Self-fulfilling Prophecy and Student Performance

There has been a great deal of research into the correlation between teacher expectations of students, and student academic performance. Much of the research findings point to the idea that there is a positive correlation between the expectations that a teacher has for a student and that student’s actual academic performance. High expectations, therefore, corresponds to high academic performance for students, while low expectations would correspond with low academic performance. There are many theories that can be used to help explain this idea, but most revolve around the idea that the teacher, through subconscious thoughts and behaviors, influences the students to behave in a particular way.

When teachers form expectations on students, they tend to think and behave in a certain way towards those students. In doing so, they introduce bias into a student’s normal performance. This bias can be of positive or negative effect, depending on the teacher’s view of the student. In 1968, Robert Rosenthal, and Lenore Jacobson conducted a study in which they discovered, what they coined the Pygmalion effect. Simply put, the Pygmalion effect suggests that higher expectations lead to higher performance. (Mitchell & Daniels, 2003) In their study, Rosenthal and Jacobson found that teachers with high expectations for particular students provided those students with more support and encouragement, more challenging material to learn, more feedback, and more opportunity to speak in discussions. (Schneider et. al, 2012) This led to a significantly higher performance in the students of high expectation.  Conversely, when teachers had low expectations, they failed to provide much of the support provided to those they held higher expectations for. The measured performance for those students was lower, partly due to the lack of support and feedback they received. The golem effect, the idea that lower expectations lead to decreased performance, can be explained by the lack of support given as a result of those expectations. (Mitchell & Daniels, 2003)

As was described previously, the expectations that a teacher has for a student influences the way they think and behave toward that student. This explains the difference in support given to students where teachers have high expectations of them versus students where teachers have lower expectations of them. Many times, however, the teacher’s expectation of the student is inaccurate. In cases like this, the self-fulfilling prophecy can be used to better understand how these inaccurate expectations, drive student performance. The self-fulfilling prophecy “refers to having expectations about another person, that influence how you perceive and behave toward that person, influencing that person to behave in the previously expected manner. ” (Schneider et. al, 2012, pp. 204) It’s essentially thinking and behaving toward a person based on a bias, that is confirmed based on that person’s reaction to the way you behave towards them. For example, let’s assume Chad thinks Brian is antisocial. When they pass each other, Chad doesn’t speak to Brian because he believes he won’t speak back. Brian doesn’t speak because Chad doesn’t speak. Chad confirms his belief that Brian is anti-social due to Brian not speaking, even though Chad not speaking is the cause of Brian not speaking. Applied in a classroom setting, a teacher may have low expectations for a student based on some bias (race, religion, gender, etc.). Based on that bias, the teacher provides less support and feedback to the student than to other students of higher expectations. The student performs at a lower standard than the student that received more attention and feedback, and the teacher confirms her bias, not realizing the role she played in the outcome., and the teacher confirms her bias, not realizing the role she played in the outcome.

A good deal of research has been completed on the effects of teacher motivation on student performance. Findings suggest there is a positive correlation between the level of expectation that a teacher has for a student and the level of actual performance that student achieves. These findings suggest the subconscious behaviors of the teacher toward students of high expectations, (more support and feedback) contribute to this correlation. Finding also suggests not all expectations are accurate, as teachers are affected by inherent biases they may hold. These biases affect their behavior, which in turn affects student behavior, which ultimately confirms the original bias or high/low expectations (self-fulfilling prophecy).


Mitchell, Terence R.; Daniels, Denise (2003). “Motivation”. In Walter C. Borman; Daniel R. Ilgen; Richard J. Klimoski. Handbook of Psychology (volume 12). John Wiley & Sons, Inc. p. 229. ISBN 0-471-38408-9.

Schneider, F.W., Gruman, J.A., Coutts, L.M. (2012). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems (2nd ed).  Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

1 comment

  1. Amanda Jo Spencer

    I think there is a lot of truth to this, as I’ve noticed when my son has a better teacher who has high expectations for him and helps him achieve these expectations, he does better. Not only in his grades but his self-esteem seem to benefit from a teacher that can see his potential. He had a teacher in third grade that didn’t seem to think much of what he could do, and that caused a ripple effect. His grades suffered as did how he saw himself and what he was capable of. Teachers have a very important role in children’s lives and if they see potential in children who struggle they can make a huge difference in their lives.

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