The Perils of Aiming Low: How Our Expectations Can Shape Our Students’ Learning & Performance

In the mid-1960’s, two researchers visited an elementary school in the San Francisco area and administered a test called the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition” that was purported to identify students who were likely to experience significant academic growth in the coming year (“bloomers,” they were called).

They compiled a list of student names, and shared the list with teachers, explaining that these students scored in the top 20% on the test and showed “unusual potential for intellectual growth.”

Eight months later, the researchers administered the test again, and lo and behold, the students on the list scored significantly higher than their peers!

Of course, what the teachers didn’t know was that there was no such thing as the “Harvard Test of Inflected Acquisition” (it was just a regular old IQ test), the test had no such predictive powers, and even more importantly, the students on the list didn’t actually score in the top 20%. They were selected purely at random.

So the mere expectation that certain students would experience an academic growth spurt, somehow led a randomly-selected group of students to outperform their peers.

On one hand, that’s pretty cool. On the other, it’s a little sobering to think that simply having lower expectations could impede a student’s growth. How is it that our expectations can have such an impact on students’ performance and learning anyway?

Expectancy theory

In sports, expectancy theory describes the connection between a coach’s expectations and an athlete’s performance as a 4-step process.

  1. The coach usually makes an initial judgment about the athlete’s ability and forms expectations about their performance potential based on a variety of elements ranging from personal factors (e.g. age, ethnicity, gender), to performance factors (e.g. coordination), to psychological factors (e.g. confidence, motivation).
  2. These expectations then begin to influence the coach’s behaviors toward the athlete. High expectancy athletes, for instance, generally receive higher quality feedback (and more feedback in general).
  3. The athlete starts to become aware of the coach’s behaviors and expectations, which affects their own self-perceptions and behaviors.
  4. The athlete’s performance tends to fall in line with the coach’s initial expectations (high expectancy athletes generally outperform low expectancy athletes), which the coach interprets as proof that their initial assessment of the athlete was correct.

Furthermore, the tendency is for these initial perceptions or impressions to stick, and to be inflexible over time – even when new information presents itself. So unfortunately, the coach’s behaviors persist, and high expectancy athletes continue to benefit from more confidence-building and performance-enhancing attention and instruction than low expectancy athletes.

Yet, if the ultimate goal as an educator is to create a winning culture and maximize everyone’s performance, doesn’t every individual deserve to receive the kind of attention that would help them learn and grow and reach their potential – not just those who are perceived to have greater abilities?

Pat Summitt

Pat Summitt is the former coach of the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team. Often compared to legendary UCLA coach John Wooden because of her teams’ remarkable success (18 NCAA Final Four appearances and 8 national championships), researchers approached her shortly after she became the winningest coach in NCAA Division I history, to see if she would be willing to have her coaching behavior observed, coded, and analyzed.

She agreed, and in the 2004-2005 season, researchers observed 504 minutes of practice, and coded 3,296 specific coaching behaviors to see what insights could be gleaned from Summitt’s coaching style.

The researchers were of course curious about the content of her coaching, but they were also really interested in comparing how she treated and coached her star players vs. her non-star players. Generally, star players get more of a coach’s attention. How would it be with Summitt and her athletes?

Summitt vs. Wooden

The data yielded some striking similarities between Summitt’s coaching behaviors and that of John Wooden (for a comparison, check out the earlier post on Wooden’s coaching style).

Like Wooden, instruction was the most common type of coaching behavior Summitt exhibited. Nearly half (48%) of everything she said in practice was instructional in nature (e.g. “When the guard is curling back and you’re posting, make sure that you screen first, then post”).

Praise represented only 14.5% of her coaching behaviors (e.g. “Way to read the court. Nice look inside.”), and scolding occurred only 6.86% of the time (e.g. “Go ahead and mark that down for a sprint. This is unacceptable in our program.”).

High-expectancy vs. low-expectancy

Both before and after the season, Summitt completed a short survey on each player, which, combined with their playing time, allowed the researchers to rank order the players in terms of Summitt’s expectations of their abilities and potential contribution to the team.

Previous research on coaching behavior suggests that coaches treat high and low-expectancy athletes differently at all levels of competition (at least from high school through national levels of competition). Thus, the researchers fully expected that Summitt would provide a greater quantity and quality of feedback to her high expectancy athletes – after all, these are the athletes who are more likely to make bigger contributions in games.

But remarkably, that is not what they found. On Summitt’s teams, the bottom 5 players on the team (low-expectancy players) received just as much quality instruction and attention as the top 5 players on the team (high-expectancy players). The same amount of instruction. Same amount of praise. Same amount of scolds. Same amount of hustles, questioning, modeling, etc.

The authors suggest that part of her success must be attributed to her efforts to develop all of the players on her teams, not just the star players.

The indirect path to winning?

Economics professor John Kay wrote a book titled “Obliquity” which argues that we are often able to reach our goals most effectively if we pursue them indirectly. Accruing wealth by focusing on research and development rather than maximizing profit, for instance. Or finding happiness by focusing on fulfillment and meaning rather than seeking happiness per se.

Among all of Pat Summitt’s many records and achievements, she often noted that her greatest accomplishment was that every player who completed their eligibility under her watch either completed their degree or were in the process of doing so. Sounds like the sentiment of a coach who was an educator at heart…so perhaps teaching is the indirect path to winning?

It’s human nature to make snap judgments, and probably very unrealistic to think that we could see everyone as being equivalently talented. But the study on Summitt’s coaching behavior suggests that perhaps that’s ok. As long as we approach each student as a potential “bloomer” (and we can’t really know what anyone’s real ceiling is anyway – case in point, Tom Brady) and treat each student with high expectations, we can likely still optimize their learning and growth, and provide them with the kind of feedback they need to develop confidence and make the most of their abilities.

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7 Responses

  1. Quite an article Dr Kageyama. Personally, I’ve always wondered how come I performed much better in high school than at college and what you said about pursuing our goals indirectly. In that line, could you comment on if past reflection of “glory days” give insights on how to improve current performance, or if I’m to just focus on the present and not worry much about what I did back then (academically) that I could use now.

    What you said about expectations is also true, and I find the most-tragic example in parenting, where one child is favored over the other based on who is perceived to have greater protential.

    Very nice article Dr., pls keep it up!

    1. Hi Dayo,

      Reflecting on past highlights can certainly help with confidence and reminding ourselves what we’ve been capable of in the past. We can also try to glean best practices from our past and try to repeat or build upon past successes. But we also don’t want to become complacent and assume that we can simply recycle what’s worked in the past and not bother to push ourselves to evolve and grow and explore new things. The world keeps changing, so I think it’s important (and also sort of exciting) to expand our comfort zones and do our best to stay on the leading edge of the curve.

      1. Thank you for your reply,

        I’ll def keep that in mind & work with your pointers. I especially liked what you said about evolving. I think that ties everything together considering the times and circumstances have changed. Arigato

  2. Yes, yes, yes! I profoundly believe the principles set forth above are true and we influence our children, students, young athletes and musicians every day in ways we are not even aware of. Thank you, Dr. Kageyama, for the clear and effective way you’ve presented these thoughts!

  3. Interesting article. In Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the author cites a Canadian study of soccer players that discovered that children born in the first six months of the year dominated the list of star players. The reason was that the cutoff age for entry at age 6 was January 1, hence the child born on, say January 2 would be almost a year older than one born, say, on December 31. A January 1 child would be far more developed and would receive the most attention by coaches and the disparity between the January chirdren and the December children would be amplified by this inequality in training. At some point, the December child will catch up to the January child in development, but then it will be too late. Thus a difference of a few days in birthdays can lead to significant conquences.

  4. What a terrific article! Must confess that as a studio instrumental teacher, I sometimes agonize over what to expect from young school age students, who have so many other time-consuming obligations, and the fact that “making grades” in the core material is important in the K-12 years. But have been getting impatient with that perspective (in myself) of late and making higher level demands. Where’s the “balance” in the young years? Would love what others have to say.
    – Over many years of teaching have also had occasional students who were encouraged and well-instructed, but kept talking themselves into mediocrity (meaning, less than I knew they could do based on knowing their level of progress.) The latter attitude can be self-defeating for the student, and discouraging for a teacher working to bump up a student’s level of progress.

  5. Great article! I am an instrumental teacher, too. I recently published a post on my blog about how dangerous it is for teachers to form opinions of their students, something in my experience that most teachers (especially school teachers) do. Your study proves the point. When a teacher thinks that a student has great possibilities, she treats him accordingly. If, on the other hand, the teacher has a low opinion of a student’s capabilities, then that student will surely not achieve what he is capable of. The trick is not to ignore your own “snap judgements” but not to make them in the first place and above all NOT listen to other people’s opinions. That way you see each student for what he is in that moment and teach THAT person and not the imaginary one in your head. First of all, no matter how expert we are, we can never be sure our opinions are correct and secondly, people change all the time anyway. If you have made an opinion of someone, you tend to see only your perhaps out-of-date opinion and not any changes in that person. The biggest problem with teachers, as I see it, is not that they form opinions, it is that they think they SHOULD form opinions. I avoid this and it has freed up my teaching unbelievably. Thus, I never cease to be amazed at what you can expect from children.

    To answer Ms. Disler’s question about how much to “push,” I have seen in my own experience that the important thing is NOT how much progress a child makes but that he has the instrument in his hands and acquires a good technique, no matter how slowly (and how frustrated the teacher gets). One of the most talented students I ever had took 6 YEARS to finish Suzuki Book 1 (violin). The next year she did 3 books and at the age of 11 she was doing Kreutzer studies, and the Bach A minor first movement (and very well, too). She is now a pro. I doubt she would have made all that progress so quickly if she had started when she was 8. I have seen this time and again with many students going slowly until they suddenly have the maturity to appreciate what they are doing and the opportunities that music offers and then they take off. So don’t get discouraged. It really doesn’t make much difference in the long run if your student plays the Brahms violin concerto when she’s 15 or when she’s 17 years old. I would imagine that most of your students, like mine, are not going to be professionals so it is important that they enjoy their musical training. Schoolwork should never be neglected to study the violin better unless it is SO obvious that your student is a child prodigy, and even then……. The other thing to remember is that if your student shows talent for the instrument, it is likely he has other talents, too, which he may want to develop. Finding balance is hard, I know, but we have to let our students develop each to his own ability and this means taking into account ALL the factors in his life. Whoever said it was easy to be a teacher???

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