No gain without (some) pain

by Bonaventura Francesco Pacileo
Statistician, Directorate for Education and Skills

When Tim Duncan, captain of the the US National Basketball Association’s San Antonio Spurs, was spotted wearing a T-shirt saying “4 out of 3 people struggle with math”, everyone realised that he was counting himself among those who have a hard time with fractions, making the joke even funnier. What is less funny, though, is that PISA 2012 results show that more than one in four 15-year-old students in OECD countries are only able to solve mathematics problems where all relevant information is obvious and the solutions follow immediately from the given stimuli.

As a professional basketball player, Tim Duncan would probably agree that hard work is a prerequisite for attaining individual goals. Working hard is also important in education. According to this month’s PISA in Focus and the recently published report Low-performing Students: Why They Fall Behind and How to Help Them Succeed, most low-performing students share a common trait: they lack perseverance.

In most PISA-participating countries and economies, when students are asked to solve problems requiring some effort, low-performing students are more likely to report that they give up easily. Across OECD countries, 32% of low-performing students reported that they give up easily when confronted with a difficult mathematics problem compared to only 13% of top performers. Differences between the two groups are largest in Jordan, Portugal, Qatar, the Slovak Republic and the United Arab Emirates. This might lead us to conclude that these struggling students are largely responsible for their own academic failures, since they have ultimate control over how much effort they invest in their schoolwork.

But evidence from PISA tells another narrative: low-performing students may be less engaged at school because they believe their efforts do not pay off. This disengagement is obvious when students are asked about the returns to their efforts. While 81% of top performers agreed that they feel “prepared for mathematics exams”, only 56% of low performers agreed with that statement. Low-performing students seem to quit studying when they see their work as an unproductive and unprofitable waste of time. But at the same time, low-performing students often engage in activities that require numeracy skills. Perhaps surprisingly, they are actually more likely to play chess or to be members of a mathematics club.

The good news is that these kinds of activities may be exactly what could help low-performing students develop better study habits. PISA finds that interest in mathematics is greater among students who do mathematics as an extracurricular activity compared to students who do not, and this positive association is stronger among low-performing students. These additional learning opportunities, which could help students gain self-confidence and find enjoyment in mathematics, could be exploited to narrow performance gaps among students.

As Tim Duncan would put it, students need a proper training court where they can learn how to become champions.

Photo credit: Net Ball just before hitting the rim of the hoop @Shutterstock

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