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What can teachers learn from PISA?

International assessments do much more than rank nations; they provide valuable information about what teachers can do in their classrooms to improve student achievement, as Sue Thomson explains.

The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) was designed to assist governments in regularly monitoring the outcomes of education systems in terms of the achievement of 15-year-old students within an internationally accepted common framework.

Covering reading literacy, mathematical literacy and scientific literacy, the information provided by PISA is vast and the national report dense. With public attention inevitably focused on country rankings, it is understandable that teachers might feel PISA has little relevance to their day-to-day classroom activity.

Delve deeper, though, and PISA also paints a national picture of students’ knowledge and understanding that provides educators with cues for teaching.

To provide further detail of that picture, ACER has produced three teacher guides addressing the reading, mathematical and scientific literacy of Australian students. In addition to explaining achievement gaps and discussing sample assessment items and responses, these guides also explore student attitudes, engagement and learning strategies.

Student learning strategies

An important outcome of education is the acquisition of the right strategies for learning. The types of learning strategies that students adopt can further influence their performance and determine whether they are engaging in deep or surface-level learning.

PISA focuses on three kinds of learning strategies – memorisation, elaboration and control strategies. Memorisation strategies include rote learning of facts and rehearsal of examples, while elaboration strategies involve relating new material to something the student already knows. Control strategies involve determining what one has already learned in order to determine what one still needs to learn.

In Australia, control strategies were found to have a moderate relationship with achievement: students with greater awareness of control strategies scored slightly higher in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy. As many students may need help to understand how to use control strategies, it is important that teachers consider ways that these can be taught explicitly in the classroom.

Memorisation and elaboration strategies were not found to be particularly useful for improving reading literacy. In terms of mathematics and science, PISA found that memorisation strategies are adequate if the learner’s goal is simply to retrieve information, but rarely lead to deep understanding.

Teachers can support students’ mathematics learning by providing direct and explicit instructions about strategies for understanding mathematics and tackling problems. To achieve understanding, new information must be integrated into a learner’s prior understanding using elaboration strategies, or using control strategies by which the learner identifies the most important material to learn and those concepts they still have not understood, and searches for more information to clarify a problem.

Strategies for reading comprehension

As reading literacy was the main focus of PISA in 2009, it also investigated two metacognitive strategies specific to reading, namely, strategies to understand and remember information, and to summarise information.

In terms of understanding and remembering information, students were asked to indicate the usefulness of six strategies. Discussing the contents of the text, underlining important parts and summarising the text in their own words were the more effective strategies for understanding and remembering information, while concentrating on the parts that are easier to understand, quickly reading through the text twice and reading the text aloud to another person were lower-level strategies.

To investigate student awareness of strategies for summarising information, PISA 2009 asked students to rate the usefulness of five strategies when writing summaries of texts. In general, Australian students were more likely to endorse higher-order strategies such as ‘Read text, underlining most important sentences then summarise these’ and ‘Check that most important facts covered in summary’ than lower-order strategies such as ‘Copy as many sentences as possible’ or ‘Read the text as many times as possible’.

In each of these two tasks, student awareness of the strategies was found to have a strong relationship with achievement. The differences in reading achievement between students with the lowest awareness of effective strategies and those with the highest awareness was the equivalent of three to four years of schooling.

Teachers can therefore support students’ understanding of the texts they encounter by providing direct and explicit instruction about strategies for reading comprehension.

Attitudes and engagement

PISA shows that students who enjoy reading do it more, and become better at it. To help close performance gaps and to address the fact that Australian students performed better in 2009 on items involving non-continuous texts, such as those incorporating tables, schedules and forms, teachers should ensure students are exposed to a broad range of texts and are encouraged to engage with both fiction and non-fiction pieces on a regular basis.

Similarly, students who are interested in and enjoy mathematics or science are more likely to be doing better in the subject; however, PISA also shows that enjoyment is not a necessary precursor to high achievement in mathematics or science. Understanding the role mathematics and science plays in a student’s future is also important. Teachers can therefore support students’ learning by explicitly relating their mathematics and science learning to the real world.

Of all the attitudinal and student belief constructs examined in PISA for Australian students, self-efficacy and self-concept were found to have the strongest relationship with scientific literacy. Students who were more confident of their ability to solve problems and who had higher belief in their own capacity to learn on average performed significantly better. Teachers can support students’ science learning by addressing their feelings of confidence and competence. â– 

Read the full report:

A Teacher's Guide to PISA Reading Literacy < >, A Teacher's Guide to PISA Mathematical Literacy < > and A Teacher's Guide to PISA Scientific Literacy  < > by Dr Sue Thomson, Kylie Hillman and Lisa De Bortoli are available for free download.

Further information:

ACER will release the Australian national report on the 2012 data collection of PISA on 3 December 2013, coinciding with the release of the international PISA study by the OECD in Paris.


About the author

Dr Sue Thomson is the Head of Educational Monitoring and Research at ACER and is the Research Director of ACER's Australian Surveys research program. 

More [rd] articles by Sue Thomson

View selected works of Sue Thomson

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