Revista Electrónica de Investigación Educativa

Vol. 9, No. 1, 2007

The Study of Expectations at the University: Analysis of
Empirical Works and Future Lines of Investigation

María del Carmen Pichardo Martínez   (1)

Ana Belén García Berbén   (2)

Jesús De la Fuente Arias   (2)

Fernando Justicia Justicia   (1)

1  Facultad de Ciencias de la Educación
Universidad de Granada

Campus de Cartuja s/n, 18071
Granada, España

2  Facultad de Humanidades y Ciencias de la Educación
Universidad de Almería

Carretera Sacramento s/n
La Cañada de San Urbano, 04120
Almería, España

(Received: March 8, 2006; accepted for publishing: January 9, 2007)



The study of expectations in education has changed in recent years. The new theoretical framework is strongly influenced by research in the field of business, and has attracted increased interest in university expectations as a variable to consider for improving academic quality and student satisfaction. The increase in studies to find out what is expected and what students want from the university, causes the need to analyze the different lines of research pursued in this regard as well as the most significant findings; so as to, starting from here, extract the conclusions that would help develop and move ahead in the study of university students’ expectations. The objective of this work is to make this analysis and provide conclusions that would help establish new lines of research on this topic of study.

Key words: Higher education, college student.



Rosenthal and Rubin (1978) were the pioneers in studying the influence which some people’s expectations have on others. In psychology and education these influences are called the Pygmalion effect or self-fulfilling prophecy (also called self-realization, a concept that comes from the English term self-fulfilling prophecy). This effect or prophecy consists in the fact that the expectations one person has about another become reality, and this is defined as the process through which a person’s beliefs and expectations affect his* behavior, causing others to respond in a way that confirms these expectations (Merton quoted in Buron, 1995).

Most of the research done to demonstrate so-called self-fulfilling prophecy has been developed in schools, and focuses on the influence of teachers’ expectations concerning students. Several authors have published reviews of studies on this topic, and have concluded that indeed, the Pygmalion effect is present in the classroom, and is an important phenomenon to consider there (Rosenthal and Rubin, 1978; Brophy, 1983). However, although many of these results may be reflected in higher education, at the high-school level there is a large gap in existing research on the effect of teachers’ expectations. Therefore, the evidence and conclusions found in these studies should be viewed with, and should be adapted as far as possible, to the characteristics of university classrooms.

Traditionally teachers have been taken as people who influence students by means of their expectations, without even considering the influence of those expectations on the learners (Juanas and Rodriguez, 2004). Proof of this are the few studies devoted to this subject.

From another point of view, Buron (1995) considers the student as a “prophet,” in the sense that the prophecy may also be given by the students to the teachers. However, the author clarifies that the influence of teachers will be stronger than that of the students.

Justicia (1996) also establishes that there exists an influence coming from the students toward the teachers. When he explains the beliefs of teachers and their authority over students, he affirms that “teachers (...) are concerned about their image, the perception of others (colleagues, parents and students) about their professional competency, and therefore, act in such a way as to create a favorable impression” (p.94).

It now appears that the influence of students’ expectations concerning teachers and the teaching/learning process is growing. This stems from the actions universities are carrying out to establish a system for assessing the quality of the service they offer. Among the aspects evaluated is the work of teaching, and in this, one of the sources of information carrying more weight is the students. Having this in mind, we can say that teachers are more influenced by what students think about them and their performance, and are more concerned with learners’ perceptions and expectations.

Buron (1995) has studied the process by which the expectations of some people influence others, and has established three fundamental stages that occur in the development of prophecy:

  1. Expectations or prophecy are formed. As an example there can be pointed out two expectations that occur in the university setting; one refers to the influence of teachers on students: “It is impossible to pass such-and-such subject, with that teacher”, and another in a reverse situation: “With the courses of that that degree program, it is impossible to give classes.”

  2. The means for implementing the expectations are established. For example, not using all the available resources, or being less involved, both in the course programming and design and in students’ planning and study. This may be because it is perceived that the probability of teaching or learning is considered minimal.

  3. The confirmation of the expectations is described. Making less of an effort than in the past causes negative results and the prophecy is fulfilled; thus, expectations become more convincing.

This whole process depends on the individual’s experience. Each person perceives reality in a different way, paying attention to some aspects and not to others. These aspects are related to the person’s preferences, ideology, criteria and the hierarchy of individual values, among other things (Buron, 1995).

The expectations of high school students have been studied, using a recent theoretical model, and influenced by areas outside education. The aim of this paper is to provide an analysis of this new framework for the study of expectations, and to offer the findings of a large part of the international and national research done so far in this new field of study.


University students’ expectations

Currently there is a growing interest in the expectations that university students have, both initially and during their studies. The research objectives pursued in this area can be grouped into two types: those that study the expectations of students intending to find out what to expect from the university in general, and those that study the expectations of students concerning specific components of the teaching and learning process.

Unlike traditional research in the field of teaching and learning, in the eighties the study of expectations adopted as a reference model the one used in the business or commercial world. This triggered the beginning of a new perspective in the study of expectations in education.

Basically, work done in the field of business, like that Prakash (1984), were the first steps in shaping the new perspective. The aim of the authors focused on the importance which expectations have in client or consumer satisfaction. In the same context, Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry (1990, 1993) have proposed the Conceptual Model of Customer Expectations of Service, with which they attempt to show the distinction between customer satisfaction and the evaluation of service quality. The conclusions of these works are, among other things, that expectations are related to subsequent satisfaction with service quality, and to studying and considering customer expectations so as to help ensure that quality.

Based on these two lines of inquiry, different higher-education specialists have transferred the models, instruments and findings,and used them in the study of the university’s quality of service. This new perspective has led to having a concept of expectations broader than the one traditionally used; furthermore, it has encouraged a growing number of studies aimed at understanding and identifying the expectations of university students, as a take-off point for improving the quality of service offered by institutions of higher education (Hill, 1995, Narasimhan, 1997; Sander, Yanhong and Kaye, 1999, Stevenson, King and Coats, 2000, Keogh and Stevenson, 2001; Darlaston-Jones, Pike, Cohen, Young, and Haunold Drew, 2003).

To understand the influence of the business and commercial sector’s model on the field of higher education, it is necessary to point out three fundamental changes that have occurred:

  1. Approach adopted. Education has traditionally focused its studies from the inside out, as long as it was known from the inside what students need and what they expected from education. The influence of the studies in the business sector has changed the direction of research in this field, so that now it goes from the outside in, with the expectations taken (from the outside) and considered for the improvement of education (Sander et al., 2000).

  2. Type of expectations studied. Today, expectations are not only studied in terms of what the students expect (self-fulfilling prophecy), and what can be expressed through two types of expectations, which the theorists of the new perspective denominate as predictive (what is most likely to happen) and normative (what is expected, from experience in other similar situations). Now, there are also added what the students prefer or want, termed as ideal expectations (Sander et al., 2000).

  3. Concept of agents involved. The new perspective of study, influenced by the university’s philosophy of improving the quality of service, confers new concepts upon those that have traditionally been designated as agents of the educational process (teachers, students). According to Fernandez Rodriguez (2001) this new philosophy uses terms such as manager to identify the teacher as an organizer of the proceedings, while for the students there are divergences, calling them by different terms associated with different functions: (a) consumer or client, the student as a user of a service in which he does not take part (this role can be likened to that adopted by the students in teacher-centered teaching); (b) product, students as raw material manipulated according to labor-market needs (similar to the role in curriculum-centered teaching); and (c) producer, the student as active and responsible participant in learning, which is the product (role similar to that played in learner-centered teaching).

Ultimately, the terms that best suit fit the posture of this work are: the role of manager for the teacher and producer for the student.Therefore, both are co-participants in the learning process. To develop this new concept, the student must have appropriate means, and be able to use them to show teachers the modifications or corrections she considers appropriate. Hence the importance of perceptions, expectations and opinions of students throughout the entire teaching/learning process.


Measurement of expectations and instruments

The expectations of students in terms of guidance for improving the teaching/learning process, and satisfaction with university services, are a topic that should be studied carefully, because the works reliably demonstrating its construct and measurement are scarce. So far there are several studies done in Australian universities (Darlaston-Jones, Pike, Cohen, Young, Haunold and Drew, 2003); the UK (Booth, 1997, Harrop and Douglas, 1996; Hill, 1995, Keogh and Stevenson, 2001; Narasimhan, 1997, Sanders et al., 2000; Yanhong and Kaye, 1999); and the U.S. (Shank, Walker and Hayes, 1993, 1995), showing the ability to obtain and evaluate the students’ expectations and preferences.

There are few instruments with international or at least national recognition, that study expectations for teaching. In some cases, the instruments used to study the expectations of students concerning teaching or the ideal teacher are also used to assess perceptions of their current professors, thus changing these instruments into tools for evaluating the real situation and not the expected one (Villa, 1985). This transformation of the instruments produces a great deal of confusion in differentiating and determining their objectives.

The instruments most used in expectations are the scales, questionnaires or semi-structured interviews. In some cases, these tools are modified and adapted according to the objectives of the research used. Some of these scales are:


The expectations of students in some of the world’s universities

Hill’s research (1995) is one of the first studies done in a British university. It was framed within the theory of service quality, and consisted of an exploratory longitudinal study of expectations and perceptions that students have concerning the various university services. To this end, the author asked the participants in the first class of each of the three years of the study, about two groups of factors: academic (including quality of teaching, course content, teaching methods and feedback) and nonacademic factors. The main conclusions of this study reveal the stability of students’ expectations over time (especially regarding academic factors), claiming that these are probably formed before the student comes to college.

Another, more recent, study which aims to analyze current expectations and perceptions of college students, and the differences between them, is that developed by Darlaston-Jones et al. (2003) in an Australian university. The authors asked 56 freshman students about aspects of psychology relating to teachers and to administrative and service personnel, using the SERVQUAL questionnaire at the beginning and the end of the first semester of their first school year. As well, university seniors were questioned, using semi-structured interviews. The findings of this study show clear differences between the students’ expectations and their actual experiences. The authors add that these differences are due to the fact that students have an unrealistic view of university life, and that their expectations are anticipated or impede the achievement of certain features, such as contact with faculty.

Yanhong and Kaye (1999) developed a longitudinal study with the same objective as that of the previous study, in a course on Civil Engineering and another on Mathematics. However, this work was focused on the version of the SERVQUAL intended solely for evaluating the teaching characteristics of the about which the students are asked. These are organized into four groups: (a) tangible (e.g., up-to-date teaching in informatics services); (b) reliability (e.g., good course-structure planning, clear course objectives); (c) sensitivity to their needs (e.g. adequate guidance for selection of courses, appropriate teaching approaches, appropriate evaluation methods); and (d) relationship with teachers (e.g., their availability, rapid feedback, usefulness of feedback).

From the results obtained in the analysis of expectations, Yanhong and Kaye (1999) concluded that students’ expectations were relatively stable over the three years, and that in those features in which significant changes were found, they did not follow a clear structure, but increased in some cases and decreased in others.

Narasimhan (1997) developed a more specific study of the teaching/learning situation in the university classroom. Based on the SERVQUAL, this author designed one inventory of the teaching/learning situation for teachers, and another version for students. Its objectives are in line with the above, but also include teachers' perceptions about students’ expectations and perceptions, and their differences. The sample consisted of 160 students in the area of Business Studies, two third-year courses: Business Administration and Combined Studies at a university in the UK, and two groups of Business Studies at a university in India. The author concludes that there are differences depending on location and subjects, but states that it is not possible to identify the reasons for these differences.

Another group of British researchers led by Keith Stevenson of the University of Leicester, and Paul Sander, of the University of Cardiff, studies the expectations of university students from the field of psychology and education. These researchers began inquiring about the expectations of students at the Open University, particularly about the perceptions and expectations regarding the tutor’s role and feedback (Stevenson, Sander and Naylor, 1997, Stevenson and Sander, 1998). The theoretical framework in which they developed their research is characterized by the interaction of information-processing theories, self-fulfilling prophecy and the theory of service quality (Sander et al., 2000).

As a result of their small-scale studies, they established the model Expectations Led Planned Organisation (ELPO), constructed to design teaching/learning programs using the students’ expectations. This model tries to have teachers consider students’ expectations before beginning the course, as well as negotiate the optimal teaching/learning methods with them (Stevenson, et al., 1997). The use of this model sparked off in its authors, the need to construct an instrument whereby to collect the necessary information quickly and easily. Thus, they developed the questionnaire University Students’ Expectations of Teaching (USET), explained in the previous section. Within this framework of study, the authors demonstrated the importance of expectations and preferences of students beginning their college career, regarding teaching methods, as valuable information for institutions of higher education for two reasons (Sander et al., 2000).

The first study to use the USET questionnaire sought to find out the expectations of British students of Medicine (195), Business Studies (128) and Psychology (72). The information was obtained during students’ first contact with the university. In analyzing the teaching methods, the results showed that the methods most often expected by participants were the teacher’s lecture and the interactive lesson; the most desired was the interactive lesson, and the method chosen as the one least desires was that of dramatizations. Finally, these results tended to be stable among the degree programs in all three schools, and few significant differences were observed. The authors clarify that these results may show that students prefer that the “teachers guide the teaching/learning situations, but with the active participation of students” (Sander et al., 2000, p. 316).

On the other hand, as regarding teachers’ evaluation methods and qualities, only the medical students chose examinations as the evaluation method they most preferred. There were also some significant differences, both in the choice of tests as opposed to a work assignment during the courses at the different centers, and between the different tasks preferred. The preferred methods of evaluation through work projects were: essays, research projects and problems or exercises. As for the qualities of teachers, the results were consistent among the centers. The qualities chosen, ordered from highest to lowest, were: teaching skills, accessibility or affability, knowledge, enthusiasm and organization. These authors conclude by stating the importance of taking into account these expectations regarding teaching when designing the course (Sander et al., 2000).

Other works based on the approaches of the research group of Keith Stevenson and Paul Sander, focus on the expectations students have when they begin their higher education, with regard to the help the tutor would provide them in distance-learning courses.


Expectations of Spanish university students and differences between their expectations and those of British university students

In Spain, De la Fuente and colleagues (De la Fuente, Justicia, Sander, Cano, Martinez, Pichardo, 2004; De la Fuente, Sander, Justice, Cano, Martínez, and Pichardo, 2004)1 have studied the differences between students’ expectations about teaching; these students come from two European Union countries, specifically from the UK (Universities of Leicester, Loughborough, and the University of Wales Institute Cardiff [UWIC]); and Spain (Universities of Almeria and Granada).

These authors studied and analyzed the expectations of 326 students belonging to the degree programs of Psychology and Education of the Universities of Almeria and Granada (Spain) and 395 United Kingdom (UK) students, from the degree programs of Psychology, Teaching and Medicine, at the Universities of Leicester, Loughborough, and UWIC Cardiff.

The study used the USET questionnaire in its English and Spanish versions. The results obtained from the descriptive analysis show that the most desirable types of education for students in Almeria and Granada are student-centered teaching and interactive teaching. In contrast, when these students were asked the type of education they expected to receive, the methods most expected, such as interactive teaching and lecture by the teacher, were obtained. The latter, besides being one of the most common methods students expect to receive, is the one these students most commonly reject. Regarding evaluation methods, daily work was chosen as the most effective (De la Fuente, Justicia et al., 2004).

De la Fuente, Sander et al. (2004) have found that the preferences or expectations of students differ in the great majority of the items, according to the students’ nationality (Spanish or British) and the university to which they belong. The results also show differences according to the degree program (from three to five years); however, when the participants are grouped by this approach, there are found more significant differences in the teaching desired and evaluation preferences than in the rest. Similarly, differences statistically significant according to school year (first or fourth) are lower than when university and nationality are considered; there is more difference in teaching methods desired, and preferences in the desired qualities of the teacher (De la Fuente, Sander et al, 2004).


Alternative investigations into the new framework of study

Some results of various investigations concerning expectations—studies not based on the theory of service quality— contribute different variables that can influence the preferences students express on various aspects of university education; for example, evaluation methods, characteristics and role of teachers, etc.

There are several studies that identify gender as a variable influencing the type of expectations students hold. McDowell and McDowell (1986) show differences in students’ expectations regarding teachers’ characteristics, depending on the gender of both the students and of the faculty. These authors found that women scored the dimension of kindness significantly higher than did men, and that in all the dimensions, women expected more than men. Women expect teachers to be attentive, treat students with greater sensitivity, show more interest in students and establish closer interpersonal relationships with them; although they showed barely significant differences based on the gender of the teacher.

Male students expect a more dramatic communication style, expect to be criticized negatively, and expect teachers to be impersonal and distant. They also establish more significant differences between men and women teachers (McDowell and McDowell, 1986).

Smith, Medendorp, Ranck, and Kopfman Morison (1994) also found differences in students’ expectations by gender. They concluded that girls were more sensitive to the personal characteristics of teachers, but male students were more sensitive to teachers’ knowledge and sense of humor.

Finally, it should be noted that some studies found no differences in students’expectations by gender, but they express the importance and need to analyze further the influence of this variable (Miles and Gonsalves, 2003).

Chonko, Tanner and Davis (2002) studied the most important features that students expect in teachers. The results, arranged in descending order of frequency were: that they be interesting, that they help the students, that they communicate well, and that they have speaking ability. However, wanting students to learn (1.4%) and knowledge (3.4%), are characteristics or intentions that students expected less often.

Moreover, Chonko et al. (2002) asked students about the type of evaluation they believe yields the best results. They concluded that the three most preferred methods of assessment are: work assignments or group projects, multiple-choice tests, and short questions.

The Spanish investigation of the expectations of teachers is increasingly greater. One example is the studies of Marin and Teruel (2004), whose ultimate goal to determine the dimensions and indicators students’ expectations and perceptions concerning the role of university teachers. On the other hand, Juanas and Rodriguez (2004), who studied high school students’ expectations about university studies and teachers, concluded that the participants gave higher scores to the quality of evaluation, training, and to a greater extent, teachers’ self-esteem. They found no significant differences with regard to the course, and barely any difference having to do with student gender.



The study of students’ expectations and perceptions of teachers is still in its infancy, but its findings show increasingly the importance of expectations in the direction argued in the new theoretical framework both for student satisfaction, and for the improvement of university quality and the teaching/learning process. It is necessary therefore to mention some relevant results and conclusions of the analysis of research on expectations.

To date, the type of expectations found in university students permits us to conclude that meeting students’ expectations and paying attention to the methods of teaching and evaluating which they prefer, plays an active role in their learning. On the other hand, students pay little attention to tutoring as a teaching method. This fact is interesting in relation to the methods proposed in the new European Higher Education Area, in the sense that the students seem to expect to be co-participants in their own learning; but contrasts with the central role that mentoring plays (De la Fuente, Justicia et al., 2004, Sander et al., 2000).

One variable in which researchers are not fully in agreement is the stability of expectations over time. Some studies conclude that expectations tend to be stable as time goes by (Hill, 1995), and argue that they are formed in the pre-university stages of education. Other studies argue that the university experience influences these expectations, modifying them with the passage of time (Bouilding, Kalra, and Zeithaml Stelin, 1993, Licata and Maxham, 1999). We believe that these hypotheses need not be in conflict with each other. We believe that research should focus on the study of a greater agreement as to what the influence of previous stages is may be, as well as on the stability of expectations during the years of university training.

Moreover, the studies done so far predict a significant influence of the characteristics of the context and the individual (De la Fuente et al., 2004a, Miles and Gonsalves, 2003; Narasimhan, 1997). That is why there must be further investigation into contextual and individual differences, since for the moment, the scarcity of these inquiries precludes drawing plausible conclusions.

Finally, the differences found in the study of Darlaston-Jones et al. (2003), between expectations and actual experiences, and the findings of other investigations (Chonko et al., 2002, De la Fuente et al., 2004b; Hill, 1995; Krallman and Holcomb, 1997, Sander et al., 2000 ) show that in many cases expectations are unrealistic, which leads to the previously-mentioned self-fulfilling prophecy. One of the benefits it provides us, in the study of expectations in the terms presented by Sander et al. (2000); in the ELPO model is, precisely, to direct and modify the unrealistic or inappropriate expectations for university teaching, and to use these as valuable information for making the work of educational work efficient and pleasant for students.



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Translator: Lessie Evona York-Weatherman


1These studies were performed as part of a project that received grant # BSO2003-06493 from the Spanish Ministry of EducationandScience.

Please cite the source as:

Pichardo, M. C., García Berbén, A. B., De la Fuente, J., & Justicia, F. (2007). The study of expectations at the university: Analysis of empirical works and future lines of investigation. Revista Electrónica de Investigación Educativa, 9 (1). Retrieved month day, year, from: