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Updated: May 17, 2023

A small branch with one leaf at the end pokes out above a canopy of full, leafy trees

This week, we’re talking about the power of expectations. Expectations can not only elevate learner performance, but also the individuals and teams charged with supporting that learning. Research supports this, but what exactly is going on here?

To begin, let’s look at what expectations mean – what we THINK is going to happen. Expectations are subjective, based on experience, personal biases, emotional states, and more. That subjectivity is important, because it means expectations can be influenced, and that’s what we want – to increase people’s expectations of success.

Why? Well, if we believe we will be successful, we are more likely to engage, give good effort, and persist when challenged. The opposite is also true; no one likes to engage in lost causes, so if we think we won’t be successful, we don’t readily engage, and even if we do, we skimp on effort and give up easily. As Henry Ford has been credited as having said..

Whether you think you can, or think you can’t, you’re right. Henry Ford

Expectations are closely related to another concept – efficacy, which is task-specific belief about ability. So, self-efficacy is how capable a person perceives themselves to be in a particular task, like writing, mathematics, cooking, etc. Collective efficacy is how capable a team believes they are. Both are really powerful drivers of effort because they inform our expectations – if we think we are good at something, we have an increased expectation of success.

But what if it’s not just up to us? What about the other factors at play, like time, resources, opposing forces, etc.? That’s the rest of that expectation equation – our attributions, the factors outside our control that we perceive can influence our likelihood of success.

What does this mean for learning and development? We have the power to increase our learner’s expectations of success by informing their perceptions of efficacy as well as addressing those factors beyond their control. How do we do that? Here are a few ways:

  1. Highlight prior successes – point out where learners have already been successful, and show how learners like them have been successful. Each can increase the learner’s expectations of success.

  2. Address what’s beyond the learner’s control. Identify potential supports that can aid them in their learning and their work – coaching supports, job aids, practice opportunities, etc. that communicate that they are operating in an environment that is designed to help them succeed, not set them up for failure.

  3. Communicate your high expectations. Let the learners know you believe in their ability to succeed, along with your commitment to supporting that success.

Finally, the impact of expectations is not just about learner behavior, but your behavior as well. You have to truly have high expectations for your people, which will then fuel your own engagement in the behaviors that will actually contribute to their success. If you don’t really believe everyone can learn, you’re likely to fall into those same traps I discussed earlier – low engagement and lackluster effort and persistence.

Universal Design for Learning can help inform our expectations and take ownership of those factors beyond our learners control so that we can identify and address barriers to learning and designing learning experiences that tell all learners, “We’re in this together, and we can and will succeed.”

James McKenna

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1 (Schunk et al.; Chang)

Chang, Jie. “A Case Study of the ‘Pygmalion Effect’: Teacher Expectations and Student Achievement.” International Education Studies, vol. 4, no. 1, Jan. 2011, p. p198. (Crossref),

Schunk, Dale H., et al. Motivation in Education: Theory, Research, and Applications. Pearson, 2014.


Headshot for James McKenna

I'm James

I love to learn, and l love to help others do the same. I write, I appear on podcasts, and sometimes speak at conferences. I share content here and hope you'll find it helpful. 

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