Character  &  Context

The Teacher Expectation Project

Image of a silhouetted woman reading a story to seated children

By Christine Rubie-Davies

Differences in student outcomes have been attributed to many factors, among which have been differential teacher expectations. Teacher expectations are ideas teachers hold about the potential achievement of students. They are important because they determine the level and types of instruction teachers plan for students and can have a substantial impact on student outcomes.

The seminal work in the field was conducted by Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968). In their study, based on a test the researchers called The Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition, the researchers told teachers that the test had identified some students in their classes who were likely to suddenly blossom that year. The administered test was actually a little-known IQ test and 20% of students were randomly assigned to be students likely to blossom. When students were re-tested, those in the experimental group had increased their IQ scores more than those in the control group. The researchers postulated that the teachers must have interacted differently with those for whom their expectations had been manipulated, although this was not measured at the time. The study created much controversy, with some teachers and psychologists adamant supporters of the findings and their implications, whereas others questioned the methodology, particularly the increases in IQ. Nevertheless, this seminal work generated many subsequent studies and today there is little doubt that teacher expectations do exist in classrooms and can have effects on student social and academic outcomes.

The initial research led to studies that aimed to identify whether teachers did interact differently with students for whom they had high or low expectations, and if they did, what the behaviors were that portrayed teachers’ expectations. For example, Brophy (1985) identified 17 behaviors that portrayed teachers’ differential expectations. For example, teachers demanded more of students for whom they had high expectations, often asking them high level questions in public. In contrast they were more likely to ask closed questions of students for whom they had low expectations and to ask these questions in private. Brophy argued that these behaviors clearly signaled to students what sort of expectations their teacher held for them and resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy effect.

Other studies examined student characteristics that might influence teachers’ expectations. For example, ethnicity, social class and gender were found to influence teachers’ expectations. Studies such as these have asked what it is about individual students that means their teacher has high or low expectations for them? In contrast, the question can be asked: What is it about teachers that means they have high or low expectations for all students? Hence the focus of the three-year Teacher Expectation Project (TEP) described below ( moved from viewing expectations as a student-related phenomenon (i.e., something about the student creates the expectation in the teacher) to conceiving of expectations as a teacher-related phenomenon (i.e., due to particular beliefs and characteristics of teachers, some will have high expectations for all students while others will not). Seen in another way, the project focused on teacher beliefs as moderating the teacher expectation effects and led the intervention teachers in the project to confront their beliefs and to change practices. Hence, the TEP challenged teachers to alter not only the ways they traditionally viewed students but also how they taught. Consequently, it has contributed substantially to theoretical understandings of teacher expectations as having more effect on student achievement when viewed at the class level rather than the individual level. The TEP was supported by the Marsden Fund Council from Government funding administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand. The workshops, which were a major part of the intervention, were funded by the Cognition Trust.

The project was designed to test whether teacher expectations for all students could be raised experimentally and then sustained. Teachers were randomly assigned to control and intervention groups. In the first year of the project, those in the intervention group were introduced to and taught the specific teaching practices of high expectation teachers. These related to using flexible grouping (rather than ability grouping); creating a warm, positive class climate; and using goal-setting to increase student motivation, engagement, and autonomy, and to improve teacher evaluation and feedback. Teachers were also taught about non-verbal behaviors that could portray their expectations and learnt to analyze dvds of their teaching filmed four times during the project. During the second and third years, the research tracked whether teachers’ altered expectations were sustained and whether they maintained the innovative practices. The academic and social-psychological outcomes (motivation, self-concept, perceptions of class climate) for each new group of students were also measured. Students in the classes of the intervention and control classes were tracked for two years, in order to determine whether the enhanced outcomes of the students with intervention teachers were sustained as they moved into more traditional classrooms. A further objective of the research was to measure longitudinal differences in outcomes between the students who were with the control and experimental groups of teachers in the first year of the study. Full details related to this project can be obtained from the Project leader, Christine Rubie-Davies ( and far more background information and findings are available in Rubie-Davies (2014).

The TEP was analysed to determine whether it was successful in raising student achievement. We analysed the improvement using an analysis (Bayesian latent growth curve model) that compared changes in student achievement over the first year of the project and between control and intervention groups, while accounting for between-school differences. This analysis showed that students in the intervention group gained 28% additional learning in mathematics in one year compared with the control group. Full details related to this study can be obtained from Christine Rubie-Davies and were recently published in Contemporary Educational Psychology (Rubie-Davies, Peterson, Sibley, & Rosenthal, 2014).

A series of meta-analyses were also used to investigate the effectiveness of the TEP by examining whether the project was more effective in some contexts or among some students than others. We found that across all schools, by socioeconomic level of schools, by student ethnic groups and by gender the program was equally effective in enhancing the achievement of students in the intervention group when compared with those in the control group. Put simply, the TEP resulted in substantial improvements in student mathematics achievement for those students who were with intervention group teachers. These findings held whether we used students or group as the unit of analysis. The study suggests that when taught the practices of high expectation teachers, all teachers are able to raise student achievement. The meta-analyses suggest that there could be benefits of the intervention for similar students in similar schools and at similar grade levels. It remains for future research to test this assumption. As further analyses for the second and third years of the project are conducted, the researchers will also be able to test the effects of the intervention on teacher expectations and beliefs as well as on student beliefs. It appears, however, that the enhanced achievement results reported for high expectation teachers in previous studies (Rubie-Davies, 2006, 2007, 2008) may relate to their pedagogical practices, and, importantly, may be able to be taught to other teachers.

Christine Rubie-Davies is an Associate Professor and Head of School in the School of Learning Development and Professional Practice in the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland. Her research is mostly focused on teacher expectations at the whole class level and how various teacher beliefs and personality characteristics influence the instructional and socioemotional climate of classrooms. Christine also has interests in ethnic issues and gifted students. Christine is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (US), a recipient of a National Tertiary Teaching Excellence Award and has been recognized for excellence in reviewing by the American Educational Research Association. She is extensively published and her work has appeared in journals such as Journal of Educational Psychology and British Journal of Educational Psychology. More information about Christine and her work can be found at:


Brophy, J. E. (1985). Teacher-student interaction. In J. B. Dusek (Ed.), Teacher expectancies (pp. 303 – 328). Hillsdale, N. J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Rosenthal, R. and Jacobson, L. (1968) Pygmalion in the classroom: teacher expectation and pupils’ intellectual development, New York: Holt: Rinehart and Winston.

Rubie-Davies, C. M. (2006). Teacher expectations and student self-perceptions: Exploring relationships. Psychology in the Schools, 43, 537-552. 10.1002/pits.20169

Rubie-Davies, C. M. (2007). Classroom interactions: Exploring the practices of high and low expectation teachers.British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77, 289-306. 10.1348/000709906X101601

Rubie-Davies, C. M. (2008). Teacher beliefs and expectations: Relationships with student learning. In C. M. Rubie-Davies, & C. Rawlinson (Eds.), Challenging thinking about teaching and learning (pp. 25-39). Haupaugge, NY: Nova.

Rubie-Davies, C. M. (2014). Becoming a high expectation teacher: Raising the bar. London: Routledge.

Rubie-Davies, C. M., Peterson, E. R., Sibley, C. G., & Rosenthal, R. (online). A teacher expectation intervention: Modelling the practices of high expectation teachers. Contemporary Educational Psychology. 10.1016/j.cedpsych.2014.03.003

Blog Category: 

About our Blog

Character & Context is the blog of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology (SPSP). With more than 7,500 members, SPSP is the largest organization of social psychologists and personality psychologists in the world.   

Learn More ›

Questions ›

Contribute to the Blog ›

Get Email Updates from the Blog