Multiple research studies have found that student achievement is closely associated with teacher assumptions and expectations. Even though we may not intend for this to happen, we can still fall into the trap of having our perceptions of students’ abilities and potential drive our practices in ways that ultimately undermine their success.
Research studies spanning the past two decades have shown that the students perceived to have high learning potential are often given more interesting and challenging opportunities in which to engage and may even receive more reinforcement to succeed. Students assumed to be lower-potential learners can find themselves presented with less challenging, less interesting, and less learning-supportive work. Thus, existing achievement gaps between the groups fail to close and may even become wider, despite students attending the same classes.
How do our expectations play out in practice? Here are five common areas wherein we can find ourselves giving some students more opportunities to engage, more time to reflect and contribute, and more encouragement and support for learning than others.
How much time do we give students to respond? High-achieving students are often quick thinkers and confident question-answerers. For this reason, they are generally given more time to respond than others, as they are assumed to have responses ready to offer. Yet, if given more time, more students are capable of successfully answering and participating meaningfully in discussions. Research consistently shows that teachers typically do not give most students adequate time to think and formulate a considered response. In fact, the typical time teachers wait for a response is between one and two seconds. Amazingly, extending the time students are given by as little as three to five seconds can significantly increase the frequency of correct responses and deepen the insight and completeness of responses. We may need to provide additional support by previewing or rephrasing the questions we will ask or offering hints or clues—but, ultimately, providing additional time makes a key, foundational difference. When we do, fewer students will respond with “I don’t know.” Meanwhile, more students will volunteer with appropriate answers, including students who otherwise are likely to remain silent.
Who is given the most frequent opportunities to respond to questions and contribute to discussions? It can be easy to fall into a pattern of calling on students whom we anticipate will be able to answer our questions or contribute meaningfully to a class discussion. We can feel pressure to maintain a fast pace and look for quick answers. We may even become frustrated when we must wait for a student to think. Or we may anticipate that certain students will be unable to respond or contribute on a given topic or concept. Yet, these are opportunities to learn, and we must provide those opportunities to all of our students.
Are the levels of complexity and challenge in our questions well distributed? Class discussions can fall into a pattern of asking perceived high-potential students questions that require reflection, analysis, and complex thought, while students assumed to be low-potential are presented with questions that rely on recall and fact-based information and which present limited analytical challenge. We may think that we are protecting low-performing students from embarrassment, but we risk not challenging them, not giving them opportunities to engage with challenging content, and lowering their perception of what they can do. Disparities in opportunities to interact, share ideas and perceptions, and engage in debate can perpetuate and exacerbate inequities and expand gaps between high- and low-achieving students.
What do we do when student responses are weak or incorrect? Students may respond to our questions with varying levels of clarity and correctness. Some students will answer with exactly what we are seeking. Other students may misunderstand or misinterpret what we are asking. Some students may present a partial answer but offer less than we are looking for. What we do in response to this variation can reveal differences in our perceptions of students’ learning potential and lead to variances in learning outcomes. Our willingness to probe beyond initial answers, provide prompts when necessary, or offer clues can make a significant difference in the learning revealed and gained through these interactions. On the other hand, quickly moving on to another student to answer the same question, or present a new question, risks squandering what could be a productive learning experience for the student who is responding and for others in the class who are listening and observing.
To whom do we give the most nonverbal support? Students watch us closely and are quick to interpret and assign meaning to our behaviors. Again, multiple research studies have pointed to the significance of nonverbal behaviors as reflections of our perceptions of others. Students perceived as high-potential, willing learners are likely to be the objects of more direct eye contact, more positive body language, and more supportive facial expressions. When speaking with them, we can be more likely to show an open, inviting posture, supported by encouraging smiles, winks, and nods. Eye contact while listening is a sign of attention and respect. Leaning forward and an open body stance are powerful tools for conveying interest and connection. Students who experience these behaviors less frequently are likely to interpret their experiences as indicative that they are not as capable or that they do not have the same level of potential as the students for whom these experiences are more commonplace. As a result, they can be less likely to take learning risks, persist when they struggle, and bounce back when they experience learning setbacks.
The truth is that we can easily fall into habits and practices that reveal high expectations for some students and not for others. Being conscious of this possibility can be a good start. However, we may need to be more intentional. We might keep logs of questions we ask, and to whom we ask them, for later analysis. We might capture our teaching on video for later review and reflection. Or we may have a colleague observe our teaching and provide feedback. Regardless, the achievement of many of our students depends on our getting this part of our practice right. It is well worth the effort.