PISA results look into complexity of students’ well-being

published 19 April 2017 updated 21 April 2017

The latest set of results from the 2015 PISA study published today focuses on students’ well-being and the role families, teachers and the school community play in achieving quality education for all.

Education goes way beyond testing and scoring. Today, the OECD released a comprehensive report stressing the importance of student’s well-being for the achievement of quality education. In this third volume, which draws from results of the 2015 study, the focus lies on the answers provided by the student questionnaire which accompanied the main student assessment.

The OECD’s definition of life satisfaction focuses on students’ psychological, cognitive, social and physical capabilities, with well-being defined as the quality of life of 15 year old students.

Key findings

The report includes some key findings that shed light on the complex interrelationships between students’ well-being, their academic results and the socio-economic structures they belong to.

  • It asserts that the frequency of tests is unrelated to students’ level of schoolwork-related anxiety. Instead, students’ perceptions of assessment as more or less threatening determine how anxious students feel about tests.
  • The report highlights the role of teachers in the mitigation of the said anxiety, stating that students are less likely to report anxiety if the teacher provides individual help when they are struggling.
  • Students’ interactions with their parents directly influence their achievements.
  • The sense of belonging to the school environment is reported as crucial for students’ well-being. Although the majority of students feel they belong to their school community, in ‘several countries students’ sense of belonging has weakened since 2003’, the text notes. It underlines bullying as one of the factors that contributes or damages this sense of belonging to the school community, with boys affected by it to a larger extent than girls. The report also includes the use and hours spent on the internet outside of school as a factor that determines or reveals the degree of integration of students into their learning communities.

Socio-economic background remains the greatest barrier

Much of the evidence of the study points to students’ socio-economic background as the main factor determining their academic success. While there is no evident relationship between adolescents’ life satisfaction and their country’s GDP (unlike the case with adults) – and with students in low-achieving countries even reporting higher levels of life satisfaction than students in high-achieving countries – students from disadvantaged backgrounds are still much less likely to complete a university degree.

Disadvantaged students are about 6 percentage points more likely to work for pay than advantaged students. Students who work for pay tend to score lower in science and to report feeling like an outsider at school, having lower expectations of further education, arriving late for school, and skipping school.

OECD policy headlines

The key points for improvement as suggested by the study are to:

  • Identify and share good practices to raise intrinsic motivation to succeed.
  • students the means to take well-informed decisions for their future studies.
  • Provide effective teacher training on classroom and relationship management.
  • Prevent bullying and provide support to victims, bullies and bystanders.
  • Encourage parental involvement and remove barriers to participation in school activities.
  • Address the impact of socio-economic inequalities on students’ perceptions about themselves and their aspirations for the future.
  • Teach the benefits of an active and healthy lifestyle through physical and health education.
  • Promote healthy and productive use of the internet.

Reactions to the report

PISA 2015’s report on student well-being emphasises the vital role of schools in their communities, according to Fred van Leeuwen, Education International’s General Secretary. “A sense of belonging at school for students is fundamentally important for their achievement and happiness. In fact the concept of ‘the happy school’ highlights just how important schools and their teachers are to young people’s lives. The idea that schools and teachers can somehow be substituted by MOOCs and out-of-school learning is implicitly, but fundamentally rejected by the report”, he said.

Van Leeuwen regretted that the report does not factor in the views of teachers from the PISA teacher questionnaire. He also noted that imprecations that teachers must try harder “do not constitute a strategy or an analysis. There is nothing in the report on the damaging impact of aggressive evaluation regimes on teachers, nor on the implications for the curriculum and staffing of its important calls to enhance student well-being and belonging at schools”, he said.

Finally he noted that the need for an urgent study on teachers’ well-being as its relationship with student well-being was greatly enhanced by the findings of PISA 2015.

Along the same lines, Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of Teachers and  Chair of the EI/OECD Advisory Committee said that “today’s PISA results may not capture the headlines that the country rankings do, but they are more important; the results make crystal clear that students’ well-being matters. Countries and schools that do well fight the fixation on testing, focusing instead on children’s joy in and out of the classroom. Helping every student succeed involves measuring more than test scores—and that includes valuing parental and educator voice, reducing stress, and providing access to a rich and meaningful curriculum.”