Seeing Letters A or F Shown to Sway Test Scores

By Debra Viadero — March 09, 2010 2 min read
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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.

That’s according to a pair of University of Missouri researchers writing in a study published this month in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. (Hats off to Science Daily for alerting the world to this report.)

Researchers Keith Ciani and and Ken Sheldon base their conclusions on results from a series of three small experiments involving a total of 131 college students. In the first experiment, 23 undergraduates all took the same word-analogies test. Half of the tests, however, were labelled “Test Bank ID: F” in the top right corner, while the other half read “Test Bank ID: A” in the same place.

The researchers found that 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 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.

“We believe that the meanings inherent in the evaluative letters [A and F] were enough to influence students’ performance through the motivational state they produced,” said Mr. Ciani. “Exposure to the letter A made the students non-consciously approach the task with the aim to succeed, while exposure to the letter F made the students non-consciously want to avoid failure.”

It sounded a bit far-fetched to me, but then again so did the idea of “stereotype threat” when I first heard of it. Stereotype threat refers to people’s tendency to do less well on a test when they fear their performance could confirm a negative stereotype about their racial or gender group. African-American students, for instance, have been shown perform worse on a test when told beforehand that it will measure their intelligence. Studies have even shown that white men get lower scores on math tests when they take the test in a room full of Asian students. The power of suggestion is apparently pretty potent.

Are there any implications in this study for schools? Possibly, according to the researchers. The obvious one is to avoid putting letter F’s on students’ tests. But the researchers also said teachers might think about adorning their classrooms with an A+ symbol or success-oriented phrases to positively motivate students. Well, we already knew that.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.