Don't scare pupils into success, Ofqual tells teachers

High-stakes accountability is prompting teachers to use fear to pressure pupils to do well, says Ofqual

Exam anxiety: High-stakes accountability is prompting teachers to try to scare students into doing well in GCSEs, warns Ofqual

Teachers should not use scare tactics to push GCSE and A-level pupils to do better, a new report published by Ofqual suggests.

The report by Emma Howard, from the exam watchdog's strategy team, which reviews recent research into exam stress and anxiety, notes that teachers' use of scare tactics can increase pupils' nerves around tests, and that teachers may be responding to the pressures of school accountability and passing this on to pupils.


Related: 'We're far from understanding exam anxiety'

Investigation: More pupils experiencing ‘dark thoughts’ about exams

Long read: How to help girls overcome exam anxiety


"In the run-up to assessments, particularly those perceived as high-stakes, teachers might use tactics that they believe to be motivational to encourage studying and test preparation, such as fear appeals," Howard says in her report. 

"Fear appeals are messages that often emphasise the importance of high-stakes exams and the necessity of achieving certain grades for progression to subsequent education or employment. Teachers can also indicate the negative consequences of not responding to these messages, such as having unfavourable occupational opportunities.

Playing on pupils' fears

"The use of fear appeals is observed across the range of educational stages and even though the intention is to motivate academic behaviour, they can be detrimental."

The report notes that this can happen in primary and secondary schools. "For instance, constant references to national curriculum tests by teachers in primary schools is argued to be a source of fear for students," it says.

"And students studying for their GCSEs often experience fear appeals as an upsetting and anxiety-provoking threat.

"The degree to which a student internalises the fear appeal as a threat or a challenge depends on the student’s academic self-concept and their evaluation of the message. If the student believes that they are capable of achieving the desired outcome of the fear appeal, then the student typically interprets the message as challenging and responds positively with conducive academic behaviour.

"However, if the student does not believe that they can achieve the desired outcome, they typically interpret it as a threat and respond with behaviours that impede academic success (such as procrastination and avoidance).

"For those who perceive fear appeals as a threat, the worry and tension experienced as a result have been shown to contribute to higher levels of test anxiety, lower-class engagement and lower task performance." 

The report reinforces this point, saying: "Teachers’ use of fear appeals to try and encourage studying (which can be in response to perceived pressures from school accountability measures), the transference of stress from teachers to students, and stress transferred amongst students through social contagion are some ways that social interactions in the classroom can contribute towards test anxiety."

It adds that "unreasonably high expectations for attainment" from parents and teachers can also increase pressure for pupils. 

The report concludes that teachers need to help pupils combat exam stresses by creating positive learning environments, in which "cooperative" rather than "competitive" peer relationships are encouraged. 

And it notes that research shows that lower-ability pupils experience greater levels of exam-related anxiety than higher-ability peers. 

Today, Ofqual also published a blog on pupil anxiety with links to resources for teachers and students.

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