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Scare Tactics Lower Exam Scores

Update Date: Apr 21, 2014 07:03 PM EDT

Threatening failure will not help improve test scores, according to a new study.

While teachers want to remind students of the negative results of failing a tests, new findings suggest that educators may want to avoid scare tactics to boost grades.

"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," lead author David Putwain, PhD, of Edge Hill University in Lancashire, England, said in a news release.

The latest study involved 347 students with an average age 15. Participants were from two schools that offer an 18-month study program for the exam leading to a General Certificate of Secondary Education, the equivalent of a high school diploma in the U.S.

The findings revealed that those who said the felt threatened by their teachers' messages were more likely to focus on failure, feel less motivated and score worse on exams that those of teachers who used fewer fear tactics that they considered less threatening.

An example of a threatening message is, "If you fail the exam, you will never be able to get a good job or go to college. You need to work hard in order to avoid failure." A message focusing on success might be, "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," according to researchers.

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

"Psychologists who work in or with schools can help teachers consider the types of messages they use in the classroom by emphasizing 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," Putwain concluded. "Teachers should plan what types of messages would be the most effective and how they could be incorporated into the lesson plans."

The findings were published April 15th in the journal School Psychology Quarterly.

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