Improve Your College Experience by Managing Your Expectations
June 19th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
Your college course has begun and now the clock is ticking. You have assignments to complete, activities to be involved in, and deadlines to meet. It’s a system that seems manageable for the most part, and you probably have a pre-determined idea of how the learning process works. As long as you are actively involved, frequently participate, and put in your best effort, you’ll get a “decent” grade. But what happens when you don’t get what you expect, from your instructor, the school, or your class? How do you react?
One of the challenges that students often face involves the unwritten expectations they hold about the college experience. Rarely does an instructor ask their students to discuss their expectations because college is about compliance to rules, procedures, and policies. And yet there is a valid reason for understanding and managing the expectations students have as their continued involvement depends upon it. In fact, there is a scientific explanation about expectations and how it can influence behavior. Perhaps this would be a good time to assess the reality of your college experience and how it aligns with your expectations, so that you can address any variances now – before it disrupts your progress.
The Science of Expectations
Dr. David Rock, executive director of the NeuroLeadership Institute and author of Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, has written an article for Psychology Today that helps to explain the science of expectations. Rock includes references to brain research conducted by Professor Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University in England, specifically studies that addressed expectations by establishing a link between dopamine and the brain's reward circuitry.
Here are highlights from Rock’s article and the related research by Schultz:
• There is a neurological basis why expectations are so powerful in their influence that when they are not met, adults feel a sense of pain.
• The human brain is attuned to expectations because it is associated with rewards. If the expectation or expected outcome is not met, there is a resulting consequence that is felt because of a fluctuation in the brain’s dopamine levels.
• Dopamine cells are found deep inside the brain and they react in response to anticipated rewards. For example, Schultz found that “when a cue from the environment indicates you're going to get a reward, dopamine releases in response. Unexpected rewards release more dopamine than expected ones.”
• In contrast, if you are expecting a reward or particular outcome and you don’t get what you expect, the brain’s dopamine levels fall off dramatically and as a result, you experience a very strong feeling that is similar to physical pain.
Rock explains that “managing your expectations is also an opportunity to be more proactive in the way you regulate emotions, setting the scene for good performance rather than just sorting out problems when things go wrong.” By recognizing, managing, and controlling expectations you will not only create a better college experience for yourself, you will also avoid the resulting neurological consequence of painful shifts in dopamine levels.
The Source of Students’ Expectations
The subject of students’ expectations seems very broad in nature; however, most expectations (or those that are often not satisfactorily met) involve the feedback and grading process. In the New York Times article, Student Expectations Seen as Causing Grade Disputes, there were perspectives shared by several educators. Marshall Grossman, professor at the University of Maryland, has developed his own expectation that complaints will be received when he returns graded papers to students. Grossman stated that “many students come in with the conviction that they’ve worked hard and deserve a higher mark,” and he “attributes those complaints to his students’ sense of entitlement.” This is a statement I also hear from students on a regular basis; that hard work should account for receipt of a good grade.
James Hogge, associate dean of the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University, also confirmed that “students often confuse the level of effort with the quality of work, and there is a mentality in students that if they work hard, they deserve a high grade.” Aaron M. Brower, vice provost for teaching and learning at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, believes that “if students developed a genuine interest in their field, grades would take a back seat, and holistic and intrinsically motivated learning could take place.” That does occur once students have learned to recognize and manage their expectations to the reality of academic work; however, many students who experience a negative reaction or outcome may become discouraged and quit, rather than try to adjust their expectations as needed.
A study was conducted that addressed this issue further, titled Self-Entitled College Students: Contributions of Personality, Parenting, and Motivational Factors. Ellen Greenberger, lead author of the study, found that one explanation for the sense of entitlement that’s common among college students “could be related to increased parental pressure, competition among peers and family members and a heightened sense of achievement anxiety.” From an educator’s perspective, those are variables that would be difficult (at best) to attempt to assess as part of the process of getting to know the students. Instead, most instructors believe students will adjust and adapt their expectations as needed, based upon what’s required of them.
As part of this same study, a group of students were asked to complete a survey that asked them to share their perspective about hard work and grades. The results of this survey found an overwhelming majority of these students believe that if they were to offer an explanation to their instructor about the amount of effort put into their work, it would be factored into the final grade. The study concluded by stating that “if students learn that they can get a high grade with minimal effort, or that trivial excuses often result in special favors (e.g., permission to postpone an exam), we should not be surprised if they develop entitled attitudes.” This is a reminder that circumstances influence the continuation of expectations, and it becomes important to know if they are realistic or unrealistically based so they can be adjusted and managed as needed to maintain a positive experience.
How Students Can Manage Expectations
Thomas E. Miller, author of Promoting Reasonable Expectations, addressed the issue of unreasonable expectations and believes that one of the reasons this occurs is that “some students expect to be able to handle the academic responsibilities of college in a way similar to how they did in high school.” The first year of college is always challenging for students, whether they went straight from high school into college or waited some time afterwards, once they have already established their career. The high school experience establishes an underlying belief about the educational process and college students quickly learn that the reality is something different.
Claire E. Weinstein, Ph.D., David R. Palmer, Ph.D., and Gary R. Hanson, Ph.D. of the University of Texas at Austin, developed a model called PEEK or Perceptions, Expectations, Emotions and Knowledge about college in response to this issue. Through their research, they found that “many academically able and gifted students drop out of college during their first year because of personal, social, or academic expectations that are not fulfilled or that are inaccurate.” Students’ expectations have a direct impact on their overall academic performance. The PEEK model can be purchased by schools and given to students as a self-reporting instrument that allows them to gain a greater awareness of their expectations and beliefs.
Since most students will likely not have access to this self-assessment tool, how can they begin to manage their expectations? The answer is to use a self-evaluation method. Here are questions you can ask yourself to assess your perception and beliefs, for the purpose of managing your expectations:
• What do I believe is required for my involvement in the learning process?
• What do I expect to receive as a result of my hard work?
• What do I expect from my instructors and my school?
• Have I read all of the course materials and school documents, so that I am fully aware of the instructor’s expectations and the school policies?
• How are grades determined?
• What does personal responsibility mean to me?
• How do I feel right now about my involvement in the class?
• Are my educational needs being met now?
An Instructor’s Advice for Students
Once you are aware of your expectations, through a process of self-evaluation, then you can begin to address any discrepancies. The most important advice I can offer you is this: your grades are earned. The effort you put into your class will result in personal satisfaction for a job well done; however, it will not guarantee a perfect grade. There are many components to your grades, from subject matter knowledge to critical analysis, and effort will be a driving force that helps you stay motivated. It may not feel fair and it may not be what you expected to receive; however, every assignment you complete allows you to learn something – whether it is new knowledge, improved skill sets, or increased academic capabilities.
In addition, what you hold as your expectation for involvement in class may not align with the school or your instructor’s expectations. There are times that you are going to be challenged by the work and feel challenged by the feedback you’ve received, and that’s also part of the process of learning. Start with the expectation that you are going to have to work hard, manage your time, and put in the effort. The reward will be self-improvement, acquired knowledge, transformation as a lifelong learner, and along the way you will earn some stellar (and possibly some less than stellar) grades.
Some of the most difficult expectations students must overcome are those that involve what they expect others to do. The best approach to take is to assume that the learning process is up to you and expect to receive feedback about your progress. Be open communication with your instructor and ask questions along the way. You’ve made an important decision to return to school so now is the time to check in with yourself to determine what you expect to receive. If the goal is to learn, you’ll accept the challenges, rewards, and outcomes as part of your realistic expectations.
Photo © Owain Kirby/Illustration Works/Corbis