Exam StressTeachers who use fear of failure to motivate students prior to exams may be having a negative effect on their success, according to new research led by Edge Hill University Educational Psychology expert, Professor David Putwain.

The Scare Tactic: Do Fear Appeals Predict Motivation and Exam Scores?, which comes at a time of high stress for many students across the country as they approach GCSEs and A Levels, was published in School Psychology Quarterly, an academic journal of the American Psychological Association.

The study looked at different styles of pre-exam persuasive messages used by teachers and the impact they can have on students’ motivation and, ultimately, their academic performance.

Teachers are desperately keen to motivate their students in the best possible way but may not be aware of how messages they communicate to students around the importance of performing well in exams can be interpreted in different ways,” said David.

The study found that messages that used scare tactics, such as “If you fail the exam, you will never be able to get a good job or go to college”, achieved fewer positive results than messages that focused on success, like “The exam is really important as most jobs that pay well require that you pass and if you want to go to college you will also need to pass the exam”.

Students who said they felt threatened by messages that frequently focused on failure reported feeling less motivated and performed worse on the exam than students who reported that their teacher used fewer fear tactics.

“Both messages highlight to students the importance of effort and provide a reason for striving,” said David. “Where these messages differ is some focus on the possibility of success while others stress the need to avoid failure.”

The research involved interviews with 347 students over an 18-month period leading up to their GCSE exams. The students were asked a range of questions, including “How often do your teachers tell you that unless you work hard you will fail your exam?” and “Do you feel worried when your teachers tell you that your exam is getting nearer?”, to measure their level of feeling threatened. They were asked to rate each item on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being “never” and 5 being “most of the time”. At the end of the 18-month period, researchers collected the students’ final grades.

Psychologists who work in or with schools can help teachers consider the types of messages they use in the classroom by emphasising how their messages influence students in both positive and negative ways, and by recommending they consider the messages they currently use and their possible consequences,” added David.

“Teachers should plan what types of messages would be the most effective and how they could be incorporated into the lesson plans.”

David Putwain is a Professor in Education whose acclaimed and much publicised research focuses on the psychological effects of exam pressure. A former teacher who has also worked for a UK exam board, David has contributed to several books and had work published in numerous international academic journals.

The American Psychological Association is the largest scientific and professional organisation representing psychology in the United States. APA’s membership includes nearly 130,000 researchers, educators, clinicians, consultants and students. Through its divisions in 54 subfields of psychology and affiliations with 60 state, territorial and Canadian provincial associations, APA works to advance the creation, communication and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.