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Teaching challenge

Ms Mahrez has been working hard on conveying high expectations in her classroom, encouraging pupils to try hard and be open to challenge. However, she still occasionally struggles with low-level disruption and worries that her expectations may be unrealistic. On the other hand, when she looks at experienced colleagues’ classrooms, they seem to achieve better behaviour and learning from the same pupils. What role do high expectations play in pupil success and how can Ms Mahrez build a classroom that consistently delivers high expectations?

Key idea

Teachers can uphold high expectations by ensuring pupils are supported to achieve classroom success over time.

Evidence summary

The role of teacher support in pupil success

Ms Mahrez is determined to uphold high expectations but she worries that there is a gap between her ambitions and what her pupils can achieve. To close this gap, one of the most important things Ms Mahrez can do is create a learning environment where pupils experience a high success rate (Rosenshine, 2012). Over time, pupil success can unlock the other learning behaviours Ms Mahrez seeks to promote.

To promote pupil success, Ms Mahrez’s classroom should demand a lot of pupils, but should also support pupils to meet these demands. To help with this, she can:

  • Celebrate pupil resilience to failures along the way.
  • Encourage pupils to attribute successes to their efforts and smart strategies rather than any innate ‘ability’ (Coe et al., 2014).

Ms Mahrez’s role in securing success is partly about ensuring pupils have enough support, particularly with challenging tasks. If support is absent, pupils may fail to meet Ms Mahrez’s high expectations which may damage pupil perceptions of self-worth. She also needs to take care not to inadvertently communicate low expectations, for example by setting tasks which are too easy, or by over-praising pupils for simply meeting expectations (Coe et al., 2014). Promoting success, including proactively highlighting success to parents and carers, will also improve pupil-teacher relationships as these are based on repeated interactions over time (Wubbels et al., 2014).

Supporting pupils to develop effective learning behaviours

Supporting success in this way also leads to pupils exhibiting more effective approaches to their learning. For example:

  • Increased effort and confidence: Pupils’ perception of their ability, their expectations of future success and the extent to which they value an activity, influence their motivation and persistence, making improved academic outcomes more likely. This may be particularly important for low-attaining pupils who may have had limited experiences of success in the past (Gutman & Schoon, 2013).
  • Growing intrinsic motivation: ‘Extrinsic’ rewards like praise for pupils who are willing to try a difficult task can be useful to get pupils started. However, where pupils are motivated ‘intrinsically’ by their own goals (and the believe they can achieve them), pupils will be more persistent in the long term (Lazowski & Hulleman, 2016).

In sum, success over time supports the development of pupil effort, self-belief and intrinsic motivation which, in turn, drives further classroom success in a virtuous classroom cycle.

Ms Mahrez can also help pupils to understand and consciously cultivate these effective learning behaviours. Research suggests pupils can get better at self-regulating their behaviours and emotions (EEF, 2017), and pupils who do so are likely to attain more highly and succeed in the future (Gutman & Schoon, 2013). For example, if pupils can identify the behaviours that underpin their success (such as perseverance), they can regulate emotional barriers (like impatience) that can prevent them from being successful. This makes it more likely they stay on task, which is a strong predictor of successful learning (Muijs & Reynolds, 2010).

Finally, pupils are influenced by the goals, values and behaviours of classmates (IES, 2008; Rathmann et al., 2018). Over time, individual pupils adopting effective behaviours can also create a classroom climate that promotes success for their peers.

The long-term impacts of high teacher expectations

Ms Mahrez is aware that her expectations are important for classroom behaviour (IES, 2008) and learning (Murdock-Perriera & Sedlacek, 2018). Teacher expectations influence whether pupils experience an effective classroom, where there is both the support and challenge to succeed at goals that stretch pupils (Coe et al. 2014). Also, teachers who add most value to academic outcomes also support pupil success beyond the classroom. Having an effective teacher, likely one who holds these high expectations, is also a factor making it more likely pupils will experience other forms of future success, including:

  • Attending university.
  • Earning a higher salary.
  • Avoiding having children as a teenager (Chetty, Friedman & Rockoff, 2014).

Pupils who perceive that their teachers are in control of the class and include them in activities are also more likely to feel satisfied in life and have better school outcomes (Rathmann et al., 2018). Moreover, lower-achieving pupils appear to benefit most from effective teaching (Slater et al., 2011). Ms Mahrez should be ambitious in her expectations for her pupils within her classroom. By developing her effectiveness as a teacher, she can be confident that she is also setting pupils up for wider success. In time, this should lead pupils to also have higher expectations of themselves.

Nuances and caveats

Being an effective teacher requires strong knowledge of effective instruction and the subject being taught (Coe et al., 2014). Ms Mahrez needs to develop her practice in relation to the instruction and subject strands of this programme to have the best chance of translating high expectations into successful learning behaviours.

Conveying and upholding high expectations takes significant teacher effort and time. Improvements in pupil attitudes to learning may not be immediately visible, and there may be steps backwards as well as forwards. Ms Mahrez may feel like her colleagues’ classrooms work as if by magic, but she needs to understand there is no shortcut. Her consistent efforts to support pupil success, and helping them understand the process behind this, is the best way she can support pupils in her classroom and set them up for success beyond it.

Key takeaways:

  • high expectations are achieved through learning environments which demand lots from pupils but also ensure they experience success
  • experiencing success improves pupil effort, confidence and motivation
  • pupils can improve their self-regulation and so their behaviour and learning
  • teachers who promote academic success also make pupil success beyond the classroom more likely

Further reading

Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., & Rockoff, J. E. (2014). Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2633–2679.


Chetty, R., Friedman, J. N., & Rockoff, J. E. (2014). Measuring the Impacts of Teachers II: Teacher Value-Added and Student Outcomes in Adulthood. American Economic Review, 104(9), 2633–2679.

Coe, R., Aloisi, C., Higgins, S., & Major, L. E. (2014). What makes great teaching. Review of the underpinning research. Durham University: UK.

Education Endowment Foundation (2017). Metacognition and Self-regulated learning: Guidance Report.

Gutman, L. & Schoon, L. (2013). The impact of non-cognitive skills on the outcomes of young people.

Institute of Education Sciences (2008). Reducing Behavior Problems in the Elementary School Classroom.

Lazowski, R. A., & Hulleman, C. S. (2016). Motivation Interventions in Education: A Meta-Analytic Review. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 602–640.

Muijs, D. & Reynolds, D. (2010). Effective Teaching. London: SAGE Publications.

Murdock-Perriera, L. A., & Sedlacek, Q. C. (2018). Questioning Pygmalion in the twenty-first century: the formation, transmission, and attributional influence of teacher expectancies. Social Psychology of Education, 21(3), 691–707.

Rathmann K., Herke M., Hurrelmann K., & Richter M. (2018). Perceived class climate and school-aged children’s life satisfaction: The role of the learning environment in classrooms. PLoS ONE 13(2): e0189335.

Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should Know. American Educator, 36(1), 12–20.

Slater, H., Davies, N. M., & Burgess, S. (2011). Do Teachers Matter? Measuring the Variation in Teacher Effectiveness in England. Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 74(5), 629-645.

Wubbels, T., Brekelmans, M., den Brok, P., Wijsman, L., Mainhard, T., & van Tartwijk, J. (2014). Teacher-student relationships and classroom management. In

E. T. Emmer, E. Sabornie, C. Evertson, & C. Weinstein (Eds.). Handbook of classroom management: Research, practice, and contemporary issues (2nd ed. 363–386). New York, Routledge.