Greater Expectations: Teachers’ Perceptions of their Students

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Teachers’ expectations are inferences made about the future behavior or achievement of a student based on what the teacher knows about the student at the given moment.1 These inferences can eventually cause a student to behave or achieve in ways that confirm the teacher’s expectations. In the wonderfully complex and dynamic world of education, teachers’ perceptions and expectations of their students can have an enormous impact on the quality of teaching each student receives. It can also have a profound influence on the ultimate success or failure each student will experience in private lessons.

Students labeled as low achievers typically receive differential treatment in the classroom. Teachers usually call on these students less often and wait a shorter time for them to respond than they do for high achievers. Teachers also readily give low achievers answers rather than try to improve their poor responses, and are less likely to praise their successes but more likely to criticize their failures.2 A common characteristic of highly effective teachers, however, is their refusal to change their attitudes or expectations for students, regardless of the students’ race or ethnicity, life experiences and interests, or socio-economic status.3 In this context, the “answer” would seem to be to have greater expectations for all students. While Asa Hilliard states, “Our current ceiling for students is really much closer to where the floor ought to be,”4 the other side of the coin is just as true; positive expectations can be carried to the point of distorting reality. Students do typically show large individual differences in learning ability, which cannot be eliminated simply through wishful thinking. Teachers only frustrate both themselves and their students when they set unrealistically high standards that students cannot attain.

Since the previous research cited has all been done with classroom instruction, this study attempted to determine if these same findings were applicable to the private music lesson. While applied instruction has always played a significant part in music education, relatively little research has been done to investigate this distinctive instructional model. As opposed to classroom teaching, one-on-one instruction allows the teacher and student to develop a unique relationship, often formed over many years. There are several ways one could view this master-apprentice model of education, but basically, what teachers do in the private lesson is determined by what they know (i.e., perceive) about: (a) the student, (b) the music (subject matter), and (c) teaching strategies. The goal of this study was to investigate the link between what teachers know about the student and the resulting teaching strategies employed in the lesson. In other words, the purpose of this study was to determine how novice and experienced piano teachers’ perceptions and expectations of their students influence their teaching. Specifically, the study sought to address the following questions:

1. What factors, characteristics, and/or student behaviors influence the teacher’s perception of the student?

2. What role do these perceptions have on the formation of expectations for students?

a. How does this vary between novice and experienced teachers?

b. How does this vary between “talented” and “less proficient” students?

3. What teacher behaviors (interactions) are employed by novice and ex perienced teachers, and to what degree?

a. What effect or impact do these interactions have on the students’ success or failure in the piano lesson?

b. Do teachers’ behaviors match their expectations for their students? To what degree?

c. Does the teacher’s behavior vary depending on the student (talented vs. less proficient)?

4. How does the teacher’s knowledge (or perception) of the student affect his/her:

a. Impressions of the student’s quality?

b. Teaching intervention choices?

c. Expectations for student’s immediate success in piano?

d. Expectations for student’s long-term success (goal for student trajectory— optimizing the zone of proximal development)?

e. Choice of literature?

f. Style of interaction (affinity for student, attempts to motivate student, etc.)?

Because little research has been conducted involving beginning piano students, this study focused on teachers who specialize in working with younger students. The researcher compared novice and experienced piano teachers working with both a “talented” and “less-proficient” student. An experienced teacher was defined as one who met the following criteria: (a) extensive, successful experience (at least 10 years) teaching pre-college students; (b) an established reputation in their respective cities and surrounding areas as an excellent teacher (i.e., regional and/or national recognition by peers);, and (c) an active member and participant in professional music organizations. Novice teachers were defined as piano teachers with less than three years of teaching experience and less than six years of collegiate coursework in piano and/or piano pedagogy, with no graduate-level coursework. The students selected for this study were chosen by their teacher; they had to be beginning students between the ages of 7 and 13 with less than four years of piano instruction. The teachers selected their “most talented” or “most promising” beginner along with another student who they believed to be “less talented” or “less proficient.” There were no guidelines given to define talent: it was the teachers’ perception of talented and non-talented.

Each teacher filled out a survey and was interviewed. They were then videotaped teaching four lessons with each student: eight lessons were videotaped for each teacher, sixty-four lessons total for the study (and thirty-eight hours of videotape!). The videotapes were reviewed by a group of observers to catalogue what Dr. Richard Kennell has described as “scaffolding techniques.”5 Kennell’s study, which dealt with all instruments in college-level private lessons, identified three general scaffolding techniques, or teaching strategies: mark critical features, reduce degrees of freedom, and demonstration. For this study, these three categories formed the basis of identifying 20 specific teacher-student behaviors applicable to beginning-level piano lessons (see Table 1). Whatever didn’t fit into these three categories became the infamous “other.”

Based on the interviews and observations, seventy-six distinct student characteristics affecting a teacher’s perception were identified. These characteristics included physical, cognitive, and behavioral characteristics (see Table 2 for a partial list). These characteristics were then classified as student-independent—naturally occurring characteristics outside the control or power of the student (those characteristics the students cannot change)—and student-dependent—learned behaviors that are within the control or power of the student to change, modify, or develop (see Table 3 for a partial list).

Of the seventy-six behaviors identified, the one found to be of greatest significance was the student’s attitude. The vast majority of traits given by both teacher groups, when asked to describe their ideal student, related to the student’s attitude toward music and toward the teacher. This implies that anyone who has talent or is musically inclined (the other trait identified) can be an ideal student if his or her attitude is aligned positively with the teacher’s. It also seems that a student’s attitude is a bigger factor in how a teacher perceives or labels a student than the student-independent characteristics—those things outside the student’s control. In other words, the student is in control of the teacher’s perception. The student can determine or at least strongly influence the teacher’s perception of himself through the attitude he displays, and as previously mentioned, those perceived as high achievers get preferential treatment.

While the formation of expectations is based in part upon the teacher’s perceptions of students—as well as their own background, their beliefs, and the goals they set for themselves and their students—it is the resulting teacher interactions that ultimately influence a child’s success or failure in the lessons. Expectations do matter, but actions resulting from those expectations are equally important.6

Based on the researcher’s observations and the independent observers’ critique, students labeled by the teacher as talented do in fact receive preferential instruction. Talented students cover more details and more concepts, as well as more advanced concepts. They receive the benefit of a greater variety of scaffolding strategies and more meaningful interaction with the teacher. These students work more with interpretation and expression, moving beyond simply reading the notes, and are given more opportunities for performance. Even the teachers are more actively involved in these lessons. One teacher commented in the interview, “I jump and dance and scream; I make [the student] get up and dance with me.”7

Less proficient students, however, spend more time in their lessons on the basics of rhythm and note reading. Review and repetition are the predominant teaching strategies, and the lessons typically move at a slower pace. The student talks less, and the teacher asks fewer questions. These students received less exciting instruction, fewer opportunities to learn new material or new concepts, less emphasis on meaning and conceptualization, and more rote drill and repetition.


Scaffolding Techniques in the Beginning Piano Lesson

Category  Specific Behaviors
A. Mark Critical Features

1. Verbally highlights a specific item in the music

2. Physically highlights (points to, etc.) a specific item in the music

3. Written highlight; teacher marks a specific item in the music

4. Teacher questions students; asks student to identify a specific item in the music

B. Reduce Degrees of Freedom 

1. Student repeats a specific section of a piece

2. Student plays hands separately

3. Student plays at a slower tempo

4. Student sings but does not play

5. Student taps, claps, etc. the rhythm

6. Student uses physical motions,

gestures, etc., but does not play

7. Student names notes (verbal)

8. Student counts out loud

C. Demonstration

1. Teacher plays for the student

2. Teacher models aurally (sings, hums, etc.)

3. Teacher gestures, or uses other physical motions

4. Teacher uses other source for model (recording, etc.)

D. Other Behaviors

1. Teacher plays accompaniment part with student (or uses MIDI disk and/or other pre-recorded accompaniments)

2. Teacher corrects technique/posture (physically touches student, moves student’s hand, etc.)

3. Student experiments, creates at the key- board (improvisatory activties)

4. Student is off the bench or away from the keyboard engaged in other activities (doing written theory work, moving     to the beat, etc.)




Student Characteristics

Fast fingers Smart; bright Motivated  Involved/committed parents
Great ear Concentrates and follows through Inquisitive Organized
Lack of coordination Inability to retain information Disrespectful Performs well under pressure










The problem with these teaching strategies is that they lead to unrewarding musical experiences, which can cause the student to invest less interest and involvement, and in turn further delay his or her development. The teacher’s response typically is to provide even more review and repetition and fewer opportunities to learn new material or concepts, which only exacerbates a downward spiral toward a lack of motivation and student failure.

The talented students, however, find their lessons to be enjoyable and rewarding. This positive musical experience motivates them to practice more and, as a result, receive more stimulating instruction at subsequent lessons. This continues to create rewarding musical experiences and further develops their musical abilities.

There is some evidence to suggest that the performance of less proficient students improves when (a) they begin to tackle more challenging pieces; (b) when the lesson format is altered to include a greater variety of activities; or (c) when the teacher employs more variety in their teaching interactions (more scaffolding techniques). Any one of these can be a powerful tool to increase both teacher and student performance.

Three important keys to a student’s success were identified through this study. The first is the choice of literature. Students are naturally more interested in learning a piece

that is appealing to them. Stanovich noted that students who enjoy reading will read more, which in turn continues to improve their reading ability.8 This same principle applies to piano: any little success increases motivation, which can lead to greater success and, consequently, greater motivation. A second key is asking questions. This forces the student to think for himself and actively engages the student in the lesson. As one teacher noted, “the student is going to remember things if they discovered it better than if the teacher said it.”9 Asking the right questions can reaffirm to the student the meaning and purpose of the activity or lesson.



Student-Dependant/Independent Characteristics

Student-Independent Student Dependent
Talent/Natural Ability Work Ethic/Practice Habits
Skill level/Physical Maturity Desire
Student’s Background Attitude
Age Involvement/Attention in Lesson
Parent/Home Environment Progress
Intelligence/IQ Cooperation/Obedience
Physical Limitations Commitment
Emotions/Needs Other Activities/Interests
Memory Organization
Motivation Verbal Response
























Finally, one additional significant finding was the importance of the parent. This came up several times throughout the study, including the teachers’ descriptions of their “best students.” This reinforces the idea that the applied lesson is not simply a two-way interaction between student and teacher, but a three-way triangle including the parent. Since the lesson is centered around the music, how the teacher connects with the student is either through the music itself, their perception of the student, or the parent (see Figure 1). All four factors directly impact the student’s ultimate success or failure in the applied lesson.

FIGURE 1. Factors Affecting Student Success or Failure

Image647 opt





















Budai, William. Teachers’ Perception and Expectation of Students: Influences on Teaching and Student Success in the Applied Piano Lesson. PhD diss., Univer- sity of Oklahoma, 2005.

Cotton, Kathleen. Expectations and Student Outcomes. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, 1989.

Goldenberg, Claude. “The Limits of Expectations: A Case for Case Knowledge about Teacher Expectancy Effects.” American Educational Research Journal 29 (1992): 517-544.

Good, Thomas and Jere Brophy. Looking into Classrooms. New York: Longman, 1997.

Hilliard, Asa. “Do We Have the Will To Educate All Children?” Educational Leadership 49 (1991): 2-3.

Kennell, Richard. Three Teacher Scaffolding Strategies in College Applied Music Instruction. Ph. D diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1989.

Omotani, Barbara and Les Omotani. “Expect the Best.” Executive Educator 18 (1996): 27.

Stanovich, Keith. “Matthew Effects in Reading: Some Consequences of Individual Differences in the Acquisition of Literacy.” Reading Research Quarterly 21 (1986): 360-407. 



1Good and Brophy, Looking into Classrooms, 79.

2Cotton, Expectations, 8.

3Omotani and Omotani, “Expect the Best,” 27.

4Hilliard, “Do We Have the Will,” 2.

5Kennell, Three Teacher Scaffolding Strategies, 2.

6Goldenberg, “The Limits of Expectations,” 517.

7Budai, Teachers’ Perception, 102.

8Stanovich, “Matthew Effects,” 360.

9Budai, Teachers’ Perception, 103.

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Last modified on Monday, 01/10/2018

William H. Budai

Dr. William Budai, NCTM, is associate professor of piano and associate dean of the School of Music at Campbellsville University (Kentucky), where he teaches both undergraduate and graduate piano and piano pedagogy classes, as well as class piano and music literature.  Previously, he taught piano at Indiana University/Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) and served as the executive director of the IUPUI Music Academy, a community music school affiliated with IUPUI.  He holds degrees from Central Michigan University, Bowling Green State University, and the University of Oklahoma, where he studied piano with Dr. Edward Gates and piano pedagogy with Dr. Jane Magrath and Dr. Reid Alexander.


Dr. Budai remains active in the field of piano pedagogy with presentations and workshops at numerous conferences, including the College Music Society’s National Conference, the Kentucky Music Teachers Association State Conference, and the Indiana Music Teachers Association State Conference.  He is currently president of the Kentucky Music Teachers Association.  Dr. Budai performs frequently as a collaborative artist with the faculty of Campbellsville University and serves as music director and pianist for his local church.  In addition, Dr. Budai has worked several summers at Interlochen Arts Camp, teaching group piano and piano ensemble classes.

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