Seven Principles, part six: Communicating High Expectations

This week’s stop on our tour of Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education is the penultimate item on their list: good practice in undergraduate education communicates high expectations. This seems like a no-brainer; after all, don’t we want to challenge our students to do their best? It turns out, though, that it’s often more complicated than that. Setting expectations can occur in many ways, including some things which we might not even be aware we’re doing. And given the importance of expectations for student success, we should be as mindful as we can about how we communicate to students our expectations of them.

Sometimes students discern our real expectations of them from the ways in which we begin a course or a particular class session. When a professor looks at a class on the first day, for example, and says “a significant number of you will not pass this course,” then the students know the expectations are low. Thus, the level of motivation they exhibit will also be low, and to be honest, who could blame them? Challenging students is a good thing, but trying to challenge via contempt isn’t going to accomplish that goal. If the course material is difficult, better to let students know it, but also to couch that discussion in language of affirmation and supportThis material is really challenging, but all of you can be successful if you are willing to put in the necessary effort; I will do my best to help you learn, but you need to meet me halfway in order for this to work. 

Expectations, and the way we communicate them, matter. There is a significant body of research which tells us the “Pygmalion Effect” is a real thing for college students. That is, consistently communicating not only high expectations, but the belief that students will meet that challenge, can improve students’ academic performance. Conversely, as alluded to above, communicating a set of low expectations for students virtually ensures they will sink to meet them. This is particularly evident for minoritized students, and we should be exceedingly careful to avoid triggering “stereotype threat” with our students.

What are some of the ways in which we can communicate high expectations for our students in ways that are neither patronizing or unreasonable? Here are some strategies that faculty can use to set expectations and support students as they work to meet them:

  • For students who are struggling, work to identify their interests and strengths to help develop connections between them and the material with which they’re having difficulties.
  • Consider “not allowing” failure; instead have students revise subpar work until it meets a standard you’ve established for the particular assignment (a “C” range of criteria, perhaps).
  • Monitor the types (and complexity) of questions you’re asking your high-achieving students. Are they similar in both nature and difficulty to those you’re posing to the rest of the class?
  • Frame the course as a mutual endeavor, a collective scholarly enterprise, and model that collaborative approach for students throughout the semester.
  • Celebrate the small victories with students–complimenting genuine effort on an assignment, or affirming their preparation.
  • For students you believe might not be successful in your course, ask yourself, “what would I be doing with this student if I believed them completely capable of doing well in this class?” And then compare those thoughts with your actual practice.
  • At the beginning of the course, or a particular unit, share with your students the strategies and practices that previous students used to succeed with the material and/or objectives.
  • Provide feedback that is critically supportive; that is, pointing out areas for improvement, but in ways that encourage students to follow up on those areas. On a subsequent assignment, if you note improvement, share that with the student. Affirm the process they’re using to get better.

Not every student will meet high expectations all of the time. But being consistent in both setting those high expectations and in the ways we communicate them to our students can help us ensure our students the best opportunity to succeed.

Have a question? Need some assistance with anything related to teaching and learning? Looking for resources on a particular pedagogical topic? The CETL staff is here to help! Come by Rasmussen 208, or contact us to set up a consultation–we’re happy to be of service.

Finally, may your week be as happy as this dog’s session on the trampoline.


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