To Flunk or Not to Flunk?

Michael Zaidel


Flunking can be viewed as a way to further ready a student who is not ready to advance to the next level. Others view it as “don’t pass go, don’t collect $200”. To address the seriousness of failing to the student, usually him or her is threatened with being flunked. While the idea is to scare the student and force him or her to pick up the pace, is threatening students with the thought of flunking a reasonable action?

Instilling a fear of failing in the student, while in the short run may make the student study for the next test, does not help the student succeed. Many publications describe and test this. Described in the very popular and heavily referenced journal, American Psychological Association:

     “Students who said they felt threatened by their teachers’ messages that frequently focused on failure reported feeling less motivated and scored worse on the exam than students who said their teacher used fewer fear tactics that they considered less threatening, the study found.”

This American Psychological Association study was completed over 18 months, with different teachers, students, and courses. After exam periods, students reported to a researcher to answer a questionnaire. Students were asked questions about their recent exam, why they were motivated (if applicable) to try, if they felt threatened, and how they felt, on a 1 to 5 scale.

Specifically, the study tested which phrases prompted students to try harder in school. Phrases that stressed that the test/course was important for college had a positive effect on the students’ successes. In contrary, phrases which threatened the student with failure regressed in their abilities and motivation.

These results show that how a lesson is delivered to the student is important to the overall motivation and push for success. Threatening students with failure, which is meant to warn the student, ends up making the student fail.

Critics of the anti-fear argument state that a healthy fear is necessary to make a student succeed, as stated by Mary Sherry, in her article In Praise of The F Word. However, this study, and many parallel studies show that this methodology of fear is counter-productive. This threat of flunking does not help the student; it scares them. The realization of potential or imminent failure does not give a push to succeed, it overwhelms the student.

Empowering the student to achieve or providing a source of incentive to work in school proves to be a useful strategy. Especially in the later grades, when giving up looks to the student as an easy option, threats to flunk can be seen as another reason to stop trying.