Fifty years ago, Rosenthal and Jacobson (1968) discovered the “Pygmalion Effect”, whereby distorted teachers’ expectations impact students’ progress. Since then, a great number of studies have confirmed that predictions of future performance tend to come true, not only because teachers are able to recognize academic potential, but also because their initial perception shapes their behavior (giving praise, accepting ideas, maintaining visual contact, smiling, etc.) and influences their students’ self-confidence and motivation.
However, most research on this topic has focused on young children as well as on individual learners. Much less is known about the Pygmalion Effect in teenage years and at the classroom level. This double development is precisely the objective of a study recently conducted on 1,488 students (aged 13-15) and their 97 math teachers from 40 different middle schools in Poland.
To ensure ecological validity, the researchers did not conduct an experiment manipulating teachers’ perceptions of their students (a common procedure when testing the Pygmalion Effect), but rather a correlational study based on teachers' actual, spontaneous judgment. Early in the year, teachers were thus asked to evaluate and describe their students in terms of a wide variety of characteristics, including seven items related to their potential. Later, in May, students completed a questionnaire measuring their mathematical self-concept by their degree of agreement with such statements as “I am good at maths.” Finally, in December, student performance was assessed with a standardized test.
Unsurprisingly, ability at the beginning of the year correlated with teachers’ expectations as well as with students’ self-confidence in May and performance in December. However, even after controlling for these real effects, teachers’ expectations still explained a substantial portion of the variability in student achievement: 32% at the individual level, and 64% at the class level. And this was significantly mediated by their effect on student mathematical self-concept.
Even though the overall effect size was modest, results thus did confirm the existence of a Pygmalion Effect on adolescents and at both individual and collective levels.
Importantly, socio-economic status was an important predictor of teachers’ expectations regarding the potential of a class (again, after controlling for ability.) Likewise, the prevalence of students with learning differences had a negative effect on teacher’s class-wide expectations.
The researchers conclude: “There is, therefore, a need to enrich teacher education programmes that reduce their biases towards students with low socio-economic status, ethnic and linguistic minorities, and students with disabilities, and enhance their ability to work in differentiated classes.”
Reference: Szumski and Karwowski (2019), “Exploring the Pygmalion Effect: The Role of Teacher Expectations, Academic Self-Concept, and Class Context in Students’ Math Achievement”, Contemporary Educational Psychology, 59, October 2019.