SIP 4.8 Challenging Students’ Mental Models: Dealing with “Expectancy Effect”

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Have you ever seen students worrying about your class before you even start teaching? Perhaps complaining about the difficulty of the content before they even know what is expected? Have you heard students being defeatist about their own ability level, or believing that that they already know all there is to know about the class topics?  Many college students come to class with preconceived beliefs and expectations about their abilities to succeed, and they are often wrong. This “expectancy effect” must be addressed in order to have successful learning in classes, but what is to be done?

Take a SIP of This – Challenging Students’ Mental Models: Dealing with “Expectancy Effect”

Boy imagining doing well in school

While it has been known for years (Rosenthal & Jacobson 1968) that instructors can sabotage student achievement with negative beliefs and expectations about their students, this SIP focuses on addressing students’ mental models and overcoming their counterproductive beliefs and expectations. There are several ways in which students’ negative beliefs and expectations about themselves, their professors, the course format, and class topics manifest, including:



  1. Stereotype threat

    Sometimes students believe themselves to be at risk of confirming stereotypes about their social group (Steele & Aronson 1995). The stereotype threat affects women in the sciences (“I am a woman, women are not expected to be good at math, and this is a difficult math test”), historically underserved groups in college, men in English, etc. The stereotype threat puts students at a disadvantage as they internalize negative images, attribute personal failure to group failure, and feel they must perform as a representative of that group, rather than as an individual

  2. Negative confirmation

    Students often fear that professors will “confirm their academic inadequacy.” They might feel “intimidated by professors’ academic knowledge and by teachers’ power to assess students and assign grades” (Cox, 2011).  This fear puts them at a disadvantage as they see little in their own power to improve academic outcomes.

  3. Alternative conceptions 

    Often students arrive with pre-instructional knowledge about course topics. Student knowledge, however, can be erroneous, illogical, or misinformed. These erroneous understandings are termed “alternative conceptions” or “intuitive theories” (Lucariello & Naff 2016). Alternative conceptions can impede learning in several ways. First, students are often unaware that the knowledge they have is wrong, and very entrenched in their thinking. In addition, students interpret new experiences through these erroneous understandings, thereby interfering with being able to correctly grasp new information. Indeed, researchers have found that “ontological misconceptions,” (Lucariello & Naff 2016) which relate to ontological beliefs (i.e., beliefs about the fundamental categories and properties of the world) to be particularly entrenched. For example, many students believe race is a biological/genetic phenomenon, an alternative conception that makes understanding its socially-constructed character difficult. Alternative conceptions tend to be very resistant to instruction because learning entails replacing or radically reorganizing student knowledge, resulting in cognitive dissonance. This puts instructors in a difficult situation where traditional forms of instruction, such as lectures, labs, and simply reading texts, are not very successful at overcoming student misconceptions.

Teaching strategies to counter negative beliefs and expectations include:

  1. Teach a growth mindset

    Professors can counter students’ fears of not achieving by adopting and sharing a growth mindset with students in class. A growth mindset is one where you believe people can get better at a content area by working hard at that content area. See this short video for more on the topic.

  2. Help students separate their sense of self-worth from their academic performance

    Being a good or bad student does not make one a good or bad friend, parent, child, etc., yet often students will conflate their academic performance and their self-esteem (this is particularly true of traditionally successful students, those Bell (1985) calls “gold-star junkies.” By encouraging students to disarticulate the two, you encourage them to take academic risks, rise to challenges, and persevere in face of setbacks. Grades: Can you Perform without the Pressure? by Inge Bell is an excellent place for both instructors and students to start.

  3. Emphasize high standards and supports

    Students are more successful in classes where they know the instructor cares about the content and about the students. Students tend to rise to expectations that are clearly articulated by professors. The converse is true as well. When a professor mentions 50% of people fail a class because students cannot learn the material, then that becomes true, too. The high standards must be coupled with resources to help students meet them. Letting students know the class is very tough, but you want to help during office hours, that you will plan in peer study groups, that they have access to a TA, that they can and should use the Writing Center, etc. will help students feel less like they are on their own in your class, and more like you are on a journey together to make learning happen.

  4. Ensure capability for meeting them

    Classes that scaffold learning and projects tend to help students be more successful. This means adding in time to go to math tutoring as a class, or having an out-of-class activity where they must go and then turn in the before and after of having attended a session. It could mean asking students to turn in small parts of a big assignment over time, so they can receive incremental feedback and increase the likelihood of a successful final project. It could mean devoting class time to peer feedback before being required to perform in some way in class. Any way that the instructor can send the message that students can learn the content, if they take advantage of the available resources, helps students to see that there is work involved in the learning, but that they will be supported along the way.

  5. Provide external attribution for difficulty of content

    Acknowledge that learning new content is difficult. It is supposed to be; that is why it is new. When students think about the content as difficult, but not impossible to master, rather than thinking of themselves as unable to learn, they will be able to put in the added effort needed to learn the new content. If they attribute their failure to learn to an innate quality in themselves, or people like them, the drive to work hard may lower since there is no possibility of improvement.

  6. Ask students to share their preconceived knowledge

    Use it a starting place for learning about the current scholarly/scientific position on the topic. Acknowledge the intuitive nature of alternative conceptions, and sympathize with the cognitive dissonance that learning new, and contradictory ideas may cause. Professors who explicitly address the alternative conceptions have a chance to reset expectations of the course and the content.

Still Thirsty? Take Another SIP of Challenging Student’s Mental Models: Dealing with Expectancy Effect

  • How Do I Get My Students Over Their Alternative Conceptions (Misconceptions) for Learning?
  • Mindset Works
  • The College Fear Factor: How Students and Professors Misunderstand One Another by Rebecca D. Cox (2009)
  • Grades: Can you Perform without the Pressure? by Inge Bell et al.
  • Rosenthal, R. & Jacobson, L. Urban Rev (1968) 3:16. doi:10.1007/BF02322211
  • Steele, C. M., & Aronson, J. (1995). Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African-Americans. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(1), 26-37.

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