Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

The Pygmalion Effect

In the 1960s, Robert Rosenthal decided to test how experimenters’ unconscious expectations shaped the results of their studies. He took a group of average rats and labeled half of them bright and half of them dull before he assigned them to his experimental psychology students at Harvard. In the students’ experiments, the “bright” rats made their way through mazes more quickly. But the difference wasn’t intrinsic to the rats: Rosenthal also observed that the students working with the supposedly smarter rats handled the animals more often, and more gently.

In 1964, Rosenthal performed a similar experiment at an elementary school, with teachers and students instead of rats. He selected some students at random, and told teachers that, based on the results of a new IQ test he had administered, they could expect impressive development from these students in the coming year. The teachers’ expectations were fulfilled, and at the end of the year the selected students showed disproportionate gains over other students. Rosenthal observed significant differences in the ways teachers described the students from the two groups: teachers’ descriptions of the supposedly special students revealed that they genuinely believed that these children were more intelligent, and even more likable. Rosenthal and Jacobson concluded that not only did the teachers see what they were looking for, but their expectations caused them to treat students differently, and hence produced the outcomes they expected: they called this the Pygmalion Effect.

Even at the university level, our expectations of our students influence those students’ expectations of themselves. Our expectations, which may be unconscious, can be shaped by stereotypes, departmental culture, and our own histories. Even when we don’t intend it, our students perceive and respond to our expectations—for good or for ill—so there’s incredible potential for us to influence our students’ performance and conduct. We need to take care to make that influence both positive and just.

In practice, this might look like

  • Being intentional about demonstrating equally high expectations for all students;
  • Attending to our nonverbal communication, like expression, eye contact, tone of voice, listening behaviors, etc., to ensure that we seem to take all student equally seriously;
  • Presenting difficult work in terms of challenges that we expect students to meet when they work hard, rather than obstacles we don’t expect them to overcome;
  • Refining our assignments so that descriptions are transparent, and the tasks are intellectually challenging;
  • Revising our syllabi to communicate our confidence that students will uphold high standards for learning and for academic integrity (rather than suspicion that they will transgress); and
  • Contributing to a culture of high expectations in our departments.

If you’d like to revise an assignment or syllabus with the Pygmalion effect in mind, we’re happy to support you. You can schedule a consultation by emailing We look forward to working with you.

Upcoming Events

Interpreting and Responding to Student Evaluations
Thurs., Oct. 4th | 1:00-3:00 p.m. | DIF 432 | Sign up to attend

Student feedback is essential for reflecting on our course designs and teaching practices, but finding out how students responded to us, and to our courses, can be an emotional, sometimes overwhelming experience. In this interactive workshop, we will share strategies for analyzing and interpreting the data collected at the end of each semester, and help you to make the best use of the feedback students provide in their comments. We’ll also discuss a variety of effective ways to collect feedback from students throughout the semester, so you don’t have to wait until a course is over to adjust it for better results.

Exam Design Workshop
Tues., Oct. 23rd | 2:00-4:00 p.m. | DIF 432 | Sign up to attend

Test what you want to be testing. During this session, we’ll work on designing exams that are not only accurate measures of student learning in your course, but also learning opportunities themselves.

Open Textbook Workshop
Thurs., Oct. 25rd | 10:00 a.m.-12:00 p.m. | Bradley Reading Room, Strozier Library

The Office of the Provost is sponsoring a workshop to introduce faculty to open textbooks and the benefits they can bring to student learning, faculty pedagogical practice, and social justice on campus. Participating faculty will be invited to engage with an open textbook in their discipline by writing a brief review, for which they will be eligible to receive a $200 stipend. Interested faculty are invited to apply by Friday, October 12th.

If you have questions about this workshop or open textbooks, please contact Devin Soper, Scholarly Communications Librarian, at 850-645-2600 or You can also visit the Open & Affordable Textbook Initiative website for more information about open education initiatives at FSU.