Students’ Self-Fulfilling Prophecies: Five Ways to Break the Cycle

student studying in library

Faculty are often confronted by the ghosts of educators past. In the writing intensive courses I teach, those ghosts usually manifest in one phrase: “I’m a bad writer.” This embarrassed confession bespeaks an educational experience fraught with negative beliefs and expectations, not just about their writing but about their ability to succeed in general. The phrase becomes an inescapable prophecy lurking in every writing assignment prompt. “I know I’m not going to do well on this assignment,” they explain to themselves, “I’m just not a good writer.” They do not seek help, ask questions, organize their notes, or create outlines and rough drafts of their essays because the outcome is a foregone conclusion. And of course, because they do not do these vital steps in the writing process, they receive poor grades—and the prophecy is fulfilled. From the front of the classroom, however, I can see the reality: the student is not a “bad” writer but merely under-practiced and under-prepared. But how can I help students to see it for themselves? How can I support students to move beyond negative past experiences and make positive ones? How can I empower students to break these cycles?

  1. Provide opportunities for metacognition. Students who are caught in a negative self-fulfilling prophecy cycle often lack the ability to see the situation clearly. They explain and justify their actions, which only serve to perpetuate negative cycles. Faculty can offer small opportunities like a one-minute paper or longer exercises such as reflection essays at the end of a unit. You may also have them do a SWOT analysis of their current situation and talk about what they put into each quadrant. Providing students with opportunities to think about their thinking allows them to step outside the course and examine their approach to the learning situation.
  2. Flip roles. Students in a negative cycle often see themselves as frustrated victims who play a passive role in their academic experiences. To move students to active participants in their education, faculty members can give students positions of leadership. One approach is to have students contribute to a study guide that everyone may use on an upcoming exam. The students take on the role of “expert,” reinforcing that they have something valuable to contribute. Another approach is to have students take on the role of “helper;” writing a reflection about their strengths in the course and how they can use those strengths to help their peers. Creating leadership roles empower students who feel disenfranchised.
  3. Create check-in points. Check-in points hold students—and help you to hold students—accountable for their progress. Students may not appreciate it, but accountability provides small “wins” that slowly break down the negative self-fulfilling prophecy cycle over time. Some examples for check-in points include asking for drafts on longer projects and creating low-stakes or ungraded quizzes. Faculty can also implement an “exit ticket” system where students must submit a question, comment, answer, or concern before exiting the classroom. These check-in points allow you to intervene in the learning process and dispel negative or unproductive approaches.
  4. Build in moments for dialogue. Often, our moments of dialogue with students happen during class discussions or through graded assessments. Students in a negative cycle are often disinclined to participate in these discussions or engage in conversations about their work, which means that they are not reaching out for help and not improving their approach. Building moments for open dialogue with students allows you to bring these quietly suffering students into the conversation. Using informal surveys, faculty-student conferences, or “muddiest moment” reflections offer opportunities to interrupt a negative cycle. I often use a “start, stop, and stay doing” survey that asks students to reflect not only on the class, but what they can start, stop, and stay doing.
  5. Point it out. Perhaps the most obvious way to help students recognize and disrupt a negative self-fulfilling prophecy cycle is to make them aware of it. We would like our attempts to encourage metacognition and to quietly empower them from behind the scenes to be successful, but sometimes a direct approach is the most effective. Ask students to plot out their approach to an assignment on a timeline and have them reflect on each step. Where did they need help, where did they ask for help, how did they ask for help, and why did they choose this approach? As you walk through their approach, you can show them places where their process could be improved.

Self-fulfilling prophecies are usually negative, but they do not have be. Faculty members play a vital role in helping students to replace their negative prophecies with ones that reinforce successful strategies—and finally exercise those ghosts of educators past.

Dr. Melissa Wehler serves as the Dean of Humanities and Sciences at Central Penn College. She enjoys teaching classes about writing, literature, culture, and film and has won two teaching awards for her student-centered approach.