High expectations – motivation or pressure - Education Matters Magazine
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High expectations – motivation or pressure



As educators, we all want to give our young people the best start in life. Naturally, we have high expectations of them and what they can achieve. However, how do high expectations impact on students and when does it become undue pressure? Fran Reddan, Principal of Mentone Girls’ Grammar School, reports.

An article published by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) on this very topic started with a quote from Calvin Lloyd, “Nobody rises to low expectations”. Author of the article, Geoff Masters, argues that high expectations model the outcome of hard work for students and show a belief in the child’s abilities. “Success in most fields of endeavour depends on an ability to visualise success. It has long been known that elite athletes mentally rehearse each performance prior to its execution. Advances in neuroscience show why this may be so important: the neurological processes involved in visualising a performance are almost identical to those involved in the performance itself.” (Masters, 2011)

He goes on to say that low expectations can be self-fulfilling prophecies because students feel that the key adults in their life do not believe they can stretch themselves, and their self-worth is harmed. This is supported by Psychologists, Weihua Fan and Christopher Wolters, who state that “Students who are confident in their learning abilities and are intrinsically interested in learning activities are more likely to have higher expectations for obtaining desired academic goals.” (2012) Therefore, it is a case of students growing self-belief from the belief that others have in them.

However, it is not entirely about how students feels about their own abilities. An article in the Contemporary Educational Psychology journal claims that when teachers and parents have high expectations of students, they themselves act in a way that encourages them to be met. Teachers and parents can feel compelled in their role to help students fulfil their potential and work towards the high expectations alongside the students, rather than dictating the goals for the students and leaving them to achieve them on their own.

This is where expectations can become detrimental to students’ wellbeing. While high expectations have been shown to have a positive effect on self-esteem and achievement, they need to be matched with support, resilience and the strategies to attain the end goal. Michelle Paccagnella, Psychologist at the ACT Academy of Sport, says that pressure is used often by sports coaches and can be an incredible motivational tool when applied in the right way. “Pressure isn’t necessarily bad – it can enhance motivation, concentration and enjoyment. That feeling of stress that often accompanies a pressure situation can help keep you on your toes, ready to rise to a challenge.”

Paccagnella goes on to argue that it is the way that students handle that pressure that makes the difference. Her strategy is to remind people that pressure isn’t real. “It doesn’t exist. It doesn’t have a form, a colour, a smell. Pressure is simply how we perceive the situation we are in.” Mental health organisation, ReachOut, advises “Reasonable expectations can be a positive pressure in your life, [but] too much pressure can cause you to burn out.”

How we handle pressure is often learned from a young age by watching the adults around us. We learn by observation to identify what is an acceptable reaction to pressure and what is not. In this sense, parents and teachers are role models for not only the importance that is placed on education, but also how to handle that pressure.

Fan, W & Wolters, C. ‘School motivation and high school dropout: The mediating role of educational expectation.’ British Journal of Educational Psychology. (Accessed via EbscoHost online 28 August, 2015)

Master, G. 2011. ‘The power of expectation’. Australian Council for Educational Research. http://www.acer.edu.au/occasional-essays/the-power-of-expectation (Accessed online 28 August, 2015)

Paccagnella, M. 2015. ‘Performing under pressure’. Australian Sports Commission. http://www.ausport.gov.au/sportscoachmag/psychology2/performing_under_pressure2 (Accessed online 28 August, 2015)

ReachOut. Managing expectations. http://us.reachout.com/facts/factsheet/managing-expectations (Accessed online 28 August, 2015)


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