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Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

The term self-fulfilling prophecy most often refers to a phenomenon where students perform to a level consistent with their teachers' preconceived expectations for them. In a classic study conducted in 1968, researchers told elementary school teachers that some of their students had been identified as having marked potential for intellectual growth. In fact, however, the designated students had been selected randomly. Eight months later, the students who had been identified as intellectual "bloomers" showed greater gains on an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test than other students in the school. This result became known as the Pygmalion effect, in reference to George Bernard Shaw's play by the same name, and underlies recommendations that teachers should hold high expectations for all students.

Teacher expectations can influence students' motivation and achievement in two ways. First, inaccurate judgments of a student's effort and ability may bias evaluation of that student's performance. Second, teachers tend to challenge, interact with, and praise students of whom they have higher expectations. Expectations that are too low can lead to decreases in motivation, engagement, and learning.


Rosenthal, Robert, and Lenore Jacobson. Pygmalion in the Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Student Intellectual Development. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968.

Stipek, Deborah. Motivation to Learn: From Theory to Practice, 3rd edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1998.

Lynley H. Anderman

Tierra M. Freeman

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 7