Recently, the Education Committee of the States (ECS) released a study linking student performance with faculty expectations (December 2012). As the ECS report states:
- “It is human nature to form instant impressions, perceptions, and expectations of those with whom we come into contact. At the beginning of each school year, teachers must quickly gauge academic expectations for a classroom full of students they have only just met, in order to ensure that each child’s interests, strengths, and weaknesses are accounted for and effectively addressed throughout the year.” (p.2)
In fact, I would add that it is the mark of a good educator at all levels and within all modalities to observe and assess student progress from the first moment of a course and continually throughout a term. This must happen quickly as faculty must “hit the ground running” with student engagement in the learning process from the moment they enter the classroom or online class site. At the same time, all faculty must be vigilant that their professional observations are not distorted by human perception and experience and reasonably high expectations for all students should be set.
Although the report focuses on face-to-face (F2F), K-12 education, the takeaways it provides help to show that by its very nature, postsecondary online education offers an environment conducive to positive faculty expectations that produce positive student results and a reminder that virtual educators must also guard against any all-to-human lapses in perception.
Faculty Expectations Influence Student Results
Education Week’s Liana Heitin provided a helpful summary of this latest ECS study in “Research Review: Teacher Expectations Matter,” (16 January, 2013). Heitin stated that this is one more example of a collection of studies that have shown consistently for more than forty years that there is a link between teacher expectations and student learning.
The good news is that the study found 90-95% of F2F K-12 teachers have expectations that are consistent for all students regardless of their gender, racial, or socio-economic background. This is news worthy of media attention and a firm pat on the back for K-12 teachers.
Certainly, as is often the case, there is room for improvement. Heitin wrote that the discussion on the results of this study focus on these “negative teacher expectations [which] account for an estimated 5 to 10 percent of the variance in student achievement and contribute to achievement gaps between white and minority students” and that the ECS has already defended its focus on this relatively small percentage by stating it has negative effects on a larger portion of minority students.
Although there isn’t a half century of research available for elearning at the postsecondary level, it’s a safe bet that online faculty at the postsecondary level do at least as well as their K-12 colleagues. In fact, the very nature of online education may produce an environment in which the concerns of this report are either already addressed or even non-issues.
Four ECS Recommendations
In response to the potential 5-10% variance in student performance that may be tied to negative faculty expectations, the ECS offered four recommendations that demonstrate how online education at the college level either already addresses the concerns of the report or negates them altogether (Heitin, L. 16 January, 2013).
- 1. Using implicit attitude assessments to identify and weed out teacher candidates with “inflexible perceptions” about student ability.
By their very nature, online courses naturally weed out faculty because the modality usually prevents participants from conceiving or applying inflexible perceptions about one another as everyone is usually reduced to the typed word. That’s why since its inception, elearning has been considered the great equalizer because technology places everyone on the same level. An email’s appearance doesn’t reveal that of its sender or receiver. The result is that faculty expectations tend to be more the same for all students than perhaps they would be in a F2F setting.
However, this does not negate the value of professional development about the potential for preconceived notions to negatively or positively influence faculty expectations and student performance.
2. Teaching pre-service teachers about the “risks of inequitable expectations” and offering training to amend negative perceptions.
Certainly, as the ECS and other studies indicate, few, if any, faculty would consciously or even unconsciously lower their expectations for students of a certain demographic; however, it is often helpful to provide reminders to be vigilant in avoiding such scenarios and to offer encouragement of the benefits of positive faculty expectations on student performance.
In spite of the equalization or neutralization of appearances online, disclosures may occur. For example, as students become more comfortable with the use of different types of technology, they may reveal their appearance during a video chat. Elearning is also attracting a more global student population, making it even more critical that faculty be well versed in diversity and inter-cultural communication.
Providing professional development, especially to new faculty, is a proactive step toward keeping both faculty expectations and their influence on student performance positive. Fortunately, many programs exist and are often required to teach online at the postsecondary level (See for example, San Diego Community College).
3. Tracking current teachers’ interactions with students and providing professional development to help them improve those interactions.
Additionally, online education offers a greater ease of achieving the third ECS recommendation because faculty can be monitored more readily and accurately in the virtual world. For example, as an online administrator, I can go into a faculty member’s course to review their communication with students via the discussion boards, assignment feedback, transcripts and recordings of audio seminars, emails—basically nearly everything that occurs within an online class leaves a digital footprint that can be reviewed.
Rarely have I found instances were faculty expectations negatively impact student performance; however, when I have found some of that 5-10%, I can address concerns via the regular faculty review and evaluation process. I can also monitor to make sure there is improvement in the future. All of this is much more difficult in the F2F context.
4. Adopting teacher evaluation systems that measure expectations and perceptions of students.
Faculty expectations and communication are a regular feature of instructor reviews. An administrator can easily copy and paste both positive and negative examples of faculty expectations and how they connect to student progress; these may then be shared with instructors. Not only can coaching be provided for those who need improvement, but more importantly, encouragement and reinforcement of their use of best practices may be provided for that 90-95% of faculty whose expectations improve student outcomes. This level of accuracy is not possible in the F2F modality.
A More Positive Focus
Good expectations will produce good results because “teachers are the single most important in-school factor that affects student achievement” (ECS, December 2012, p.1). Thankfully, educators have consistently performed beyond reproach in maintaining positive expectations that lead to positive student outcomes, and technical advances continue to provide an environment that ensures further success within the elearning modality.
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