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Australian 15-year-olds anxious about schoolwork

26 November 2018

Australian students reported higher levels of schoolwork-related anxiety than the OECD average, with 65 per cent worrying they will get poor grades at school, according to an ACER report.

The report by Research Fellow Marina Schmid from the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) uses data from the latest Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which surveyed 15-year-olds about their schoolwork-related anxiety, and earlier PISA surveys, which looked more closely at anxiety about maths.

Students in the Australian Capital Territory, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia reported the highest levels of schoolwork-related anxiety, compared to other states and territories.

In all participating countries, including Australia, females reported higher anxiety related to their schoolwork than males.

Indigenous students, those from the lowest socioeconomic quartile and students not born in Australia reported higher levels of schoolwork-related anxiety.

Anxiety levels by numbers

Students were asked to indicate their level of agreement to five statements:

  • I get nervous when I do not know how to solve a task at school (60 per cent of Australian students agreed)
  • I get very tense when I study for a test (47 per cent)
  • I feel very anxious even if I am well prepared for a test (68 per cent)
  • I worry I will get poor grades at school (65 per cent)
  • I often worry that it will be difficult for me to take a test (62 per cent).

The results are described in figure A.3.

Internationally, the highest levels of schoolwork-related anxiety were reported in Singapore, and the lowest levels in Finland, both academically high-performing countries.

ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson said: ‘A recent report in the same series showed Finland and Estonia recording low levels of achievement motivation, suggesting an interesting pattern for these countries – high performance associated with lower anxiety and attitudes that focus less on comparison and competition between students.’

Other high-performing countries that scored higher than the OECD average on the schoolwork-related anxiety index were Japan, Hong Kong (China), Macao (China), Singapore and Canada.

‘Overall, PISA results show that countries where students are highly motivated to achieve also tend to be the countries in which many students feel anxious about their schoolwork,’ Dr Thomson said. ‘Students need to find a balance between striving for success and placing unnecessary and potentially harmful pressure on themselves.’

Dr Thomson said the lesson for Australian schools is to strive to motivate students in a way that does not add to performance-related anxiety.

‘Performance is optimal where pressure is neither too low, where no one really cares how anyone does, nor too high, where deadlines are too tight and a sense of panic can set in,’ Dr Thomson said.

Mathematics anxiety

Mathematics anxiety was surveyed as a specific focus area in the 2003 and 2012 PISA assessments. Most countries reported increased agreement with statements demonstrating maths anxiety over this period, with the greatest increases recorded in Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. However, Japan and Hong Kong (China) recorded decreased agreement with statements demonstrating maths anxiety.

In 2012, 67 per cent of female students and 52 per cent of male students in Australia agreed with the statement I get very tense when I have to do mathematics homework.

‘The differences between males’ and females’ levels of anxiety were large, especially in relation to maths anxiety, in every participating country,’ Dr Thomson said. ‘Female participation in science, technology, engineering and maths is a challenge for most countries, so low levels of self-confidence in these areas among female students needs to be addressed.’

Mathematics anxiety levels remain higher among Indigenous students, on average, than among non-Indigenous students. Students in the lowest socioeconomic quartile reported higher levels of mathematics anxiety than students from the highest socioeconomic quartile.

The report analyses data produced by the PISA survey, a large-scale three-yearly study of the reading, science and mathematics literacy of more than half a million 15-year-olds in 72 countries, including 14 500 students in 750 Australian schools. The schoolwork-related anxiety data were collected in 2015, and the mathematics anxiety data collected in 2003 and 2012. PISA is managed in Australia by ACER. ■

Further information:

Read the full report, PISA Australia in Focus Number 4: Anxiety, by Marina Schmid and published by ACER, at https://research.acer.edu.au/ozpisa/33/

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