure how large of an impact it has).
Nowadays, the same research would be impossible to carry out - it would be unethical to deliberately hold low or lower expectations of students to see if they had a lower performance.
However, there seems to be a common-sense logic at work. I remember teachers from my school days. Some didn't care about their students, and we responded by not doing the work properly and not caring, and our results were worse. The opposite was also true - some teachers poured their hearts into their classes, and we (mostly) responded by trying harder.
I've seen the same effect in colleagues since being a teacher.
Miserable colleagues who resent their work always seem to have a 'nightmare class', struggling to get them to learn. Yet when you cover that class - the students are well-behaved and eager to please.
The difference is how you treat them.
Students’ Expectations of Teachers
Teachers can also be affected by their students.
Several experiments1 showed2 that students who were instructed to act a certain way in class (without the teacher's knowledge) would affect what the teacher thought of their performance and how they would act towards the class.
How to Use the Pygmalion Effect
So how can you use all this to your advantage?
The following tips hold for you, whether teaching students, training teachers, managing a school or a parent raising a child.
Hold positive expectations for everyone - expect the best from everyone. Yes, even the annoying ones.
Use the principle of charity - assume the best intentions when things go wrong.
Be aware of yourself - your posture, mannerisms, tone of voice, and choice of words.
Set expectations clearly - you may want to show examples illustrating the standard of work you expect. Try to balance this with being too demanding, understand what they're capable of and push them to reach their best.
Use positive reinforcement - regularly praise students for the process, not the outcome. "Well done for working and trying hard" rather than "You're so smart, well done."
Let them affect you positively - let their good mood affect you positively. If they're in a low mood, try not to let it affect you.
Lastly, Why the Odd Name?
Pygmalion is a sculptor in Greek myth. He created a statue so beautiful that he fell in love with it, his passion so great that the statue came to life. The name of Pygmalion conveys that high expectations will have an amazing effect.
It's sometimes called the Rosenthal Effect, after one of the psychologists who first investigated it.
Good luck in using the Pygmalion effect in your classes!
If you’d like to learn more, I can help:
1. Plan better, faster and stress-free with my book Lesson Planning for Language Teachers (98 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
2. Develop calm students and a classroom full of learning with my book Essential Classroom Management (20 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
3. Improve your teaching in five minutes daily with my Reflective Teaching Practice Journal (6 ratings, 4.5⭐ on Amazon).
Jenkins, Joseph R.; Deno, Stanley L. (1969). "Influence of student behavior on teacher's self-evaluation". Journal of Educational Psychology. 60 (6, Pt.1): 439–442.
Herrell, James M. (April 1971). "Galatea in the Classroom: Student Expectations Affect Teacher Behavior". Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association (6(Pt. 2)): 521–522.