Research Says High Academic Expectations Work (And Your Students Want Them)

Back in high school, Sandra and I would hang out at lunch and swap our homework and our essays. And then we would edit in red ink on them for the fun of it.

The other girls wouldn’t bother us because they were at the mall buying Twizzlers from Bulk Barn, smoking Marlboros and spitting in the woods, or in the wild searching for boys.

Our kind of boys were so good at math they became school tutors. They, like us, stayed at school for lunch. And so, our high school lunches were spent primarily in libraries. There we edited our papers into shiny, beautiful things to hand to our teachers, or in the math rooms crunching numbers that we hoped would turn into a Pride and Prejudice– style love affair.

The numbers never were in our favour.

We may have miscalculated the probability of finding love among the math tutors, but at least we pleased our parents. Both children of immigrants—Sandra’s Chinese, and I’m Polish—we knew the importance of getting good grades. If we got good grades, our parents let us out of the house.

We made fun of our parents’ strictness. Sandra’s mom once locked her into her room to study. Each year, my parents bought me books of the What Your Fifth Grader Needs to Know-style— a great “hobby for summer” my parents called these books. And then there was my mother, who made me write paragraphs explaining why I should be allowed to leave to parties and other events—if the paragraphs were good, I could go.

Both Sandra and I graduated at the top our class, won scholarships, and went to the universities of our choice. And I could write killer paragraphs.

Looking back, I’m convinced that we graduated at the top of our class not because we were better or smarter than the others.  But we desperately wanted to be better and smarter. And we wanted to be better and smarter because of our parents.

By expecting and demanding nothing but the best from them, immigrant parents give their children a priceless gift: the gift of high academic expectations.

We as teachers, in loco parentis, have the same power. In our classrooms, we can set expectations of our students. We can expect them all to learn and perform challenging tasks, or we can expect only some of them to succeed at easier tasks.

If you think you could raise your academic expectations, but you don’t know if it’s worth it or necessary, read on.

High academic expectations= Your students will learn more.

  1.  The Pygmalion Effect Study.

    In 1968, researchers Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted an experiment in a primary school. After having the students write an intelligence test, Rosenthal and Jacobson told the students’ teachers that some of their students were particularly gifted and were expected to achieve great results in the academic year. In fact, the “gifted” students were chosen at random, and they were not particularly gifted. When all students were tested eight months later, the so-called “gifted” students significantly outperformed their peers and made great academic gains. High expectations led to extraordinary achievement.

  2. “A Teacher Expectation Intervention” study.

    The results of the Pygmalion Effect Study have been replicated, most recently in 2014 by Christine M. Rubie-Davis et al. In this study 84 teachers were randomly assigned into two groups: 1) a high expectations training group and 2) a control group. The first group of teachers attended four workshops at which they learned the techniques and attitudes of high expectations teachers. Teachers in this group were instructed to use these techniques and adopt these attitudes in their classrooms, and they were visited to ensure they were indeed teaching with high expectations. The control group, on the other hand, was not trained to have high expectations. Over the period of one year, students taught by the high expectations teachers “significantly improved their math achievement…showing a rate of improvement beyond that shown by the students of the control group teachers” (Rubie- Davis et al, 2014).

  3. Art and Science of Teaching- High Expectations for All.

    Robert Marzano explains how the Pygmalion effect works. In his research, he noted that teachers often group students into “high expectancy” (high expectations) and “low-expectancy” (low expectations) groups. These groups of students are treated differently, and this differential treatment likely accounts for gaps in achievement. Marzano noted, for example, that teachers tend to react to “high expectancy” students with high expectation behaviours: more eye contact, more smiling, more contact, more playful dialogue, and more and increasingly difficult questions. In contrast, “low-expectancy” students receive less attention and easier questions. Marzano argues that students notice to which group they long very quickly. These students then perform at the level expected of them. 

  4. John Hattie & Carol Dweck’s work.

    Carol Dweck has risen to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list with her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, and John Hattie has risen to become an education guru with his meta-researched book, Visible Learning for Literacy. Both these intellectual giants agree that teacher expectations impact students. In a meta-analysis of multiple studies, Hattie found that teachers who make a difference to student learning outcomes “challenge students, have high expectations [and] encourage study of their subject and who value surface and deep aspects of their subject.” Hattie also reported on Dweck’s research which showed that teacher attitudes towards learning impact student achievement. Teachers who believed student intelligence and achievement were fixed and innate held lower expectations for students and reaped lower academic results. Teachers who believed student intelligence and achievement were changeable taught their students more.

  5. Research shows student efforts decline when the average grade in a class increases.

    The late economist Philip Babcock was curious about how grade inflation affected student learning. He wanted to know if professors with higher expectations and more rigorous standards made students study more. In his research, Babcock studied the relationship between student self-reported hours spent outside of the class studying course work vs. expected grades (i.e. what the students expected the course average to be based on the rigor of the professor). In the abstract of his research paper, he wrote:

“Results indicate that average study time would be about 50% lower in a class in which the average expected grade was an ‘A’ than in the same course taught by the same instructor in which students expected a ‘C.’” (emphasis added)


Students assigned to harder, high expectations teachers had to study more, and, Babcock reasoned, they learned more.

High academic expectations= student respect and appreciation.

There is no magical way to win student respect or appreciation, and it should never be your aim as a teacher to win it. However, students do want and respect high standards and the teachers who keep them. While they may not verbalize it to you, and they may even tell you they want ease and comfort, the nobler part within students wants to wrestle and overcome academic challenges.

  • Research shows that public school teenagers want higher standards.

In the 1997 Public Agenda study “Getting By: What American Teenagers Really Think About Their Schools,” the desire teenagers, especially low-income teenagers, have for high academic standards was revealed. Overall, the 13000 high school students surveyed found that many were dissatisfied with “how little work they do to earn acceptable grades, and, consequently, how boring and meaningless their classes are.” Students said that standards were so low “[schools] practically hand [them] a diploma.” The researchers agreed that the surveyed “students seem to be crying out for the adults in their lives to take a stand and inspire them to do more.” Here are some surprising facts from the study:

  • 50% of public school students say their schools fail to challenge them to do their best.
  • 33% of public school students say most of their teachers challenge them to do better; 51% of private school students feel this way.
  • 81% of public school teens say they have encountered teachers who were unpopular but turned out to be good teachers.
  • 86% of white, 84% of African-American, and 78% of Hispanic public school teens think schools should expect inner-city kids to learn as much and achieve the same standards as kids from middle-class backgrounds; 89% of private school teens agree.
  • 71% of public school teens say schools should require after-school classes for students who get D’s and F’s in major subjects.
  • 50% of public school teens, and 35% of private school teens, say too many of their classmates are allowed to be late and duck their work.
  • 79% of public school students said they would learn more if schools enforced being on time with the completion of homework.

So what is it students want? Shockingly, they want high standards: they want teachers who challenge them; the same high standards across racial and economic groups; remedial classes; stricter homework and attendance policies.

Even if the study was published in 1997, my experience leads me to believe that what teenagers want has not changed. Every time I have raised standards, I have faced some attitude and whining. But, at the end of the year, most students are grateful, and most important—they are more capable.


  1. If you expect that your students are capable and could learn and do more, they will; if you expect that your students are incapable and cannot learn and do much, they will not.
  2. The beliefs you have about your students affect your teaching. They affect how challenging your course material is, the quality of work you expect and assign, and how you treat your students.
  3. Your students want to be held to higher standards.


Knowing what I did about the importance of high academic expectations, this year I made it my primary goal to raise academic expectation in my English classes.

In the next posts, I’ll share practical, in-the-trenches advice for raising academic expectations in your English classroom.


Until then, here is some additional reading about the effects of low academic standards on student attitudes and learning outcomes: “Disengaged Students and the Decline of Academic Standards, “ by Paul A. Trout.

And some interesting reading about the effects of high academic standards on disenfranchised youth: The Power of High Expectations: “Closing the Gap in Your Classroom.”