Monday, 18 May 2015

How much carrot and how much stick: What messages do teachers use prior to high-stakes exams and does it have any influence on their students?

A common feature in many educational systems is the use of high-stakes school leaving exams at the end of secondary education. The results of these exams can, and do, influence opportunities to access post-compulsory education and training, and opportunities to enter and progress in the labour market. The United Kingdom is no exception: GCSEs are taken at the end of Year 11 in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Students in Scotland take National exams at the same age (S4 in the Scottish system).

One of the areas that I have been researching concerns the language used by teachers in the run up to these important exams.  The overwhelming majority of teachers that I have worked with, both as a former teacher myself and now as an educational researcher, care deeply about the results and future of their students. Teachers are also being increasingly subjected to performativity regimes whereby their performance and pay are judged through the results of their students. These factors combine to place teachers under considerable pressure.

In this environment, what do teachers say to students about their forthcoming exams? In one study, my colleague Christine Roberts and I, surveyed the attitudes of 232 secondary school teachers in England (Putwain & Roberts, 2012). We found that many teachers emphasised the importance of GCSEs for one’s future and how failure could have damaging consequences. 81.6% of respondents indicated that they either agreed or strongly agreed that students should be reminded that they would fail if they did not complete coursework and revision. Teachers also used many forms of encouragement. 96.2% either agreed or strongly agreed that students should be reminded about the benefits of hard work. It would seem that teachers are using varying combinations of ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’.

Some of our studies have focused on how students interpret and respond to the ‘stick’ type of messages. We call these consequence reminders. Not surprisingly, students do not interpret consequences reminders in the same way. In one study, Wendy Symes and I provided students with hypothetical scenarios and asked students how they would respond (Putwain & Symes, 2014). If students attach little importance to forthcoming exams they tend to disregard consequence reminders. Perhaps they see no chance of passing, or want to follow a path after school that does not depend on results of exams. If students do value exam results, either as a means to an end or as an end in themselves, they do pay attention to consequence reminders. When exam results are valued and students expect to pass they see consequence reminders in a positive way, as motivating. However, when exam results are valued and students don’t expect to pass they see consequence reminders in a negative way, as a trigger for worry and anxiety.

In other studies, rather than asking students to respond to hypothetical situations we have asked them to report on how often their teachers use consequence reminders in the run up to important exams and how these consequence reminders are interpreted. In two studies focusing on maths GCSE we have found that consequence reminders predict negative educational outcomes when they are interpreted in a negative way as threatening. For instance, Wendy and I have shown that the negative interpretation of consequence reminders predicts a lower GCSE maths grade (Putwain & Symes, 2011). This was partly due to an increase in exam anxiety and a fear of failure. My colleague Richard Remedios and I have also shown that the negative interpretation of consequence predicts greater levels of exam anxiety and a lower GCSE maths grade (Putwain & Remedios, 2014). In this study it was partly due to a lower enjoyment, lower interest and lower motivation.

Our conclusion from these studies is that consequence reminders can have detrimental impacts on students when they interpreted negatively. It is students who value their exam grades but don’t expect to pass who tend to interpreted these messages negatively.

However, the picture is not all negative. We have also looked at another common message used by teachers. That is to regularly remind students about deadlines, when exams are scheduled and how long (or little) preparation time if left. We call these exam reminders. Richard, Wendy and I have shown that exam reminders tend to be interpreted positively, as a motivator (Putwain, Remedios & Symes, 2014). Importantly, Wendy and I have also shown that exam reminders can lead to higher maths GCSE grades by increasing motivation (Putwain & Symes, 2014). Our conclusion is that exam reminders can be an effective tactic.

Our research is ongoing. At the present time, I am working with colleagues to examine the impact of exam and consequence reminders, and their interpretation, on student engagement in maths. Wendy has also just finished a study examining how students’ capacity to deal with exam pressure can influence how messages are interpreted. Richard is starting a study soon to examine parental messages and their impact. We would also like to conduct research to examine encouraging messages, how they are interpreted and what effects they might have.

In summary, we would encourage teachers to reflect on the following questions:

1.      What do you tell your students in the run up to high-stakes examinations?

2.      How do you think students interpret these messages; might some interpret them more positively and negatively than others?

3.      Are there certain individuals, or groups of students, that would benefit more from one type of message than another?


Putwain, D.W., & Symes, W. (2011) Classroom fear appeals and examination performance: facilitating or debilitating outcomes? Learning and Individual Differences, 21(2), 227-232. doi: 10.1016/j.lindif.2010.11.022

Putwain, D.W. & Symes, W. (2014). Subjective value and academic self-efficacy: The appraisal of fear appeals used prior to a high-stakes test as threatening or challenging. Social Psychology of Education, 17(2), 229-248. doi:  10.1007/s11218-014-9249-7

Putwain, D.W., & Remedios, R. (2014). The scare tactic: Messages which contain fear appeals prior to a high-stakes test predict lower self-determined motivation and exam scores. School Psychology Quarterly. Advance online publication, doi: 10.1037/spq0000048

Putwain, D.W., Remedios, R., & Symes, W. (2014). The appraisal of fear appeals as threatening or challenging: Frequency of use, academic self-efficacy and subjective value. Educational Psychology: An International Journal of Experimental Educational Psychology. Advance online publication, doi: 10.1080/01443410.2014.963028


Dave Putwain is a Professor in Education at Edge Hill University and Chair of the Psychology of Education Section of the British Psychological Society. He is interested in how psychological factors influence, and in turn are influenced by, motivation, engagement and attainment.  If you are interested in learning more about his research, or participating in this area of research, please contact him:

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