Seeing the letter A before an exam can improve a student's exam result while exposure to the letter F may make a student more likely to fail.
The finding is published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology in March 2010.
The study, carried out by Dr Keith Ciani and Dr Ken Sheldon at the University of Missouri, USA, investigated whether exposing students to the letters A or F before a test affected how they performed. Dr Ciani said: "The letters A and F have significant meaning for students, A represents success and F, failure. We hypothesised that if students are exposed to these letters prior to an academic test it could affect their performance through non-conscious motivation."
A total of 131 students took part in three separate experiments. In the first, 23 undergraduates were asked to complete a number of analogies in a classroom setting. All of the tests were the same, however half of the tests were labelled 'Test Bank ID: A', and the other half 'Test Bank ID: F'. Before starting the test the participants were asked to write their Test Bank ID letter in the top right hand corner of each sheet.
Each participant's analogy tests were scored and compared between the groups. A significant difference between the two groups was found, with the A group performing significantly better than the F group; A scoring on average 11.08 correct out of 12, and F only 9.42 correct on average.
In the second study, the experiment was repeated with 32 students, but as well as Test Bank ID: A' and 'Test Bank ID: F' groups, some of the students were given 'Test Bank ID: J' -- a letter without performance meaning. Again, participants in the A group performed significantly better on the analogy test than participants on the F group, while participants given the letter J performed better than F, but worse than A.
Dr Keith Ciani said: "These findings suggest that exposure to letters A and F, even without any explicit reference to success or failure, significantly affected the students' performance on the tests.
"We believe that the meanings inherent in the evaluative letters were enough to influence their performance through the motivational state that they produced. Exposure to the letter A made the students non-consciously approach the task with the aim to succeed, while exposure to letter F made the students non-consciously want to avoid failure. Research suggests that when people approach tasks with the desire to succeed they perform better than when striving to avoid failure.
"During the debriefing process, participants could recall their letter but were unaware of its role in the study. These findings support our hypothesis that the effect occurred outside of participants' conscious awareness."
The findings were also replicated in a third experiment in which 76 undergraduate students were asked to complete an anagram test in a laboratory setting, after being exposed to either A, F or J 'presented as Subject ID'. Participants in the condition A scored on average 6.02 correct out of 7, but F scored only 3.65 on average.
"We believe the primary implication from this research is that students are vulnerable to evaluative letters presented before a task. Teachers should be careful not to use identification systems that map onto assessment systems. For example, in a course with letter grading, teachers should avoid identifying different test forms using letters from the grading scale. Doing so may inadvertently prime students to do better or worse than their ability and preparation would predict. Conversely, this effect may be desired by savvy teachers. Adorning classrooms with symbols of achievement, such as A+ and other success-oriented words and phrases may activate effort, pride, and the intention to perform well in standardized testing situation. It is important to note that the external validity of our research remains to be demonstrated."
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