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Avoiding Low Expectation Bias

The Breakdown

Equity, Access, and Rigor Can and Should Co-Exist

One of the arguments made by faculty who are dubious of equity promoting pedagogies, such as increasing low stakes assessment, is that they compromise course rigor.  Not only can rigor be maintained while engaging in equity-promoting pedagogical and curricular practices, it should be maintained.  

Decades of research point to the phenomenon of Desirable Difficulty, which shows that the very act of completing challenging assignments and assessments improves learning (Bjork, 1994; Marsh & Butler, 2014).  Furthermore, students are negatively impacted by low expectations, both by the effect it has in the efforts put in by instructors themselves, but also in the message it communicates to students that they are not capable of challenging work (Rattan et al., 2012).  In fact, because teacher expectations are often formed well in advance of their experiences of student performance and are often predicated on characteristics such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, they are also a significant contributor to equity gaps in course level performance (McKown & Weinstein, 2008).  To borrow and extend a famous quote “the soft bigotry of low expectations” isn’t so soft.


  1. Have high expectations of student performance, and do your best to maintain these high expectations uniformly for all students

Articulate these high expectations at the start of a course and before major assessments.

  1. Make it clear to students why challenging and difficult work is good for their learning.

Too often students assume that faculty simply “like” the idea of a difficult class or revel in the suffering of their students.

  1. And finally, if we are to have high expectations for our students and present them with challenging work, then we must also make sure we are giving them the support they need to be successful

Good teaching isn’t simply the considered presentation of information for inquisitive minds, regardless of how curated it may be.  Teaching means figuring out how to engage our students and determining which of our actions is leading to demonstrable learning.

NOTE: One question I ask of faculty who are concerned about increasing low stakes assessment while maintaining rigor is "what do you mean by rigor?" This is a fundamental question that often goes unexplored. I then provide an example. If you take the midterm you currently give and simply split it in two, so that you now have two “lower stake” midterms instead of one, and no other changes to questions of any kind, have you reduced rigor in any meaningful way? If students still have to demonstrate the same knowledge to get the same correct answers, but now in a context that has reduced the impact of that single midterm, has rigor been meaningfully reduced? If the answer is yes because students had to study less for a midterm half as long, I would argue that such a definition of rigor is a rather superficial one.

Supporting Literature

Bjork, R.A. (1994). Institutional Impediments to Effective Training. In D Druckman and R. A. Bjork (Eds.), Learning, Remembering, Believing: Enhancing Individual and Team Performance.(pp. 295-306). National Academy Press.

Marsh, E. J., & Butler, A. C. (2014). Memory in educational settings. In D. Reisberg (Ed.) Oxford Handbook of Cognitive Psychology, 299–317.

McKown, C., & Weinstein, R. S. (2008). Teacher expectations, classroom climate, and the achievement gap. Journal of School Psychology, 46(3), 235-261.

Rattan, A., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). “It’s ok—Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 731-737.