In 1968 Harvard professor, Robert Rosenthal published, Pygmalion in the
Classroom: Teacher Expectation and Pupils' Intellectual Development (1968;
expanded edition 1992). The book caused quite a stir with its basic
conclusion, "when teachers expect students to do well and show intellectual
growth, they do; when teachers do not have such expectations, performance and
growth are not so encouraged and may in fact be discouraged in a variety of

How does this "Pygmalion phenomenon" impact college teaching? Quite
significantly, it turns out. Below is an excerpt from the article,
Pygmalion In The Classroom, by James Rhem, executive editor of The National
Teaching & Learning Forum, February 1999, Vol. 8 No. 2. The full article
can be found at: [].

Rick Reis
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Excerpt of article by James Rhem, executive editor, of The National
Teaching & Learning Forum, February 1999, Vol. 8 No. 2,
© Copyright 1996-1998. Published by Oryx Press in conjunction with James
Rhem & Associates, Inc. (ISSN 1057-2880) All rights reserved worldwide.

In Higher Ed?

Rosenthal's book (coauthored with Lenore Jacobson) describes dozens of
persuasive studies suggesting that our expectations strongly influence the
performance of those around us from the members of our bowling team to the
students in our classes. How may the Pygmalion phenomenon show up in higher
education? "In what you teach," answers Rosenthal. "If you think your
students can't achieve very much, are perhaps not too bright, you may be
inclined to teach simple stuff, do a lot of drills, read from your lecture
notes, give simple assignments calling for simplistic factual answers;
that's one important way it can show up."

And what about the bell curve? How does the nearly universal presumption
that classes will show such a distribution affect outcomes? "At Harvard the
problem is the reverse," says Rosenthal. "I have colleagues who give all
A's. That should not be. I am a bell curve believer. Not everybody is going
to be a star, a Ph.D. or what have you, that's reality. But almost
everybody can learn more than they are learning."

Rosenthal offers the example of the juniors he teaches: "I ask them to
define a research problem, search the literature, design an experiment and
come in with results all in one semester. Now nobody can do all that in one
semester. I can't do that in one semester, but these are juniors: they
don't know it can't be done; so they all do it. They do amazing things."

"I don't prejudge the people in the class," he continues, "but I have never
met a class that didn't have distribution in it in over forty years of

Rosenthal acknowledges how frustrating it is to know how powerfully teacher
expectation affects student performance and not to know how to immediately
use that information to improve teaching across the board. What about a
very clear syllabus that outlines expectations in a very positive way, I
ask. "Here again," says Rosenthal, "it's possible that such a syllabus does
not cause anything to happen, but the kind of person who does this kind of
planning is likely to teach well, care about teaching, have high

Rosenthal has worked closely with the Bok Center for Teaching and Learning
in some of his research, using their video tapes of teachers to probe the
intangible reality of interpersonal communications between teachers and
students. "You can tell in about ten seconds of silent video how a teacher
will be evaluated at the end of the semester," he says. Rosenthal and
colleagues had undergraduates rate teachers they'd never seen and
correlated their scores with the ratings the teachers actually got from
their students at the end of the year. "We couldn't believe the results; so
we replicated them," Rosenthal reports. In a parallel experiment, he took
students and played "content-filtered speech"--recordings of teachers
speaking, altered so that only the rhythm and tone of voice come
through--for them and got the same high correlations. But what does this
mean? "Our research can't speak to causes," says Rosenthal. "Tone of voice
is correlated with high teacher ratings, but there's no evidence that it
causes them."

Interactional Style

If Rosenthal's clear findings offer no clear answers, they do point toward
some hopeful lines of speculation, many of them focusing on "interactional
style." Could the most effective interactional style be taught, aped,
internalized? It doesn't seem likely that anyone can learn to fake good
teaching. And, of course, good teaching takes so many different forms.
"There is a whole body of work in the psychotherapy literature," says
Rosenthal, "about something called 'patient matching,' and it is possible
we might learn how to do something like that with students and teachers."
For some, Jungian analysis works well; for others, Freud's the ticket. The
trick lies in finding a therapist whose therapy you believe in, that fits
your mode of listening, your way of receiving signals. If the interactional
styles of a variety of different types of good teachers were matched up
with students especially receptive to those interactional styles, more
academic success might well be the result. But all that lies down the road
of more research.

A Moral Conclusion

For the moment Rosenthal will venture only one conclusion of a prescriptive
nature from his decades of research: "Superb teachers can teach the
"unteachable"; we know that. So, what I think this research shows is that
there's a moral obligation for a teacher: if the teacher knows that certain
students can't learn, that teacher should get out of that classroom."


* Eden, Dov. Pygmalion in Management. D.C. Heath: Lexington, MA, 1990.

* Rosenthal, Robert and Jacobson, Lenore. Pygmalion in the Classroom:
Teacher Expectation and Pupils' Intellectual Development. Irvington
Publishers: New York, 1992.