Researcher of the Month
Is it motivating to warn students of the consequences of exam failure?
Teachers commonly communicate the importance of high-stakes exams, such as GCSEs and A Levels, to students, highlighting how doing well can add value and influence young people’s life trajectories. They do so with the aim of increasing motivation, engagement and ultimately attainment.
Whilst teachers might choose to communicate this message in various ways, one commonly used strategy is to warn of the negative consequences of failure – otherwise known as a ‘fear appeal’. Teachers use this kind of message in the belief that students will respond positively, increasing their motivation and effort. Studies have shown that this type of message is more likely to be used by teachers when they judge a class to be low in engagement. It’s critical for teachers to understand whether or not this kind of message is effective and whether it is likely to help or hinder student motivation and outcomes.
This month’s Researcher of the Month, Professor David Putwain, focuses on this under-researched topic to examine the impact of fear appeals on students in GCSE maths classes.
Professor Putwain collected two waves of data from 1530 participants, aged 14-16, from 14 schools in the North West of England. Students were asked to report on their levels of engagement in maths classes, how frequently their teachers use fear appeals and how this kind of messaging makes them feel and behave.
Fear appeals prompt students to reflect on the perceived importance of their forthcoming exams and their chances of success or failure. Previous studies have shown that fear appeals are indirectly related to engagement and achievement in different ways depending on how they are evaluated by the student – something which is confirmed in this paper. The study found that, per se, fear appeals are neither effective nor ineffective in achieving positive outcomes, such as behavioural engagement and achievement. Rather, it is how the messages are evaluated that determines a more or less favourable student outcome.
Some students evaluate fear appeals as a challenge. For them, these messages can inspire hope in success through hard work and effort.
Other students evaluate them as a threat. The warning of negative consequences makes these students feel less able to achieve the goal they have been set, causing worry, anxiety and fear of failure.
A student’s response is likely to be impacted by how much value they place on exams for their own personal aspirations, as well as their individual bank of coping resources. Professor Putwain’s new study found that students who attended more closely to messages which highlight the negative consequences of failure were more engaged when they evaluated the message as a challenge. This in turn was linked to higher exam grades. Students who evaluated such messages as threats felt less engaged in their studies and achieved lower grades in their exams.
“Teachers could be advised that there will be individual differences between students in how fear appeals are evaluated and responded to; some students will likely benefit, others will be likely hindered.”
Implications for schools – Firstly, Professor Putwain advises that teachers should use fear appeals cautiously. He advocates a personalised approach, which is sensitive to how individual students might respond. Fear appeals should be avoided entirely in a whole class context.
The paper suggests that teachers should seek to identify students who are likely to respond to fear appeals as a threat and consider the use of educational or psychological interventions which build confidence and promote anxiety control (examples might include diaphragmatic breathing, effective revision methods and identifying and challenging ‘gremlin’ thoughts).
It can be difficult for teachers to accurately judge students’ motivations and emotions, so methods to access student voice about their confidence, fears and self-perceptions should be considered. Professor Putwain has created tools which can help. You can find his Teachers’ Use of Fear Appeals Questionnaire (TUFAQ) and his Multidimensional Test Anxiety Scale (MTAS) in the Tooled Up library now.
Teachers should also bear in mind that the few studies that compare teacher messages which emphasise the positive benefits of exam success with messages which emphasise the negative consequences of exam failure find that students evaluate both in a similar way. Highlighting the possible benefits of success also implies the likely drawbacks of failure. Evidence is lacking to show whether gain- and loss-focused messages used in the context of high-stakes qualifications lead to differential outcomes, but similar caution should be used when highlighting benefits in this way.
Resources Created from and Related to this Research
Professor David Putwain, School of Education, Liverpool John Moores University
Professor David Putwain is based in the School of Education at Liverpool John Moores University. He taught in various schools and 6th form colleges from 1994 to 2006. After completing a PhD in 2006, David joined Edge Hill University working initially in the Department of Social and Psychological Sciences and subsequently in the Faculty of Education. David joined Liverpool John Moores University in May 2016. His research interests focus on how psychological factors influence, and in turn are influenced by, learning and achievement. He has a longstanding interest in test anxiety among school aged populations and the development of interventions to provide students with the tools they need to manage their test anxiety.