The Pygmalion and Golem effects: connections with principled teaching and student motivation


Joanne Yatvin used the original study of Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson to explain the “Pygmalion Effect’s” divergence with the modern educational concept of “high expectations.” Their research showed that, when teachers believed some students were considered as “spurters” in academic performance, they acted towards them in ways that made them more supportive, which resulted in significant intellectual and academic improvements, as well as better long-term learning and classroom behaviors. Yatvin asserted the Pygmalion study did not differentiate classrooms and teaching and did not concentrate on individualized training and longer classes, which “high expectations” believers promote nowadays. Dennis Reynolds tested both the Pygmalion and Golem effects on 351 undergraduate students. The Golem is the reverse of Pygmalion. Findings proved the Pygmalion and Golem effects. The essay relates these articles to Brown’s 12 teaching principles. Positive teacher beliefs in student capabilities improved student motivation through teacher-based actions that increase student self-confidence, meaningful learning, strategic investment, and anticipation of reward.

Believing students can perform well in class has a significant positive impact on self-confidence, which motivates learning. Brown asserted that self-confidence facilitates the completion of tasks. As Yatvin noted, if teachers believed their students were special, they treated them as special, which subsequently improved their self-confidence in learning. Agreeing with Yatvin, Reynolds underlined how positive teacher beliefs in their students’ capabilities were fundamental to student confidence too. Self-confidence may shape student learning, probably due to them being aware that they can, so they do everything to prove they can do well in class.

The attitudes and supporting activities of these teachers in Rosenthal and Jacobson’s and Reynold’s studies can be related to the principle of meaningful learning too. When teachers believe in their students’ abilities and potential, they relate to them emotionally and academically better through approving facial expressions and gestures, as well as supportive class materials and activities. In addition, if Pygmalion works, the Golem effect works well in hampering learning. Instructors of poor performers in Reynold’s study asserted that these students did worse, despite not knowing how other classes fared. They already expected the worst, which could have influenced their treatment of their students and teaching strategies. The Pygmalion effect works successfully through changes in teacher attitudes and behaviors towards spurters, which enhance self-confidence and drive motivation, while the Golem effect does the opposite.

Besides meaningful learning, these studies signify strategic investment, which can heighten motivation too. In the experiment of Reynolds, participants of the smart group did worse in non-cognitive tasks than those labeled as bad performers (Reynolds 481). “Smart” students applied strategic investments in their time and energy, which improved performance in cognitive tasks. Strategic investment, however, may begin with knowing they can, because teachers believe in it too, thereby motivating learning.

Finally, anticipation of reward is an important means of boosting motivation. If teachers are aware of spurters, they will most likely want to invest on them than on poor performers. They might subconsciously or directly think about providing more time and resources to spurters, since they had more chances of success. Seeing these positive teaching behaviors can motivate students for they are external rewards. If they confirm their teachers’ beliefs in them, they can attain the rewards of reassuring gestures and being the priority when it came to limited class resources.

Student self-confidence, meaningful learning, strategic investment, and anticipation of reward can enhance student motivation. Optimistic teacher beliefs in student capabilities encourage students to likewise believe in themselves and act proactively to support positive teacher and self-beliefs. Gaining the rewards of appreciative behaviors and supportive actions similarly motivates students. Thus, these studies underscore that, in line with Brown’s principled teaching, the Pygmalion effect should be promoted, while the Golem effect must be curbed and prevented, to develop student motivation.

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  1. Brown, H. Douglas. Teaching by Principles:  An Interactive Approach to Language Pedagogy. 2nd ed. Addison-Wesley Longman, 2001.
  2. Reynolds, Dennis. “Restraining Golem and Harnessing Pygmalion in the Classroom: A Laboratory Study of Managerial Expectations and Task Design.” Academy of Management Learning & Education, vol. 6, no. 4, 2007, pp. 475– 483, Accessed 21 Nov. 2016.
  3. Yatvin, Joanne. “Rediscovering the ‘Pygmalion Effect’.” Education Week, 23 Oct. 2009,… 10/28/2009. Accessed 21 Nov. 2016.
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