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The Pygmalion Effect

The work of Rosenthal and Jacobsen (1968), among others, shows that teacher expectations influence student performance. Positive expectations influence performance positively, and negative expectations influence performance negatively. Rosenthal and Jacobson originally described the phenomenon as the Pygmalion Effect.

When we expect certain behaviors of others, we are likely to act in ways that make the expected behavior more likely to occur.” (Rosenthal and Babad, 1985)

In terms of teaching, faculty who gripe about students establish a climate of failure, but faculty who value their students’ abilities create a climate of success. What kind of learning climate are you creating through your expectations?

Pygmalion in Tradition

Pygmalion in Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Book X) was a sculptor who fell in love with an ivory statue of his own making. Enamored by the beauty of his own making, Pygmalion begs the gods to give him a wife in the likeness of the statue. The gods grant the request, and the statue comes to life. George Bernard Shaw adopted Pygmalion for the title of his play about Professor Henry Higgins whose sense of self-efficacy is grandiose: “You see this creature with her curbstone English . . . in three months I could pass that girl off as a duchess at an ambassador’s garden party.”

Pygmalion Research in the Classroom

The original research of Rosenthal and Jacobsen focused on an experiment at an elementary school where students took intelligence pre-tests. Rosenthal and Jacobsen then informed the teachers of the names of twenty percent of the students in the school who were showing “unusual potential for intellectual growth” and would bloom academically within the year. Unknown to the teachers, these students were selected randomly with no relation to the initial test. When Rosenthal and Jacobson tested the students eight months later, they discovered that the randomly selected students who teachers thought would bloom scored significantly higher. Rosenthal insists that the Pygmalion effect also applies to higher education: There’ve been experiments looking at college algebra classes at the Air Force Academy, a study of undergraduates in engineering; there’ve been lots of studies at the college level since the book came out confirming the findings . . . In fact, the original research conducted when I was at the University of North Dakota was all done with graduate students and under-graduates (Rhem, 1999). Why does the Pygmalion effect occur? “If you think your students can’t achieve very much, are not too bright, you may be inclined to teach simple stuff, do lots of drills, read from your notes, give simple assignments calling for simplistic answers” (Rhem, 1999).

Pygmalion on the Department Level

Susan McLeod argues that the Pygmalion effect can infiltrate departments. She describes the potential impact on a composition writing program where the faculty have developed a culture of low expectations, “Departments and institutions develop their own cultures; the prevailing attitudes of teachers toward students tend to become organizational norms. If most teachers in the department have a low sense of efficacy and tacitly agree that certain groups of students (sometimes even all students) can’t learn to write, then newcomers are pressured to accept the same low sense of efficacy and accompanying low expectations” (McLeod, 1995).

Practical tips:

  1. Never forecast failure in the classroom. If you know a test is particularly difficult, tell your students that the test is difficult but that you are sure that they will do well if they work hard to prepare.
  2. Do not participate in gripe sessions about students. Faculty members who gripe about students are establishing a culture of failure for their students, their department and their own teaching.
  3. Establish high expectations. Students achieve more when faculty have higher expectations. When you give students a difficult assignment, tell them, “I know you can do this.” If you genuinely believe that your students cannot perform the assignment, postpone the assignment and re-teach the material.