Just seeing the letter F before an exam may make a student more likely to fail, while seeing the letter A can enhance a student’s chance of success.
Writing this month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology, researchers Keith Ciani and Ken Sheldon of the University of Missouri, Columbia, based their conclusions on results from three small experiments involving a total of 131 college students. In the first experiment, 23 undergraduates all took the same word-analogies test. Half the tests, however, were labeled “Test Bank ID: F” in the top right corner, while the other half read “Test Bank ID: A” in the same place.
The A group performed significantly better than the F group, getting an average of 11.08 of 12 answers correct. The F group on average got 9.42 answers correct. The researchers found the same pattern of results in two more, similar studies, and even when they labeled some papers “Test Bank ID: J” to introduce a more neutral third condition. The performance of students whose exams had that label fell somewhere in between those with the A and F test papers.
The researchers hypothesize that the students who saw the letter A were unconsciously motivated to succeed, while seeing the letter F made them want to avoid failure.
A version of this article appeared in the March 17, 2010 edition of Education Week as Power of Suggestion