Students’ engagement with school, the belief that they can achieve at high levels, and their ability and willingness to do what it takes to reach their goals not only play a central role in shaping students’ ability to master academic subjects, they are also valuable attributes that will enable students to lead full lives, meeting challenges and making the most of available opportunities along the way.
The Executive Summary of the PISA ‘Ready to Learn’ report, published in April 2014, highlights the following conclusions about the importance of student engagement with school learning, which will be of interest to teachers and parents:
Four out of five students in OECD countries agree or strongly agree that they feel happy at school or that they feel like they belong at school. Not all students are equally likely to report a strong sense of belonging: on average across OECD countries, for example, 78% of disadvantaged but 85% of advantaged students agree or strongly agree with the statement “I feel like I belong at school”.
Although the vast majority of students reported a strong sense of belonging, more than one in three students in OECD countries reported that they had arrived late for school in the two weeks prior to the PISA test; and more than one in four students reported that they had skipped classes or days of school during the same period. Lack of punctuality and truancy are negatively associated with student performance. On average across OECD countries, arriving late for school is associated with a 27-point lower score in mathematics, while skipping classes or days of school is associated with a 37-point lower score in mathematics – the equivalent of almost one full year of formal schooling.
Students who are more perseverant and more open to problem solving perform at higher levels in mathematics. For example, students who feel they can handle a lot of information, are quick to understand things, seek explanations for things, can easily link facts together, and like to solve complex problems score 31 points higher in mathematics, on average, than those who are less open to problem solving. Among high achievers, the difference between the two groups of students is even greater – an average of 39 score points.
Across most countries and economies, socio-economically disadvantaged students not only score lower in mathematics, they also have lower levels of engagement, drive, motivation and self-beliefs. Resilient students, disadvantaged students who achieve at high levels, break this link. Resilient students report much higher levels of perseverance, intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, mathematics self-efficacy, mathematics self-concept and lower levels of mathematics anxiety than disadvantaged students who perform at lower levels; in fact, they share many of the characteristics of advantaged high-achievers.
One way that a student’s negative self-belief can manifest itself is in anxiety towards mathematics. Some 30% of students reported that they feel helpless when doing mathematics problems: 25% of boys, 35% of girls, 35% of disadvantaged students, and 24% of advantaged students reported feeling that way. Mathematics anxiety is strongly associated with performance. On average across OECD countries, greater mathematics anxiety is associated with a 34-point lower score in mathematics – the equivalent of almost one year of school. Between 2003 and 2012, mathematics self-efficacy tended to increase in those countries that also showed reductions in the level of mathematics anxiety. This was true in Iceland and Portugal, for example, where steep drops in mathematics anxiety coincided with increases in students’ mathematics self-efficacy.
PISA results show that even when girls perform as well as boys in mathematics, they report less perseverance, less openness to problem solving, less intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, lower mathematics self-concept and higher levels of anxiety towards mathematics than boys, on average; they are also more likely than boys to attribute failure in mathematics to themselves rather than to external factors. In most countries and economies, the average girl underperforms in mathematics compared with the average boy; and among the highest-achieving students, the gender gap in favour of boys is even wider. However, PISA reveals that the gender gap, even among the highest-achieving students, is considerably narrower when comparing boys and girls with similar levels of drive, motivation and mathematics self-beliefs.
In many countries, students’ motivation, self-belief and dispositions towards learning mathematics are positively associated not only with how well they perform in mathematics, but also with how much better these students perform compared to other students in their school. In all countries except Belgium, Croatia, Finland, Korea and Romania, students’ intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics is positively associated with how much better students perform compared to other students in their schools; in Argentina, Austria, Chile, France, Germany, Liechtenstein, Peru and Slovenia, a student’s standing relative to others in the school is strongly associated with his or her self-beliefs in learning mathematics; and in Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Japan, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and Slovenia, students who perform better compared to others in their school report significantly less mathematics anxiety.
Teacher-student relations are strongly associated with students’ engagement with and at school. In all countries and economies except Hong Kong-China, Indonesia, Liechtenstein, Malaysia and Turkey, among students with equal mathematics performance and similar socio-economic status, students who attend schools with better teacher-student relations are less likely to report that they had arrived late during the two weeks prior to the PISA test. In addition, in all countries and economies, among students with equal performance and similar socio-economic status, those who attend schools with better teacher-student relations reported a stronger sense of belonging and greater intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics.
Parents’ expectations are strongly and positively associated not only with students’ mathematics performance but also with positive dispositions towards learning. Across the 11 countries and economies that distributed a questionnaire to parents, students whose parents have high expectations for them – who expect them to earn a university degree and work in a professional or managerial capacity later on – tend to have more perseverance, greater intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics, and more confidence in their own ability to solve mathematics problems than students of similar socio-economic status and academic performance, but whose parents hold less ambitious expectations for them.