Scare tactics on failing exams can lead to lower grades

Can fear lead to failure? Niall Carson/PA Archive

Teachers play a fundamental role in enthusing students about their subjects and helping them prepare effectively for important examinations, such as GCSEs. They can motivate students. But, despite their best intentions, they can also put them off learning.

Research I have been involved in has examined the language used by teachers around forthcoming examinations: what messages are communicated by teachers to students about GCSEs and how these messages may impact on students’ motivation, engagement and ultimately, their grades.

Some of the messages that teachers pass to students about their examinations are purely administrative and logistical. But other messages have more of a motivational quality, with teachers highlighting why GCSEs are important.

We call these “value-promoting messages”, because they emphasise the value of GCSEs. They can emphasise that good qualifications are generally well-viewed by employers and so can help to get a job. Higher salaried-jobs might require more qualifications with higher grades. Colleges offering A levels or vocational and technical courses also require minimum entry grades. Doing well in GCSEs is also a way of feeling good about oneself, a way of boosting self-esteem or a sense of self-worth.

But teachers’ messages can differ in the extent to which they are focused on attaining success or avoiding failure. Success and failure are subjectively defined. For some students, success might be an “official” pass grade, such as a grade C, whereas for others it might be a target grade that is higher, such as a grade A, or lower, a D.

Panic sets in

Our research has shown that teachers use value-promoting messages relatively frequently that focus on avoiding failure, such as: “If you don’t pass GCSE maths you’ll find it hard to get into college.” But inevitably teachers differ. Some use them more frequently and others less frequently.

Such messages can be liked to a heavy-handed approach to motivating and engaging students that uses more “stick” than “carrot”. In some ways they are quite similar to campaigns that promote healthy behaviour by focusing on the worse-scenario of the illnesses brought on by obesity.

Although the use of such messages may be well-intended, teachers may be provoking anxiety in some students rather than motivating them. Students become more worried about forthcoming GCSE exams, more concerned with being seen as less able than their classmates and less motivated.

Students in classes where teachers use these heavy handed messages were, on average, more than one grade lower in their GCSE maths than students in classes where teachers rarely used such messages.

Not enough carrot

Those students who are most likely to interpret value-promoting messages that focus on avoiding failure as anxiety-provoking are those who value their education but who lack confidence in their ability. These messages are therefore detrimental for this group of students and may in the long run do more damage than good.

For this group of students messages than focus more on “carrot” than “stick” would be better. These would see teachers focusing on the advantages of success (rather than the disadvantages of failure) and using messages that build confidence by focusing on things students can do to maximise their chances of doing well.

Students who value education and who believe they are likely to succeed interpret these messages as more challenging than anxiety-provoking. But before we conclude that a firmer focus on avoiding failure might be beneficial for this group of students, we need to conduct further research on the impact on GCSE grades. This research is currently underway, alongside research to examine value-promoting messages that focus on attaining success rather than avoiding failure.

Teachers should not stop highlighting the importance of GCSEs to their students. GCSEs clearly are valuable and grades can influence one’s life chances. But we would suggest that the manner in which they are presented is critical in determining whether they do help or harm.

Teachers should reflect on how they convey the value of GCSEs to students and try to adopt the student perspective to consider how they could be interpreted differently by students and whether the right type of message is being presented to the right type of student.