Seeing an 'A' Raises Test Scores
Certain Letters of the Alphabet Can Affect Achievement, Study Shows
WebMD News Archive
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
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
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