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Study Says Scare Tactics Don’t Work In School, Take That, Trunchbull!

If I hadn't gone to school in a haunted house, I'd be a genius.


This explains why potions class is so hard: a new study by the American Psychology Association says that using scare tactics to motivate students may actually lead to lower test scores.

A study published in the APA’s School Psychology Quarterly should be of special interest to educators as the school year comes to a close and exams draw nigh. Lead author David Putwain of Edge Hill University explains:

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.

To test the different ways students interpret messages that are intended to be motivational and how that may impact their academic performance, the researchers studied 347 students from two different schools. Every student was in the midst of an 18 month preparation course for the General Certificate of Secondary Education, the equivalent of the U.S. high school diplomsa — or, for non-Muggles, your O.W.L.s.

Twice over 18 months, a teacher who wasn’t also responsible for exam prep conducted a survey to discover how often on average the students experienced anxiety caused by teachers’ motivational tactics. At a later date, students were asked to what extent their inspiration to achieve academically came from an external source. Students ranked their responses on a scale from 1 to 5, 1 being “never” and 5 being “most of the time.”

At the end of the exam period, the researchers concluded that students who reported feeling “scared” into striving for success by their teachers had lower test scores overall. Here’s an example provided by the study of an ineffective “scare” tactic:

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.

In contrast, here’s the study’s example of using success as a motivator:

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.

Says Putwain,

Both messages highlight to students the importance of effort and provide a reason for striving […] Where these messages differ is some focus on the possibility of success while others stress the need to avoid failure. […]Teachers should plan what types of messages would be the most effective and how they could be incorporated into the lesson plans.

My kudos to educators who have to navigate the vagaries of the adolescent mind. If motivating with success doesn’t work, though, maybe you could threaten students with Game of Thrones spoilers? That scare tactic has proven effective.

(, image via Matilda )

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