Most students begin college, the academic year, and new courses motivated and optimistic. Many first-year students expect to do well because they were successful in high school. Some are right, but others will only find similar success if they work much harder than they did in high school. Yet most start out expending the same level of effort. They will talk with their classmates and convince each other that an exam covering three chapters can’t be that hard, so they put off studying and then “look over” the chapters the night before—happily dealing with any and all interruptions and distractions.
It’s not until the day of the test, as they’re confronted by a number of questions they can’t answer, that the anxiety sets in. They will sit staring at the questions and guessing at far too many answers, before turning in the test and then persuading themselves that chances are still pretty good for a B.
A lot of students continue to hold unrealistic expectations throughout the course even in the presence of mounting evidence to the contrary. A student can be going into a cumulative final exam with a solid C, but she believes she is going to ace that final and come out of the course with a high B. That may be possible in a few courses, but it’s a long shot in others and is simply not going to happen in most courses.
Unrealistic expectations present teachers with a conundrum. We want students to believe in themselves. We want them committed to doing well. But we need them to be realistic about what success demands.
So, we tell them what they will need to do. Sometimes we try to get their attention with hyperbole. Most of us no longer offer the “look to your right, look to your left. . .” admonition used when we were students. But many of us do still tell students that they need to invest two hours of study for every one hour in class. Yes, that’s true of some courses, but it is no longer true of most courses. Is it true of your courses? I recommend evidence-based answers, gently noting that unrealistic student expectations are not adjusted by equally invalid faculty declarations.
The most persuasive claims about how much work it takes to do well in the course are those delivered by other students. Teachers can control those messages a bit by sharing advice from former students on the course website, in the syllabus, or by getting permission from some carefully selected former students that students can contact if they’d like to talk with someone who has taken the course.
Beyond telling, most of us also try to make the expectations more realistic with an early assessment in the course—a first test, early paper, or some other kind of graded work. And some of us are a bit tougher on this initial work. We let the lower-than-expected grade convey the message that this is going to be harder than many students anticipated.
When trying to help students adjust their expectations, it’s good to remember how strongly students believe performance is ability based. If they get feedback (which their performance deserves), they are quick to conclude that they can’t do it, so they drop the course and perhaps later leave college. What we have them do immediately after the tough feedback is just as important as that initial expectation-correction activity. Is it another test or paper? Is it an opportunity to redo what they didn’t do well initially? Is it having a policy that removes the lowest score from the final grade calculation? Is it leading a class discussion about the value of high expectations and sharing realistic ideas about how to reach them?
I remember one faculty member telling me that he had students respond to their first disappointing test grade with a goal-setting activity. He’d start with the prompt: “So what’s a realistic amount of grade improvement for your next exam?” After that, each student created a list of what they needed to do and when they needed to do it in order to accomplish that goal. The instructor provided regular reminders and a review of the goal and accompanying activities before the next test. That exam debrief included discussion of who reached their goal and why they did or did not, followed by another round of goal setting.
Setting realistic expectations is an important life skill, and our courses can provide students a chance to learn how.
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