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Communicating High Expectations to Students

(These items are from a listserv about teaching, full listing found here: http://home.capecod.net/~tpanitz/ebook/highexpect.html - link will open in new tab or window)

How do you communicate high expectations to your students in order to encourage their success?


  1. I send my students a letter prior to class describing the cooperative nature of the class and my expectations. I ask them to write a math autobiography, get the text, read chapter 1 and work out as many problems as they can. I give them my home and work phone numbers just in case the letter causes an anxiety attack. The effect is marvelous as reported by my students.
  2. I collect and read all the autobiographies and respond with personal notes of encouragement and/or verbal responses when appropriate. The fact that we are writing back and forth opens up a line of communication about each student in the context of the course.
  3. I ask the students to sign a Success Contract which I sign outlining what I will do and what I expect them to do. I actually refer to it throughout the semester and remind them of their commitment to the course and themselves as well as to me.
  4. I ask my students to do a written analysis of the 7 principles as they apply to math classes and cooperative learning. Number 6 often receives a lot of discussion because students are not used to hearing high expectation expressed about them. Again I write back explaining my thoughts and experiences. In a way this establishes a peer relation versus that of student and teacher.
  5. When students are working in groups I resist providing quick answers and encourage them to seek answers themselves by relying on the abilities of their members. I comment that someone in the group will be able to find a solution and working together they will certainly be able to answer each members questions. It takes them a little while to get used to this but after they do they revel in each group members success.
  6. At the end of each exam or assignment I ask students to comment on how they feel they are doing and how the class is going. I also ask if they have any suggestions for me which might improve the class. This is optional and not graded. It tells them that I respect and value their opinions.
  7. I provide a lot of verbal encouragement throughout the semester. Especially before exams when they may be nervous and after exams when they do well. Since I observe them working together I am in an excellent position to suggest where they need extra work, where they are doing especially well, or what strategy they might try to prepare themselves.
  8. I try to learn something about each student that I can relate to and I discuss things with them which will help them understand my background and interests better. I always explain my rationale for doing things. I share my experiences with them and the class and encourage them to do the same. Many students have told me that knowing me personally sets high expectations since they do not want to let me down. They see me as a friend and mentor.
  9. I use a mastery approach to testing where I check exams for correct answers and return the papers for corrections during the exam. I do not give partial credit at this point, I simply circle the problems which are not correct. The passing grade is 80% after the corrections are completed and if students obtain the 80% I then keep returning the tests until the student has 100% correct answers. The emphasis is on understanding the problem, not the grade and all students become capable of obtaining a perfect test. The effect of this approach is to empower the students, create a positive assessment atmosphere and encourage the students to take more responsibility for their learning and success.

    This approach encourages students to keep trying problem solutions until they figure out how to solve a problem. It helps them get past the problem of their making silly mistakes that imply they do not understand a concept because they did not get the exact right answer. It demands that they keep thinking about a solution until they resolve in their minds how to complete it and it puts a great deal of responsibility on their shoulders for their success. The alternative of giving a test in 50 minutes or what ever a class period is, collecting it, without any time for student reflection, and returning it at the next class or next week with perhaps some review by the teacher is just the kind of assessment that has not worked so far. If it did we would not be trying to implement the NCTM standards or talking about the apparent decreasing math abilities of our students.

  10. Cooperative learning techniques set high expectations of students. Students work in groups collaboratively in all my classes during every class session. I encourage them to help each other and express their opinions about their problem solutions. As they get comfortable with this approach and with their partners their self esteem grows and the expectations of what they can accomplish rises dramatically. People who previously approached math with great anxiety suddenly see themselves as tutor/teachers, not just recipients of someone elses knowledge. Cooperative learning carries with it a presumption that students can learn the material together and then demonstrate their abilities individually through a variety of assessment methods including exams, oral presentations, written assignments and working on the board.
  11. During the semester I periodically survey the students to ask their opinion about how they feel the course is progressing. Is it meeting their expectations, what could I do to facilitate their learning, what could they do to help the class and themselves? We then discuss their observations and concerns and try to arrive at a consensus about how to improve the operation of the class. This procedure allows me to explain my rationale for my class procedures and to find out if the class is responding positively. I accept their suggestions when a "strong" majority of students reach an agreement on what they would like to see change and formulate a rationale for their decision. I rarely run into problems with a few students dominating or moving the class in an inappropriate direction because I facilitate very interactive discussions and by request a philosophical basis for their desired changes. The one answer which I do not accept is "The change will make the class easier" Accepting the classes collective wisdom has an empowering effect which raises their expectations of themselves. Imagine convincing a professor to alter his/her class procedure.

Ted Panitz, tpanitz@mecn.mass.edu


Possibly the best evidence that this principle is valid comes from the extensive research done on the late Fred Keller's method of instruction best known as PSI (Personalized System of Instruction) or the Keller Plan. One element of PSI is "Unit Mastery," the requirement that every student attain a high performance standard (often 90%) before being allowed to advance to the next unit of the course. Essentially, this tells every student that they are expected to attain high levels of performance.

The evidence that PSI works to foster higher performance, better retention of material covered, more student activity (work), and higher course ratings is well documented in a number of research articles. Indeed, I know of no other instructional method that has as much empirical support. I've included below some references to PSI that you and other list members might find interesting. One other that related specifically to "unit mastery criteria" can be found in:

Parsons, J.A. and Delaney, H. D. (1978) Effects of unit-quiz mastery criteria on student performance. _Journal of Personalized Instruction_, 3, 225-228.

Keller, F. S. (1968) "Good-bye, teacher..." _Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis_, 1,79-89.

Taveggia, T. C. (1976) Personalized instruction: A summary of comparative research, 1967-1874. _American Journal of Physics Teachers_, 44, 1028-1033.

Joseph A. Parsons, PhD Learning Skills Program, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC CANADA V8W 3P2. jparsons@uvic.ca. Voice: (604) 721-8341 Fax: (604) 721-6610

From: joe parsons, jparsons@UVIC.CA STLHE-L


In teaching English literature, I find that getting students' essays back quickly -- with lots of comments -- tends to encourage them to meet my expectations about being thorough and prompt with their reading and writing assignments. I find this difficult to do but _always_ worth the effort.

From: Peter Havholm, The College of Wooster, Department of English


I have some comments regarding Ted Panitz' comments below. Certainly, explaining one's rationale for doing things is something every teacher ought to do; it doesn't take too much time and effort, and is definitely worth it. The students have a right to know this information -- and since we're asking them to justify their conclusions, we need to do the same.

Asking for and responding to student feedback is also in the "reasonable and important" category.

But how much can one effectively give personal attention of the sort Ted describes? In one class a year, of about twenty students, I have students write journals, which I read and comment on regularly. I also talk a certain amount about my own experiences. I certainly can be a mentor, within limits, to this many students, but I can't be their friend. That is overwhelming to me. It leads to burnout pronto. I need to set boundaries in order to avoid burnout. Undoubtedly this is partly a matter of personality. I admire teachers who can be their students' friends, but I am personally not capable of giving in this way.

I also find the prospect of giving the amount of personal attention I give to this one class to all my students overwhelming. I do learn the names and majors of all the students in small classes, and make an effort to learn as many names as possible in large classes (a hundred or so students), but never learn them all. I try to make encouraging remarks on exams, but even this gets overwhelming in large classes.

From: Martha Smith, mks@fireant.ma.utexas.edu


  1. A paper is received and the work is substandard. The paper is returned with a list of the standards required. No marks lost just a lot of time used up by the student. Soon the message gets through do it right the first time by following and using the standards. A paper going back the first time with no loss in marks may seem too easy on the students, but if the standards are still not met by the 3rd or 4th time the student begins some serious reflection on the objectives of the paper.
  2. There are some consequences for papers being returned 1st time, 2nd time include an outline, 3rd time provide an outline, bibliography before rewriting plus a meeting with me to review the objectives. 4th time student must go to the writing lab and show evidence of work on areas of weakness identified beforehand.
  3. One of the best ways to communicate HIGH EXPECTATIONS is not to accept work that is unacceptable. In Mastery Learning the standards must be absolutely clear. A problem with this approach is that teachers can end up doing remediation, more than they wish to do.

From: Mike Kvenich, KVENICH@ADMIN.HUMBERC.ON.CA EDSTYLE


I find two systems work for my students, depending on the nature of the course. For courses that lend themselves well to objective grading, I offer a standard grading distribution system and advise that everyone can get "A's" .. pointing out that there is no competition in such a system (I explicitly state in writing that I will not apply a curve to anyone's detriment). I then encourage students to study together and help each other succeed in the course. I also point out my strictnesses/particular requirements, such as no make-up quizzes, clearly in writing in advance. I regularly try to make the course interesting and offer lots of encouragement (as some students do seem to respond well to it, other students of course don't need it). I have I think the highest student success rate (and lowest attrition) around, and regularly draw students from areas served by other colleges. At any event, that is for the objective style courses.

For courses requiring students to write essays or research reports, I set a very high standard, point out that getting an "A" requires genuinely excellent work product (as I put it also, "publishable")... again point out that I will not apply any curves to anyone's detriment... encourage a great deal... circulate some exceptionally high quality exemplar reports as inspiration/targets.... all with excellent results for the students. I get some grumbling about standards being too high, or work expectations being too great (I do usually "compromise" on workload involving small assignments after midterm, so the students' appeals DO get recognized and positive response.... and so they can concentrate on producting even finer major research papers in the last few weeks of the term (in other words, I sacrifice some of the smaller assignments with students' explicit attention drawn to how this should enable them to do even better work on their major reports). This works nicely: most of the students do put in more effort on producting better major reports.

When it is all over, or nearly so, we have a nice potluck party with the professor popping for pizzas... and everyone is happy to have succeeded so well (or so it seems; perhaps they are just glad to be getting the hell out!?) ... ha! Seriously, students come up to me on the streets of towns three thousand miles from home, and thank me for having given them such really superduper courses .... ten or twenty years ago! ... I somehow manage to avoid showing how I've totally forgotten these fine folks in the intervening decades, ha! If it does slip out, I just excuse myself by explaining how Alzheimer's is an occupational hazard of the teaching profession.

From: Marc Gottlieb, justice@CRL.COM tcc-l


In our learning community (a mini-school of approx 220 students within a larger 9-12 high school), we use rubrics as one way of communicating high expectations. In planning a humanities or sciences unit, we discuss at length what we want students to know, do and understand at the end of the unit. We then invent what we currently call an Exhibition and through which we imagine that we might know whether students have in fact learned what we hoped. Students are presented with an overview and a more detailed description of the exhibition which will conclude the unit at the very beginning of the unit, so that they know where we are heading, how we hope to get there, and what will be expected of them along the way and at the end.

At some point fairly early in the unit, we usually engage students in a conversation or brainstorming session about what a quality exhibition would look like. Adding their input to that of the teachers, we construct a rubric which describes as carefully as we can the characteristics of an exhibition which reaches "Mastery" (grade of B) and "Distinguished" (grade of A) and distribute it to students. Thus they know at the beginning the answer to the question: How do I (pass/get an A/etc) in this class? Work which does not reach the Mastery/B level is returned to the student with a temporary grade of Incomplete and instructions about what they still need to do to bring the work to the acceptable level. We find that students often get lots of Incompletes at first, and some have to redo work more than once, but eventually most learn to raise their own standard of work as time goes on so that they more regularly submit grade-worthy stuff the first time.

We try to calibrate (and eventually raise) our standards by sitting down together with some student work, applying our rubrics to it, and discussing the quality of their work... and of our own. We don't do this as often as we'd like, unfortunately.

If you are interested in seeing an example of an Exhibition Call (the overview/instruction sheets) and an accompanying rubric, let me know.

From: Kathy Juarez, Fulton Valley Prep at Piner HS, 1700 Fulton Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95403, kjuarez@Metro.NET


One of the things I do is to show a high quality piece of work either as a reading assignment or as even a video. A favorite is Stephen Jay Gould who is such an eloquent thinker and conveys it so well in writing and speaking. I ask students to analyze WHY this piece of work is termed as HIGH QUALITY by peers - what makes it different from their text or a newspaper article? It soon becomes evident from discussion about what one has to do to produce high quality--it's really work and a lot of learning is needed to be able to begin to work at such a level. Quality work usually is built from a central unifying concept--not just a rambling presentation of facts and detail. In quantitative work, it's not the ability to get the right number--rather it's the ability to be aware every step of the way what reasoning must be applied to distinguish between reasonable and unreasonable results. Attention to process and concepts really can be taught and it makes a big difference in the products.

From: Ed Nuhfer, enuhfer@carbon.cudenver.edu


I disagree very much with the idea that teachers should SET high expectations FOR their students. Teachers who justify this by saying that they set high expectations for their own work, thereby modeling the process for their students, are acting as though there is no such thing as power in the classroom. Setting high expectations for others (while saying -- hey, I'm keeping up my end of the bargain, so you should too) far too often sets students up for failure and allows a teacher to feel smug about the high standards they have kept. Too often, this approach means that teachers are, in effect, expecting students to meet expectations that are appropriate for the teacher, but not necessarily for the student -- the role of modeling is twisted so that its purpose is to turn students into copies of the teacher. It can be about teachers validating themselves on the backs of their students.

Students must be allowed and encouraged to set their own expectations for their own work. I believe it is the responsibility of the teacher to support students in this process -- to help them set realistic yet visionary expectations, to help them meet the expectations they set for themselves, and to help them become better assessors of their own work. Self-evaluation is a very important part of this process. Students also need sufficient opportunities to choose what they will learn, how they will go about learning it, and what level of performance they wish to achieve. To be effective in supporting this process, one thing teachers can do is model the process of setting and working to meet one's own high expectations. But more importantly, the teacher must find every opportunity to interact with the students in a manner that is open to their interests and needs. The teacher must WANT to really hear what it is the students expect for themselves and must be willing to start from there. The only 'standard' that motivates learning is the personally meaningful one that individuals can imagine as possible for themselves.

From: Susan Wilcox, Instructional Development Centre, Queen's University Kingston, Ontario, CANADA K7L 3N6. wilcoxs@post.queensu.ca; Tel: 613-545-6428 Fax: 613-545-6735


Some more thoughts on this issue... This morning I was working on 2 projects -- a) helping an instructor figure out how to improve the quality of his students' work, and b) writing a proposal for a project intended to help faculty improve the quality of their teaching. Both made me think about the problem of setting expectations -- who should do it, and how come doing it for others often doesn't work as well as we had hoped.

I turned for assistance to a great book by Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia (1993) -- Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise. I think when we say we hope learners will have high expectations of themselves it is because we think that will help them develop some degree of expertise in an area. B & S note that experts seldom exist in isolation, and suggest that the development of knowledge-building communities is the best way to support the development of expertise (which reminds me of all the interest generated by "learning communities" on the POD listserv just a few days ago). B & S say it is a fallacy to assume that the energy needed to make a knowledge-building community must come from the individual student's thirst for knowledge. Interestingly, they suggest that the motives for developing expertise are a) a desire for recognition from the people one regards as one's peers, b) a desire to have an impact, and c) a desire to participate in significant discourse. They then list Characteristics of Knowledge-Building Communities:

  1. sustained study of topics in depth over a period of time
  2. focus is on problems rather than categories of knowledge
  3. inquiry is driven by students' questions
  4. explaining is the major challenge (students are encouraged to produce their own theories)
  5. focus is on collective goals of understanding and judgment rather than individual learning and performance (although educator pays attention to how individuals are doing)
  6. students work in groups, each group with a different task related to a central topic (rather than students working individually, but all on same thing)
  7. discourse is taken seriously (esp. responding to one another's work)
  8. educator's own knowledge does not curtail what is to be learned.
  9. educator remains the leader, but his/her role shifts from standing outside the learning process and guiding it to participating actively in the learning process and leading by virtue of being a more expert learner.

I think this is helpful for those of us who want to engage learners in worthwhile problems and develop their knowledge, their skills and their expectations of themselves in the process. I like it because it takes the emphasis off expectations and standards and re-emphasizes the need to support students (esp. by developing and leading a community of learners) and learn with them as they work through interesting and relevant problems at increasing levels of complexity.

From: Susan Wilcox, wilcoxs@POST.QUEENSU.CA


The "Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergrad Education" handbook lists nine ways to operationalize the principle "Good Practice Communicates High Expectations". These nine emphasize student effort, importance of high standards, professor clarity regarding expectations, help for student goal-setting, clarity regarding unfinished assignment policy, suggested supplementary study material, encouragement for frequent writing, drawing attention to achievement, professor revision of courses and feedback on progress during the course.

The "responsibilities" of the teacher (me), as outlined in my course plan, include: preparation of a bibliography, facilitation of the group process, creating opportunities to connect material with the experiences of the students, helping students with written projects, and so on. I take these responsibilities seriously because I respect the students' time and I am honoured that they have chosen my course. I hope that by example, I can inspire them to take their responsibilities seriously, to work hard at them in order to foster a fruitful learning experience for them and their colleagues. Student responsibilities include negotiating their learning contracts, responding to my comments on the first drafts of their papers if papers are part of the learning contract (in order to foster a dialogue between us rather than a master-servant relationship), courtesy to other members of the class (for example in letting me know when they will miss a class ) and so on.

Richard G. Tiberius, Department of Psychiatry, University of Toronto, 399 Bathurst Street, ECW=963D=96032 Toronto, Ontario M5T 2S8. r.tiberius@utoronto.ca; tel: (416) 603-5765; fax: (416) 603-5292


My methods involve direct, personal (arms length, eye-to-eye contact) communication of each of the following:

Day 1:

-Who I am, and why I'm teaching this class.

-Who should be in this class, and why it is important to those individuals.

-Absolute fairness!

-Clearly define the objective of the class. (That means telling them exactly what they should be able to do/know if they are successful.)

-I openly challenge the students to meet steep standards, and I set the bar as high as I can for the level of class being taught. I have found that students will rise to meet almost any standard you can set. In fact, most students work far below their capability, and a teacher who demands excellence will usually get it.

-I stake out my position as being friendly, approachable, concerned, willing to help as long as the individual is still trying to comply, and strict. I am not your mother, father, roommate, social partner, guard, disciplinarian but I will be available to give information, and if you are in trouble, I am one of those individuals you can truly trust.

-The subject is introduced (I NEVER waste any part of any period by cheating my class out of the information and personal attention they have spent their time and money to obtain.).

-Assignment of outside homework or reading is made, and I announce that the first quiz will be over that material at the beginning of the next class. (I have found that this brings the class to a, "Study or else!; This is serious!" mode immediately. The quiz is always absurdly simple and reinforces the students' self confidence.)

I involve my students in "made-up examples" by name, ask rhetorical questions (and I do not give them the answers... someone else in the class - often with my assistance and prodding- will have to come up with an acceptable answer.), and hitchhike on their comments to introduce a new subject. Class involvement is the key!

Perhaps some of that will be usable by some of you. For some, it would be a violation of their personality and would not work. By the way, I have one of the lowest student drop rates in the university. I still hear from my former grade and high school students these many years later, and they almost always start out with, "You were a challenge, but you always expected so much of me that I just had to do it... I learned a lot."

Unless you are teaching special education courses, which have a separate agenda, I urge you to set high standards, demand excellence, do not take sloppy work, clearly define what is required if they are to receive your approval and stick to it!! Yes, you are going to be controversial, but your reward will come many years later when your students use you as an example. It is worth it.

Dr. N. E. Villaire, Graduate Program Chairman, School of Aeronautics, Florida Institute of Technology, 150 W. University Blvd, Melbourne, Florida, 32901-6988. 407 768 8000 xt 8120 villaire@fit.edu


Subject: Re: Setting high student expectations

I begin by believing my expectations are achievable! Many of my colleagues tell me that my expectations are "unrealistic for today's students." But I believe in them (the students AND my expectations) and that seems to make them happen most of the time.

For example, I begin and end my class on time, and I expect my students to arrive on time. Colleagues told me that this was unrealistic and unfair, especially for evening classes, when many students are rushing from their day jobs on the LA freeways, and faculty simply must accept that they will trickle into class throughout the evening. I don't. I tell the students what I expect on the first night, and, guess what? Beginning with week #2, my students are in their seats at 6:30pm when class begins. (And, by the way, I think NOT having the constant interruption of students arriving throughout a 3 hour class benefits all students (and me!) in my classes.)

From: Dean Mancina, Professor, Golden West College, Huntington Beach, California. DMancina@AOL.COM