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Predicting Risky Achievement Orientations:

The Role of Attachment Representation and Student-Instructor Relationships

Gary L. Creasey, Patricia A. Jarvis, & Daniel Gadke

Illinois State University


In the present research, associations between student attachment stances, student-instructor relationships, and test anxiety were specified in a sample of college students. Following theory, two rival hypotheses were tested. The first hypothesis stipulated that student-instructor relationships would mediate associations between attachment functioning and test anxiety, whereas it was asserted in the second prediction that these relationships with instructors would moderate associations between attachment and test anxiety. To test these predictions, college students (N = 263) completed measures assessing attachment representations, student-instructor relationships and test anxiety in a randomly determined class. The aforementioned mediational model was not supported. However, it was documented that the relationship between attachment functioning and test anxiety was dependent on the student-instructor relationship. Thus, a moderator model was supported in the present study.


There is a dark side concerning achievement orientations; that is, some achievement expectancies are negatively correlated with achievement outcomes. One of the most frequently studied expectancies of this type concerns test anxiety or extremely negative/heightened cognitive, emotional and physiological responses associated with formative evaluations (Sogunro, 1998). Although some mild to modest stress is expected when faced with demanding academic tasks, that may even facilitate performance, there is a vast literature that suggests that high levels of test anxiety can undermine academic performance (Chapell et al., 2005; Zeidner, 1998).

Although a large volume of theory and research has been devoted to the identification of teaching strategies, study habits, and learning assignments that may affect achievement orientations, such as test anxiety (e.g., Carver & Scheier, 1984; Culler & Holahan, 1980), there is also work that has examined how student relationships with instructors may facilitate healthy and unhealthy achievement expectancies. In general, at all grade levels, students who indicate close, connected relationships with instructors report better achievement orientations and academic outcomes than their counterparts who perceive their instructor to be threatening, cold, or unsupportive (Pianta & Stuhlman, 2004).

Further, there is also evidence that the relationship schemes that students bring with them into the classroom also have a bearing on the development of student-instructor relationships, as well as achievement orientations. In general, children and adolescents who have secure attachment functioning have more academic success and more positive achievement expectancies than their insecure counterparts (e.g., Davis, 2003; Larose, Bernier, & Tarabulsy, 2005). Further, more secure college students report less academic performance anxiety than more insecure youth (Aspelmeier & Kerns, 2003).

Study Purpose

There may be two rival models that explain associations student attachment representations, student-instructor relationships and test anxiety. The first, a mediational model, would assume that more secure students form better relationships with instructors (e.g., Sroufe et al., 2005), that in turn, leads to less negative achievement expectancies, such as test anxiety. However, there is some evidence that secure relationships do not always translate to harmonious relationships with others, and that difficulties in emerging relationships can transpire if an individual emulates emotions and behaviors that are inconsistent with the working model of attachment that person holds (Treboux et al., 2004). For example, it is theoretically possible that more secure students would display high levels of evaluation apprehension if for some reason they had a threatening or anxious relationship with their instructor as such a schema is incongruent with their working model of attachment. Thus, a second model that was tested in this study was a moderator model, in that, associations between student attachment security and test anxiety may be dependent on the quality of the student-instructor relationship.


Participants: Traditional aged (18-22 years), full-time, college students (N = 263) were recruited via the Psychology Department Participant Pool at a large Midwestern public university. To assess test anxiety and instructor behavior in a single class, students were asked to list and number all of their courses taken for credit. Next, the researcher randomly selected a number, such as “3”, and students circled the class that matched the number. Thus, students were instructed to rate their behavior and that of the instructor in a single, randomly determined class concerning the following measures:

Relationship Questionnaire (RQ: Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991): The RQ contains paragraphs describing 4 general attachment styles: Secure, Dismissing, Preoccupied, and Fearful. Participants endorse ratings indicating to what degree they resemble each stance.

Student-Instructor Relationships: We adapted a popular attachment questionnaire (Experience in Close Relationships Scale-Revised; Fraley et al., 2000) to assess instructor connectedness (e.g., “I feel comfortable discussing my thoughts with this instructor”) (alpha= .92), and anxiety (e.g., “I’m nervous around this instructor”) (alpha = .87).

Test Anxiety: The test anxiety of the participants was assessed using a 5-item scale from the Motivated Strategies for Learning Questionnaire (MSLQ; Pintrich, Smith, Garcia, & McKeachie, 1991). The scale includes items such as, “I feel my heart beat fast when I take an exam” and “When I take tests I think of the consequences of failing” (alpha = .83).


First, a series of correlations were conducted to determine simple associations between the study variables. Surprisingly, attachment security as assessed via the Relationship Questionnaire (RQ) was not related to test anxiety, however, both student- instructor connectedness (r = - .17, p < .05) and instructor anxiety (r = .36, p < .05) were significantly related to evaluation apprehension. Because the projected independent variable (attachment) was not related to the dependent variable (test anxiety), an attachment by student-instructor relationship by test anxiety mediational model was not statistically pursued.

2) To test the prediction that student-instructor relationships moderated associations between attachment and test anxiety, a series of multiple regression analyses were conducted in which (as an example), test anxiety was regressed on RQ Secure, student-instructor relationships, and their interaction term (this was replicated for RQ Preoccupied; Dismissing; Fearful). Two major, higher order interactions were revealed. In the first, RQ Secure interacted with student-instructor anxiety to predict test anxiety.

3) Further, test anxiety was also moderated by the RQ Fearful scale, instructor anxiety and instructor connectedness. The simple slopes analyses for the 3-way interaction were more complex; however, generally revealing that test anxiety was the greatest for college students who were more fearful in terms of their general attachment orientation and reported more instructor anxiety and more instructor connectedness.


As predicted not all students who reported threatening relationships with instructors possessed test anxiety; rather, it was more indicative of students who reported more secure attachment representations and reported anxious relationships with their instructors. When integrating the study findings with attachment theory, our finding makes theoretical sense. For instance, if more secure individuals represent people whose attachment needs have been consistently addressed (Bowlby 1969/1982), then a threatening, anxiety-inducing instructor represents an individual who emulates behaviors that may challenge the model of a positive relationship a secure person holds. Indeed, in our earlier research, we have noted that students who report high relationship anxiety with instructors view them as unpredictable and/or lacking social skills.

We also noted that more fearful students who reported high instructor anxiety and connectedness also reported elevated test anxiety. Perhaps there is a type of instructor who makes valiant attempts to develop close, connected relationships with students, yet, perhaps in doing so, provokes a sense of anxiety in students with more fearful attachment stances. This is an idea that needs more research because students may respond differently to instructors who attempt (perhaps in some cases, too hard) to form connections with them.

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