13 Ways to Set High Expectations in the Classroom

high expectations examples and definition, outlined below.

“High expectations” means having an attitude that you expect students to do their personal best at all times.

Here are 13 ways to achieve high expectations in the classroom:

  1. Teach about growth mindsets.
  2. Focus on effort, not excellence.
  3. Ask students to try again.
  4. Express unconditional positive regard.
  5. Set achievable but difficult tasks.
  6. Identify causes of poor quality work.
  7. Be a role model.
  8. Only praise behaviors that are praise-worthy.
  9. Show your expectations by providing examples.
  10. Stop using gimmicks as incentives.
  11. Ask open-ended questions.
  12. Give detailed feedback.
  13. Be consistent.

High Expectations Definition

Having high expectations means believing students should always strive to achieve their best. Raising expectations is not about being strict or a micro-manager.

It’s quite the opposite.

By raising your expectations, students will work hard whether you’re watching them or not. The goal is to create a classroom culture of hard work and self-belief.

How to set high Expectations for Students

Below are all 13 examples of how you can set your expectations high in the classroom – with explanations!

1. Teach about Growth Mindsets

Students need to believe that reward comes from effort.

Too often, we fall into a slump of believing that success or failure is outside of our control. We blame other things, like that our tools were broken or our teacher doesn’t like us.

Instead, we should be reinforcing to our students on a daily basis that they are capable of success if they put the effort in.

The concept of ‘growth mindsets’ comes from Carol Dweck, who after years of research concluded:

“We found that students’ mindsets—how they perceive their abilities—played a key role in their motivation and achievement, and we found that if we changed students’ mindsets, we could boost their achievement. More precisely, students who believed their intelligence could be developed (a growth mindset) outperformed those who believed their intelligence was fixed (a fixed mindset).” (Dweck, 2015, p. 1)

I believe that the growth mindset does need to be coupled with appropriate teacher scaffolding. Teachers should also show students that there is a reasonable path to success so students always know what their next steps are.

To teach your students about growth mindsets, I recommend you start by showing them the video I’ve embedded above. It’s short, motivating and educational all at once. Then, have a discussion with your class about the growth mindsets concept.

2. Focus on Effort, not Excellence

We all see overenthusiastic fathers running up and down the side line yelling at their sons every Saturday morning.

I often wonder if those fathers will ever be satisfied unless their son is an Olympic gold medallist.

High expectations aren’t about insisting someone is the best at anything. They are entirely about insisting someone tries their best.

Even if a student fails or does an objectively mediocre job, their effort may have been an enormous personal achievement for that child.

So separate excellence from effort.

I’m not saying reward mediocrity. But I am saying reward effort. If a child has genuinely tried their absolute hardest, let them know you’re proud of them for digging deep and trying hard.

3. Ask Students to Try Again

When a student comes to you with completed work that is below what you expect of them, don’t accept it.

I had a teacher when I was in school who had the highest expectations for neatness in bookwork. Hi idea was something like this: attention to how you present your work reveals how much you care.

He used to literally rip pages out of books and send students back to their desk if their work was intentionally messy.

I remember one student once scribbled out a paragraph because he made a mistake. Mr Humphreys was mad. Not because the student made a mistake. But because he intentionally scribbled all over it.

The point is this:

If a student has been careless or put in less effort than you’d expect of them, take a stand and insist that they only present their best work to you.

Over the school year, your students will learn what is passable and what isn’t. And they will set their standards based on the standards you let pass.

4. Express Unconditional Positive Regard

Carl Rogers invented the term ‘unconditional positive regard’. It means that we should show our students that we see them as valuable and capable at all times.

This can be hard sometimes.

When a student is breaking rules or playing up for the day, try to separate their actions out from their identity.

You can say things like:

  • “I expect more of you than this. You can do better tomorrow.”
  • “I know you to be a well-behaved student. I expect you to stick to the good behavior I know you’re capable of.”
  • “We want you to be a part of the classroom because you can make good contributions, so you can come back to the classroom when you agree to respect the rules.”

The idea here is that you are showing students that they are highly capable, good and valuable people and therefore you expect them to live up to the standards you know they’re capable of.

5. Provide Difficult but Achievable Tasks

If you provide your students with low quality, easy tasks too often, your students will learn that little effort is needed.

Instead, students should be coming to class daily knowing and expecting that they will be stretching their minds.

By consistently creating tasks that are difficult but achievable, you are setting a culture of hard work in your classroom.

How do I set tasks that are difficult and achievable?

Use Vygotsky’s ZPD.

Vygotsky created a concept called the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD). This principle says that the best activities are too hard to be done without support, but not so hard that they aren’t achievable at all.

So, find out what your student already knows and can do, then create lessons that are just a step above that difficulty level.

To ensure students can succeed at these slightly more difficult tasks, you need to provide scaffolds such as prompts, worksheets, or more knowledgeable classmates who can walk a student through a task.

zone of proximal development diagram
Image: The zone of proximal development can be represented by three concentric circles. The inner circle is what the student can do without help, the middle circle is what they can do with help, and the outer circle is what they cannot do. Teachers (aka ‘more knowledgeable others‘) should teach to the middle zone, dubbed the zone of proximal development, and use scaffolds, to help facilitate maximal learning for their students.

Related: How to Scaffold Learning using the I Do, We Do, You Do Method

6. Identify Causes of Poor Quality Work

When students complete work that is below your expectations of them, be aware that there may be some issues going on in their lives.

Just a few reasons students present poor quality work are:

  • The student hasn’t had breakfast today. This will often lead to tiredness, fatigue and low effort.
  • The student is sitting near students who are distracting him. Sometimes pairing students up with friends can backfire. I know we want our students to enjoy their learning experience with friends. But if a student’s friends are distracting them from their learning, you need to separate them. (You can read my post on table layouts to come up with some ideas on how to group or separate out students).
  • The student is being bullied. Bullying can shatter a student’s self-esteem and motivation. If a student is being bullied, you will need to set higher expectations for the bullies and start applying some tough love to ensure the classroom is a safe and welcoming space for all.
  • The student thinks trying hard is uncool. This usually begins in middle school and can be a huge problem. If a student thinks trying hard is uncool, you have a cultural issue in the classroom which is even more of a reason to have lofty expectations of all students.

Once you’ve identified underlying causes, tackle them head-on. A breakfast club might be needed to ensure all students are fed; a new classroom table layout may address distractions; and tough love in the form of insistence on manners and high self-expectations might get bullies or ‘cool kids’ back on track.

7. Be a Role Model

Above, I talked about students who start to think trying hard is uncool.

One important way of counteracting this mentality is to role model hard work.

Being a role model could include:

  • Completing tasks with students and showing them you’re putting in a lot of effort;
  • Showing students pictures of you working toward goals in your personal life, like striving to be fit enough to run a marathon;
  • Showing student that failure happens, but it’s not a reason to give up. Let your students know that failure leads to lessons learned, and getting up and trying again is a sign of a person of character;
  • Modelling sportsmanship and fair but hard play during sport lessons.

Related: What Makes a Great Teacher?

8. Only Praise Behaviors that are Praise-Worthy

Too often, we praise just about any behavior because we want to pass on positivity and enthusiasm to our students.

That’s not a great teaching strategy if you want to get the best out of your students.

Consider these possibilities:

  • Praise loses its power over time: If you praise students too much, the students will stop taking your praise seriously. This will mean students will be less motivated to impress you.
  • Students can sense fake praise: many students can tell when our praise is and isn’t genuine. It may come across as condescending to a student if your praise is for a task that wasn’t praise-worthy.
  • Some students will get a false impression: Some students may not sense false praise, and instead will have unrealistic self-belief. They might think they’re absolutely amazing, even when they’re putting in very little effort. This may lead a student to develop arrogance – which clearly isn’t what we want.

So, be positive and see your students in a positive light at all times. But separate out your constant enthusiasm from praise. You can be enthusiastic without praising a student.

Similarly, make sure your praise is always proportionate to an achievement. This will ensure that praise sustains its powerful effect. It will also make students even more keen to work hard to get some genuine praise as a reward.

9. Show your Expectations with Examples

Sometimes students simply don’t know what you expect of them.

That’s why you should model expectations when setting a task at hand.

Education Hub (2018) argues that educators shouldn’t simply show how a task is done. Instead, show your students what the outcomes should look like. This will help you move away from a minimum standards approach and toward a higher expectations approach to learning and teaching.

Another way of demonstrating high standards is to show students exemplary pieces of work from previous years. This will help students to visualize what is expected of them.

10. Stop using Gimmicky Rewards as Incentives

Rewards and punishments can be effective in short-term contexts.

However, a classroom management strategy based on rewards and punishments teaches students that schoolwork is a transactional arrangement: work hard, get a present.

Instead, schoolwork should be seen as a long-term personal development arrangement. Therefore, your focus should be on promoting intrinsic motivation (a love of learning and the thrill of overcoming a challenge) rather than extrinsic motivation (a candy for your efforts).

If you want to keep using rewards, try to make them a less important aspect of your classroom management. Alternatives to gimmicky rewards might be the reward of free choice over the next project a student can work on or simply ensuring the tasks are enjoyable enough that students will complete them without the need for a reward at the end.

11. Ask Open-Ended Questions

Closed-ended questions are questions that can be answered with a Yes/No response. These sorts of questions do not get the most out of students because they do not require students to provide explanation or elaboration.

Instead, ask questions that cannot be answered with a yes or no response. The student would need to formulate full-sentence answers which reveal more about their thinking.

Furthermore, follow-up on a student’s response to get them to explain themselves even more. This is a great opportunity to use your prompting questions and statements to get students to extend themselves further.

When students learn that you will ask prying, prompting questions, they will be more attentive to you when you’re teaching and on guard to come up with responses if they’re called upon.

12. Give Detailed Feedback

I’ve been an elementary school and university teacher. Detailed feedback has been important for both children and adults.

As a university teacher, I see other teachers’ feedback on essays and cringed at times:

  • “Good.”
  • “Well done.”
  • “Not accurate.”
  • “More depth required.”

These sorts of vague statements do not prompt students to do better next time. They are final evaluations that provide no insights on how students can develop their knowledge further.

I’m sure if you’ve ever gone to university you’ve been equally frustrated with comments like those above.

Instead, detailed positive feedback would show students exactly why something is ‘good’ or needs more ‘depth’. Here ars some examples:

  • “A good point on why we need to care for our waterways. Have you also considered looking at paragraph 2 of the writing prompt to come up with more points to further extend your strong point here?”
  • “There’s a need for more depth in this paragraph. It would be good to see you providing an example. Examples are a useful way of showing how well you know and understand the point you’re making.”

13. Be Consistent

Consistency is perhaps the most important thing about communicating that you expect the best of your students.

Getting a class culture in which hard work and focus are expected takes time. So, put in the hard yards, be consistent with your expectations, and ensure students know what your standards are.

If you expect excellence one day but completely ignore poor behavior or low quality work the next day, the culture you’re trying to create won’t come to pass.

With consistency, your high standards will pay off, and your students will start to give you the high quality work you want to see.

See More: Consistency Examples

Final Thoughts: Why Raise your Expectations?

Raising your expectations is great for getting the best out of learners.

It’s simple:

  1. If you set low standards, you get low effort.
  2. If you set high standards, you get high effort.

If you’re a teacher who doesn’t insist on good manners or neat work, your students aren’t going to work hard on their manners or neatness.

But if you’re a teacher who sends messages to your students like:

  • “I believe that you are capable of overcoming obstacles”;
  • “I know your abilities and expect that you can complete this task”;
  • “You don’t have to be the best, you just have to do your best”

…then maybe these messages will rub off?

References and Further Reading

Regular readers of this website know that I always strongly encourage that you cite scholarly sources if you’re using this information for essays. So, below are some good starting points for further reading and sources to cite in an essay.

Dweck, C. (2015). Carol Dweck Revisits the ‘Growth Mindset’. Retrieved from: https://www.stem.org.uk/system/files/community-resources/2016/06/DweckEducationWeek.pdf

Education Hub. (2018). How to develop HE teaching. Retrieved from: https://theeducationhub.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/How-to-develop-high-expectations-teaching.pdf

Rubie-Davies, C. (2014). Becoming a HE teacher: Raising the bar. Hoboken: Routledge.

Wentzel, K. R., Russell, S., & Baker, S. (2016). Emotional support and expectations from parents, teachers, and peers predict adolescent competence at school. Journal of Educational Psychology108(2), 242. Doi: https://psycnet.apa.org/doi/10.1037/edu0000049 

Saphier, J. (2016). HE teaching: how we persuade students to believe and act. USA: Corwin.

Related: What is a Scholarly Source?

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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