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.

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

For most of my life, I assumed that I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, with time and performance experience, the nerves would just go away.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.


You'll also receive other insider resources like the weekly newsletter and a special 6-day series on essential research-based practice strategies that will help you get more out of your daily practice and perform more optimally on stage. (You can unsubscribe anytime.)

Download a

PDF version

Enter your email below to download this article as a PDF

Click the link below to convert this article to a PDF and download to your device.

Download a

PDF version

All set!


The weekly newsletter!

Join 45,000+ musicians and get the latest research-based tips on how to level up in the practice room and on stage.



Discover your mental strengths and weaknesses

If performances have been frustratingly inconsistent, try the 4-min Mental Skills Audit. It won't tell you what Harry Potter character you are, but it will point you in the direction of some new practice methods that could help you level up in the practice room and on stage.