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Engaging students for their GCSE exams: the role of teacher messages and student emotions

Project Lead: Dr Laura Nicholson

Collaborator: Professor Dave Putwain, School of Education, Liverpool John Moores University

Research Assistant: Dr Gulsah Kutuk

Funding Source: Edge Hill University Research Investment Fund

Time frame:  Two years, November 2018 – October 2020 (Now extended due to COVID)

Summary of rationale

This research investigates relationships between the way in which students studying for their GCSE maths exam (i) interpret messages about the exam given by their teacher, (ii) feel joyful, hopeful, anxious and hopeless about the exam, (iii) engage in their maths lessons, and (iv) perform in the exam itself.

In the lead up to GCSE exams, teachers have been found to emphasise the importance of the exams to students, in an attempt to motivate them to work hard. However, previous research by Dr Nicholson and colleagues has shown that students respond differently to these messages depending on how they interpret them. Contrary to teachers’ intentions, some students appraise the messages as threatening which then leads to negative educational outcomes. It is only when the message is appraised by the student as challenging that positive outcomes follow.

Dr Nicholson’s most recent study found that students can simultaneously appraise teacher messages emphasising the importance of the exam as both threatening and challenging. Unexpectedly, students displaying this pattern reported high student engagement in class, to the same extent as students interpreting the messages at a low level of threat and a high level of challenge. The present study, which measures a range of academic emotions resulting from threat and challenge appraisals, will help to disentangle these findings.

Differences in these factors and how they relate are also being explored between students from average/high and low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds. It is well established that low SES students display lower academic progress and achievement in secondary school than their more affluent peers. The literature in the UK is limited in terms of explaining the reasons for the gap. Teacher expectations are low for low SES students, which may lead them to deliver more messages about the importance of their GCSE exams. Moreover, not only may low SES students receive more teacher messages, they may also be more likely to perceive the messages as threatening. This aspect of the research will provide a novel insight into the established achievement gap.

This research is being conducted over two years, using a highly rigorous design. Approximately 1,600 students from 14 schools across the north-west of England are completing questionnaires at three points in time, once when they are in Year 10 and twice in Year 11. The questionnaires measure their appraisals of teacher messages, their academic emotions in relation to the upcoming GCSE maths exam and their engagement in maths lessons. GCSE maths exam grade will be obtained afterwards which will allow a full test of how the various factors relate to each other and affect eventual performance.


The findings will inform secondary school teachers about how best to prepare students psychologically for their GCSE exams, particularly students from low SES backgrounds, of which there is an established achievement gap. Dr Nicholson will run a workshop for all participating schools in which findings will be disseminated and resulting recommendations for practice made. Resources will also be produced for EHU partnership secondary schools and offered to external educational organisations to share more widely.

Dr Nicholson actively disseminates findings from her research with the academic community via journal articles and at conferences. She shares her research more broadly via media pieces.

Related outputs

Journal articles

• Nicholson, L.J., Putwain, D.W., Nakhla, G., Porter, B., Liversidge, A., & Reece, M. (2019). A person-centered approach to students’ evaluations of perceived fear appeals and their association with engagement. The Journal of Experimental Education, 87(1), 139-160. 
• Putwain, D.W., Nakhla, G., Liversidge, A., Nicholson, L.J., Porter, B., & Reece, M. (2017). Teachers’ use of fear appeals prior to a high-stakes examination: Is frequency linked to perceived student engagement and how do students respond? Teaching and Teacher Education, 61, 73-83.
• Putwain, D., Nicholson, L., Nakhla, G., Reece, M., Porter, B., & Liversidge, A. (2016). Fear appeals prior to a high-stakes examination can have a positive or negative impact on engagement depending on how the message is appraised. Contemporary Educational Psychology, 44-45, 21-31.

Other works

• Nicholson, L.J. (2016). ‘Stressed out: The psychological effects of tests on primary school children’ (2016, 9 May). The Conversation.
• Nicholson, L.J. & Putwain, D.W. (2019). ‘We should just be told to try our best’ (2019, 16 April). The Psychologist, May 2019, 38-41.