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Threats of failure motivate some students – but it’s not a technique to use on the whole class

It is the start of a new academic year, and a fresh group of students will be beginning study towards their GCSEs. After two years, they will be taking exams with important consequences: the results can allow them to carry on in education or go on to certain careers.

Part of the work of teachers is to encourage their students to pay attention and fully engage in lessons so that they achieve the best grades possible. They might emphasise to them how important GCSEs are for their future. For example, teachers might point out how good grades can lead to access to college courses, apprenticeships, and the workplace.

And in dwelling on the importance of GCSEs, teachers may also use messages that focus on the possible negative effects of failure. These include things like: “If you do not work hard, you will fail your GCSEs and you will not get into college.”

We researched how students interpret these motivational strategies from their teachers and found that while warnings of failure are likely to encourage some pupils to work hard, it’s not a message that should be delivered to the whole class.

Fear appeals

Messages from teachers that focus on failure are known as “fear appeals”: they can create a strong fear of failure in students. Teachers use fear appeals more often when they believe that students will interpret the message as threatening and when they believe their class are less engaged. The intention may be to shock students into engaging in their studies.

Fear can be a powerful motivator. When a student believes that doing well in a test is important, and is optimistic about doing well, a fear appeal – such as: “If you fail your GCSE, you will find it difficult to get a good job” – can be a good thing. It can motivate students to work hard.

We describe this as a student interpreting the message as a challenge. One GCSE student we worked with (in research that is yet to be published) said: “I don’t feel panicked about it at all and I feel quite confident in maths … it gives me motivation to work harder and like learn the topics more and thoroughly.”

Stressed teenage girl doing homework
Fear appeals can encourage some students – but reduce motivation in others. Viorel Kurnosov/Shutterstock

But other students, who also see exam results as very important, may lack confidence that they will do well. For these students, fear appeals can trigger feelings of anxiety and hopelessness. They can lose motivation, procrastinate and worry. Ultimately, their achievement is lower.

We describe this as a student interpreting the message as a threat. As a GCSE student said: “Every time a teacher tells me exams are near or if you fail you risk not getting a good job I get so scared and sometimes I get so scared and stressed I feel like crying.”

Other students simply disregard fear appeals. They may not care about their exams, perhaps because they have already disengaged from their studies – or are so supremely confident they have no doubt they will succeed.

Mixed messages

This suggests that using the same message to encourage a whole class or year group could be counterproductive. For students who feel confident in their abilities, fear appeals could be the right type of motivational message.

But as it is difficult for teachers to accurately judge their students’ private self-perceptions, it would be risky to advise the use of fear appeals on this basis. Students’ levels of belief in their competence also vary over time, and so fear appeals could be appropriate at one time but not another.

One option, of course, would be to switch a fear appeal to a more positive message, such as: “If you work hard, you will get the grades you need for college.” But our research shows that students respond to messages like this in a similar way to fear appeals. Success-focused messages are still pressuring messages.

A more useful approach could be to increase the chance that students interpret messages like this as a challenge rather than a threat. One way to do this is to give students a greater feeling of control over their learning and exams. This can be done, for example, by helping students reflect on the ways they learn the content needed for the exam. Teacher feedback on the strategies that students use in class can increase their sense of control and their understanding that they can improve their learning techniques.

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