"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.
The study involved 347 students, average age 15, of whom 174 were male. They came 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 US.
Students who said they felt threatened by their teachers' messages that frequently focused on failure reported feeling less motivated and scored worse on the exam than students who said their teacher used fewer fear tactics that they considered less threatening, the study found.
A message such as, "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," was an example of attempting to motivate by fear. Messages focusing on success might include, "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 the study.
The study is published in APA's School Psychology Quarterly.