The Hawthorne effect is a psychological phenomenon named after a series of research experiments performed by Harvard Business School professor Elton Mayo in the 1920s. The term generally refers to the tendency of test subjects to attempt to please researchers and the resultant positive effect of researchers on subjects’ performance. In education, it is believed that teachers who are passionate about what they are teaching and who genuinely care about students as individuals can have a positive impact on student learning. Therefore, a teacher who motivates students and gives them attention will positively affect their learning, and more measurable changes in attitude or behavior will result. While the findings of the original experiments have been deemed flawed, the Hawthorne effect has been an influential idea in educational and business settings.
In 1924, efficiency experts at the Hawthorne, Illinois, plant of the Western Electric Company assumed that better lighting would result in higher worker productivity. Mayo manipulated variables related to working conditions. First, he examined physical and environmental factors such the brightness of lights and humidity, then he tested psychological factors such as breaks and working hours. The findings were that employee production increased no matter which factor was manipulated. Even those workers in the control group were more productive. The conclusion was that employees responded positively to the attention they received from the experimenters, not necessarily to the changes in environmental and psychological factors. Mayo also noted that due to the extra attention from researchers and management, the workers changed how they viewed themselves and their role in the company. No longer isolated individuals, they saw themselves as participating members of the greater group, which elicited feelings of affiliation, competence, and achievement.
In education, the practical implication of the Hawthorne effect is that learning takes place most effectively when the teacher has a high level of interaction with students and remains concerned about students as individuals, valuing their contributions. The Hawthorne effect can operate negatively in classrooms if a teacher is told that one group of students is gifted and another group of students is low achieving. The teacher might treat each group differently and ultimately not set high expectations for the low achievers, while pushing the gifted students harder in the classroom. Because of the prominence that teachers have in the teaching and learning act, Hawthorne-like effects need to be examined to help elucidate and contextualize findings from classroom-based studies.
Researchers have long attempted to control for Hawthorne effects. However, an examination of the literature reveals unsatisfactory descriptions of these effects, with ill-defined intervening variables that might not be intervening at all. It has been suggested that subjects be interviewed after a study to determine if Hawthorne effects are present. Since the mid-1970s, the Hawthorne studies and their purported results have become a topic of debate, with statistical methods and data collection procedures coming into question and alternate explanations being offered to justify the original results.
- Adair, J. G. (1984). The Hawthorne effect: A reconsideration of the methodological artifact. Journal of Applied Psychology, 69, 334–435.
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