Pygmalion on Co-op

January 1, 2011 at 3:47 PM

Pygmalion on Co-op


Jessica Olson NU’12 and Jim Stellar


I met Jessica as a freshman while I was giving a guest lecture in a Psychology 1 class at Northeastern University.  She was pointed out to me by the instructor as someone special and interested in undergraduate research.  Jess started working almost immediately as an undergraduate student in my behavioral neuroscience research laboratory at Northeastern.  She also later worked in the laboratory of Professor Judy Hall who got her PhD degree in the Harvard laboratory of Robert Rosenthal, and that led to an interesting conversation that we decided to write about here. 


In the 1960s, Rosenthal did a very famous study that came to be known as Pygmalion in the Classroom and led to many later studies and much thinking on how teacher expectation can shape student performance.  I was in a colloquium with Professor Rosenthal many years ago when we were both at Harvard and he said to the audience something like this.

 “Do you know how long a teacher in elementary school waits when she asks a kid how much

 is 2 + 2?  The answer is about three quarters of a second.  If that teacher thinks that

student is smart, then the teacher waits about a second and a half.  The student gets

twice as much time and no one even notices.” 

Much of this work is summarized in a National Teaching and Learning Forum article that we will not repeat here.  Instead the question we want to explore is whether experiential education contains the same dynamic.  Does the expectation of real work on cooperative education, for example, lead to heightened performance of college students?


Jess, as someone who has experienced it all, including co-op, what do you think? Does expectation setting work in general?


Yes.  After researching Rosenthal’s work with expectations and reflecting back on my own experiences within experimental education settings, I believe that positive expectations heavily correlates to the success of an individual.


Rosenthal conducted an elaborate study to support this notion, but even without being versed in his data and results, I realize the importance of outside expectations simply by looking back at my past experiences. During my time as an undergraduate, I have worked with two professors assisting them with their research, running my own experiment, and delivering a presentation. I had always wanted to be acquainted with professors and become a part of their research, but I had always assumed this privilege was reserved for the honor roll, elite students. However, without even looking at my transcript or qualifications, these two professors took me under their wing and had no hesitations to immediately give me assignments and to get my opinion on their research endeavors. Having a professor, who is an expert in their field, not only believe in an eighteen-year-old undergraduate student, but also seek out their opinion, was the positive expectation that I needed to start finally believing in my own capabilities.


Expectations can alter performance not only in an academic setting, but also in the work place. The employer that hired me for my first co-op has been using Northeastern’s co-op program for over ten years now. Over the years, they have developed high expectations for the quality of students they hire into their office, and make their expectations very clear at the beginning of employment. Although their high demands quickly intimated me, I became the kind of worker they expected and required in their environment. Immediately presented with expectations can be intimidating, but when incorporated with confidence and encouragement, I believe expectation can positively influence success and personal growth.  .


Great.  Now this comment was expected, but here is the real question…why do you think this phenomenon works? 


I believe that expectations can instill a drive within an individual to want to fulfill and validate these demands. In my experience, I wanted to prove myself worthy of the time and faith that my professors and employers dedicated to me. An important factor to consider that contributes to the success of expectation setting is confidence. Confidence contributes greatly to the ability of an individual to succeed in current and future undertakings. Oftentimes, the individual’s own self-confidence might not be sufficient especially if they are in a new, unfamiliar setting. Thus, the additional confidence of others can give the necessary boost of assurance that they are capable of meeting expectations and finding success.


Another possible explanation, one which Rosenthal address in his research, is the possibility that if an individual has a preconceived conception about someone’s capabilities, then they might expect more of them and consequently treat them more favorably.  Although, I believe this explanation worked very nicely for Rosenthal’s devised experiment in the classroom, I think that in the real world that this is not so much the case. Most people do not have access to a thorough background of an individual, and although they may get a brief synopsis of their history, such as in a job interview, I think that today most people naturally have high expectations and confidence in anyone they employ or work with. Tending to rely more on personality cues and social skills than academic records, confidence is naturally imbued, but can easily be revoked. Thus, I believe that confidence is the key factor that drives the effectiveness of expectation setting.


Three quick points from us both:


1)  Emotional brain circuitry, the kind Jessica and Jim studied in rats in the laboratory, is used to make computations about what is valuable in life, what is rewarding (what BF Skinner called “reinforcement”), and how much energy to put into getting it. Much behavioral neuroscience research of the kind we did in the lab has gone into the study of reinforcers and one of the most studied is cocaine addiction. 


2) A relatively new field, noted several times before in this blog, is neuroeconomics.  Here humans make judgments about whether to purchase something while being brain-scanned. Many of the same brain areas light up that also respond to cocaine itself or the cues associated with it. One of them is the nucleus accumbens, an evolutionary older brain region and therefore unlikely to be subject of higher brain verbalizations such as those consciously made about the shape or color of some object.  Go, ahead and try to talk about your last great meal without referring to the taste, temperature, texture, etc. of the food.  Addicts often don’t know why they go back to the addiction.  The rest of us often don’t really know why we buy something except that we wanted it. 


3) The final step in this logic that we want to push is to see similar brain areas from the neroeconomics research to be involved in making the value judgments necessary in social situations about how much effort to put into a task, whether to trust the other person(s) or even feel empathy for them.  This is an even newer field (to us) – social neuroscience.  The kind of confidence that Jessica talked about comes from being trusted, being valued, and therefore feeling that value inside.  How did that decision get made?  We two could probably write another blog about that, but non-verbal communication (of which people are typically unaware) must have played a role in establishing that trust.  Of course, we are writing because that first encounter led to other successful interactions that led to our collaborative research. This is what can happen in experiential learning (e.g. an internship/co-op) and the students bring that confidence back to the classroom which enhances classical academic learning.


It makes so much sense (to us).  Why doesn’t every institution make it a priority to have such programs?

From Montessori philosophy for elementary students to mentoring college students: The value of feelings in learning success

3 Responses to “Pygmalion on Co-op”

  1. Kristen Morin says:

    “positive expectations heavily correlates to the success of an individual”

    Jess and Jim, I wholeheartedly agree with your line of thinking and I feel as though I am a living example of the validity of the above statement. Not just because of my interactions with Jim as a mentor and friend (who also took me under his wing and unknowingly enhanced my own self-belief), but also as a result of the unique educational settings I was fortunate enough to experience, Northeastern University being one of them.

    I often reflect on the tremendous influence of attending magnet schools, which I went to for the majority of my childhood, adolescence, and again in high school. These schools, unlike others I attended in transition, were different in several major ways: they paid attention to the needs of the individual, they challenged our abilities, and they sincerely believed we could exceed our own self-expectation. Essentially, they expected the best and rarely the worst from us.

    In hindsight, it seems that this principle which was fortunately emphasized during my development was pivotal not only to my academic success, but more importantly to my overall personal growth. And without receiving this positive reinforcement, I would have probably perceived myself to be unintelligent, a failure, even inept, given the clear limitations of my cognitive capacities due to ADD. Furthermore, without the employment of this positive model, I wouldn’t have been able to discover the innovation that comes with circumspection. I would have failed to appreciate my idiosyncrasies and thus failed to develop them into the strengths and assets, which they clearly are today, as a student, as a proactive and influential citizen, as a teacher and mentor, and mainly as a good-intentioned, warm-hearted, and emotionally-secure human being.

    Experiential education has been a life-changing force for me even prior to Northeastern, and in discussing the power of expectations, this blog entry really resonated with my reasons as to why. In order to graduate, we were required to complete a summer of mentored research at a state college. This expectation, although VERY intimidating, led me to taste the power of inspiration, that later bloomed into passion, and ultimately manifested itself as a motivating drive to pursue a career in research.
    So I hope to add to the validity of the point you guys are trying to make by sharing how I also discovered the role of expectations in fostering self-worth and self-confidence. And I agree that experiential education is one promising way of putting this beautiful model into practice. My decision to attend Northeastern and utilize the coop program was a means for me to perpetuate that rewarding feeling, which I can only describe as sheer zeal.

    I have no doubts after my years of studying the brain, that the reward system and the anatomical areas involved, like the nucleus accumbens, are and always have been playing an instrumental role in my success in both academic and professional settings. It’s exciting to think that we’re currently experiencing this exciting time in science, where insights like these are no longer simply isolated experimental observations, but now have the promise for application to improve humanity on an individual level.

    Incidentally enough, the absence of these programs in both higher and lower education is something I’ve recently decided to mend, or at least it’s my mission to try. I’ve heavily considered the logistic obstacles, like resources, finances, and the intimidating number of students for which to provide this service, and can’t help but wonder if particular institutions feel they are too great or improbable to overcome. I would not be surprised if the amount of revolution to the system in place was seen as bureaucratically impractical, mainly because it presents a risk.

    But there is a lot of truth in the cliche, “With great risk comes great reward”. Although it may be effortful, policy reformation IS possible and definitely worth it, given the experiences of not only Jess and myself, but countless students and adults all over the world. Its promise must be presented to the public and emphasized as a priority. Fortunately, dialogues like this one are a great and important way to set the wheels of change in motion.

  2. Jim Stellar says:

    Thanks for the long thoughtful comment. The truth is that way back when I was an undergraduate someone did the same for me and gave me a kind of confidence I need to take the next step. So, it is all one cycle of “paying it forward.”
    What we are onto with experiential education is that the mentoring can be a great start to an experience where the student does it for themselves and thus grows their own confidence. That is where the real magic starts.

  3. Jess Olson says:


    Thanks so much for commenting with such a thoughtful response. I am glad to hear that you also agree with Jim and I in regards to the power and potential of the Pygmalion research. It is definitely a powerful combination to apply the results of Pygmalion to the field of experiential learning. And I think Jim made a great point saying that mentoring is a great way to help these two areas come together. Mentoring is a powerful way for a student to not only gain self-confidence in their abilities, but to also gain experience not accessible in a classroom. I think mentoring and discussions like this one are a great way to spread the ideas of Pygmalion and the rewards of experiential learning.
    — Jess

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