Schools and teachers are constantly under pressure to meet certain standards when it comes to test scores. And as the 2014 school year comes to an end, researchers want to deter teachers from using scare tactics as a means of pushing for higher scores. According to a new study published in the American Psychological Association's School Psychology Quarterly, scare tactics might actually lead to lower exam scores.

"Teachers are desperately keen to motivate their students in the best possible way but may not be aware of how messages they communicate to students around the importance of performing well in exams can be interpreted in different ways," lead author Dr. David Putwain said in a news release.

To investigate, researchers studied 347 students from two schools. The average age was 15, and 174 of the participants were male. All of the students came from an 18-month study program that helped them to prepare for the General Certificate of Secondary Education exam, which is the equivalent of a high school diploma. Students were asked to answer questions like how frequently their teachers tried to motivate them with fear of failure and how threatened they felt.

What did researchers find? The students whose teachers focused on failure said they felt threatened and less motivated. They also had a worse score than other students whose teachers used fewer fear tactics.

"If you fail the exam, you will never be able to get a good job or go to college. You need to work hard in order to avoid failure," was one example of motivation through fear. Messages focusing on success might include, "The exam is really important as most jobs that pay well require that you pass and if you want to go to college you will also need to pass the exam," according to the research.

"Both messages highlight to students the importance of effort and provide a reason for striving," Putwain said. "Where these messages differ is some focus on the possibility of success while others stress the need to avoid failure."

Schools can benefit from the guidance of psychologists by helping them to reconsider the types of messages they use in the classroom. Putwain also thinks that teachers need to understand how heavily weighted their influence is on students — in both negative and positive ways — by reconsidering the messages that they’re using now.    

"Teachers should plan what types of messages would be the most effective and how they could be incorporated into the lesson plans," he said.