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How the Letter A Improves Test Performance

How the Letter A Improves Test PerformanceCould simply viewing the letter “A” before a test help improve your test performance? New research finds that not only does seeing the letter “A” before an exam improves students’ performance, but seeing the letter “F” makes a student more likely to fail.

“The letters A and F have significant meaning for students, A represents success and F, failure,” noted researchers Keith Ciani and Ken Sheldon at the University of Missouri.

“We hypothesized that if students are exposed to these letters prior to an academic test it could affect their performance through non-conscious motivation.”

A total of 131 students took part in three separate experiments. In the first, 23 undergraduates were asked to complete a number of analogies in a classroom setting. All of the tests were the same; however, half of the tests were labeled ‘Test Bank ID: A’, and the other half ‘Test Bank ID: F’. Before starting the test the participants were asked to write their Test Bank ID letter in the top right hand corner of each sheet.

Each participant’s analogy tests were scored and compared between the groups. A significant difference between the two groups was found, with the A group performing significantly better than the F group: The A group scored on average 11.08 correct out of 12, and the F group only 9.42 correct on average.

In the second study, the experiment was repeated with 32 students, but as well as Test Bank ID: A’ and ‘Test Bank ID: F’ groups, some of the students were given ‘Test Bank ID: J,’ a letter without any specific performance meaning.

Again, participants in the A group performed significantly better on the analogy test than participants on the F group. Participants given the letter J performed better than F, but worse than A.

“These findings suggest that exposure to letters A and F, even without any explicit reference to success or failure, significantly affected the students’ performance on the tests,” noted the researchers.

“We believe that the meanings inherent in the evaluative letters were enough to influence their performance through the motivational state that they produced. 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 also 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 scored on average 6.02 correct out of 7, but F scored only 3.65 on average.

“We believe the primary implication from this research is that students are vulnerable to evaluative letters presented before a task. Teachers should be careful not to use identification systems that map onto assessment systems.

“For example, in a course with letter grading, teachers should avoid identifying different test forms using letters from the grading scale. Doing so may inadvertently prime students to do better or worse than their ability and preparation would predict.

“Conversely, this effect may be desired by savvy teachers. Adorning classrooms with symbols of achievement, such as A+ and other success-oriented words and phrases may activate effort, pride.”

This is the finding of a study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology in March 2010.

Source: British Psychological Society

How the Letter A Improves Test Performance

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APA Reference
News Editor, P. (2018). How the Letter A Improves Test Performance. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 9 Mar 2010)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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