The Expectancy Effect in Action

An interview with psychologist Rhona Weinstein explains how the expectancy effect can be applied to the classroom.

| Spring 2016

An encounter with a fourth grade boy who was unable to read reminded psychologist Rhona Weinstein of the many ways expectations can be contagious. He was in the lowest level reading group in his class, called the Clowns, all class outcasts. So she had him moved to a higher level group. By the end of the year he was reading at his grade level, and his social life was merrier too.

“When ability cues are salient, children are aware of them,” says Weinstein, psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. She is a co-founder of CAL Prep, a Bay Area charter school begun in 2005 in a partnership between UC Berkeley and Aspire Public Schools to constructively address such expectancy issues.

“It’s where Pygmalion meets the real world of schooling,” she says, referrinig to Pygmalion in the Classroom, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson’s book about their 1960’s experiment in a San Francisco elementary school. Teachers were given fictitious information about students to elevate their expectations, an experiment that demonstrated the importance of expectations in education. CAL Prep is an endeavor to make use of those findings.

 Weinstein and Frank Worrell, a UC Berkeley education and psychology professor, co-edited and contributed to a book about CAL Prep, Achieving College Dreams (Oxford University Press, April 2016), describing the school’s efforts to support the educational prospects of students long exposed to low expectations.

Weinstein cites her findings and others showing that children notice teachers’ expectations of them early in their schooling. Teachers signal their judgments with skill level grouping and verbal and nonverbal cues, as Rosenthal and Jacobson found. Those early judgments may predict students’ achievement level later in school more than ability testing.

Weinstein and her colleagues opened CAL Prep to give students most prone to negative expectation cues — minority students — an opportunity to transcend old expectations, as the curtailing of affirmative action closed an avenue of support for them.