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Certain Letters of the Alphabet Can Affect Achievement, Study Shows
By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News
Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD
March 12, 2010 -- Simply seeing the letter "A" before an exam might help you improve your grade, but spotting an "F" could make you perform poorly.
This finding comes from a study in which researchers set out to test their hypothesis that just seeing the letters A or F could influence performance on a test.
Keith Ciani, PhD, and Ken Sheldon, PhD, of the University of Missouri, say the study shows that the way people approach tasks can be manipulated through "non-conscious motivation."
A for Achievement
The researchers signed up 131 students for three separate experiments.
In the first, 23 undergraduates were asked to complete a number of analogies in a classroom setting. All the tests were the same, but half were labeled "Test Bank ID: A" and the other half "Test Bank ID: F".
Before starting the tests, the students were asked to write either the letter A or F in the top right-hand corner of each sheet.
Then each person's analogy tests were scored and compared between the groups. The researchers say a significant difference was noticed, with the A group doing much better than those who'd written an F on their papers. Those in the A group scored an average of 11.08 correct out of 12, compared to only 9.42 for those jotting down Fs.
Do Neutral Letters Have an Effect?
In another experiment, 32 students were placed in one of three groups: "Test Bank ID: A", Test Bank ID: F" or "Test Bank ID: J." The letter J is considered to have no performance meaning.
As before, those in the A group did better than the F group, and those given the letter J did better than the F group, but worse than the As.
"We think this study shows how success and failure mindsets can be primed without our awareness, with potentially pernicious effects," Sheldon says in an email to WebMD.
So what are the practical implications?
"Mainly, be careful about the subtle ways you may be priming different people or groups toward success or failure, and maybe use it to your advantage sometimes," he tells WebMD. "But also, be careful about using letter designation systems in achievement testing situations."
In a news release, Ciani says the research shows that "even without any explicit reference to success or failure," the letters A and F significantly affected student performance on tests.
"We believe that the meanings inherent in the evaluative letters were enough to influence their performance through the motivational state that they produced," he says. "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."
And previous research, he says, suggests that "when people approach tasks with the desire to succeed they perform better than when striving to avoid failure."
Teachers: Beware Unintentional Influence
In a third experiment, 76 undergraduates were asked to complete an anagram test after being exposed to the letters A, F, or J.
Again, the As did better, scoring an average 6.02 out of 7, compared to only 3.65, on average, for the Fs.
"We believe the primary implication from this research is that students are vulnerable to evaluative letters presented before a task," the researchers say in the news release. "Teachers should be careful not to use identification systems that map onto assessment systems."
Showing students letters may inadvertently prime them to do better or worse than they might otherwise, the researchers say, but latching onto this effect "may be desired by savvy teachers."
The two conclude that "adorning classrooms with symbols of achievement may activate effort, pride, and the intention to perform well in standardized testing situations."
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Ciani, K. British Journal of Educational Psychology, March 2010.
Ken Sheldon, PhD, University of Missouri.
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