"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Exposure to letters A or F may affect test scores

March 30, 2005
Courtesy of the British Psychological Society
and World Science staff

Seeing the letter “A” before a test can improve a student's score, while noticing an “F” may reduce it, according to a study published in the March issue of the British Journal of Educational Psychology.

“The letters A and F have significant meaning for students. A represents success and F, failure. We hypothesised that if students are exposed to these letters prior to an academic test it could affect their performance through non-conscious motivation,” said Keith Ciani of the University of Missouri, who conducted the study with the university's Ken Sheldon.

A total of 131 students took part in three experiments. In the first, 23 undergraduates were asked to complete a dozen analogies. All tests were the same, but half were labelled “Test Bank ID: A,” and the other half “Test Bank ID: F.” Before starting the test the participants had to write their “Test Bank ID” on each sheet.

The “A” group got 92.3 percent correct on average; the “F” group, just 78.5.

The experiment was then repeated with 32 students, but a third “Test Bank ID” was added, this one with the letter J, which has no particular performance meaning. Students in the “J” group scored between the other two groups on average.

It appears “exposure to letters A and F, even without any explicit reference to success or failure, significantly affected the students' performance,” said Ciani.

“We believe... exposure to the letter A made the students non-consciously approach the task with the aim to succeed, while exposure to letter F made the students non-consciously want to avoid failure. Research suggests that when people approach tasks with the desire to succeed they perform better than when striving to avoid failure.

“During the debriefing process, participants could recall their letter but were unaware of its role in the study. These findings support our hypothesis that the effect occurred outside of participants' conscious awareness.”

The findings were replicated in a third experiment in which 76 undergraduate students were asked to complete an anagram test in a laboratory setting, after being exposed to either A, F or J presented as “Subject ID.” Participants in the condition “A” got 65 percent more answers correct on average than those in condition “F.”

A lesson of the study is that “teachers should be careful not to use identification systems that map onto assessment systems,” Ciani remarked. For example, “teachers should avoid identifying different test forms using letters from the grading scale,” as that could distort the outcomes.

On the other hand, savvy teachers might want to exploit the effect, he added. Professors putting their students through a standardized test might consider “adorning classrooms with symbols of achievement, such as A+ and other success-oriented words and phrases.” But “it is important to note that the external validity of our research remains to be demonstrated,” he cautioned.

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