Motivating Students With Fear

Photograph by James Leynse/Corbis

The secret to getting students to study more may be to scare the bejesus out of them.

Michael Armstrong, a professor at the Goodman School of Business at Canada’s Brock University, recently conducted a study using 144 business students. The guinea pigs were mostly average or above-average students enrolled in an introductory operations management course from January 2011 to April 2012.

Students, as a general rule, aren’t great at estimating their learning progress, with the worst students tending to be the most optimistic, previous research has shown. Yet grades themselves are utterly predictable. By tracking grades on tests and class assignments, Armstrong was able to predict, with a high degree of accuracy, the final grade any given student would receive.

He developed a grading crystal ball—OK, a spreadsheet—and allowed students in the class to get a peek at the future. For many, it was pretty terrifying. Nearly a third of the students said their forecast grades were lower than expected.

Did the fear of failure prompt students to hit the books? When Armstrong surveyed the students at the end of the class, he found that 47 percent were studying more than planned. Low grade forecasts spurred students to study more, while high grade forecasts led to less studying.

Armstrong cautions that many below-average students in the class declined to participate in the study. While good students studied more after after getting a low grade forecast, there’s no guarantee that students who are accustomed to poor grades would be so motivated. In fact, there’s some evidence to the contrary. In Armstrong’s study, which was published April 8 in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, students who reported that their forecast grades were lower than expected were not motivated to study more.

“One possibility is that some students simply want to pass the course, and as long as that happens, they don’t care too much about their grade. For them, a low grade forecast indicates a high risk of failure, so they work harder; a high grade indicates a low risk, so they study less,” Armstrong explains. “A grade that happens to be higher or lower than expected is not important to them, so they shrug it off and carry on.”

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