PISA data reveals students’ leanings

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In planning schemes of work for the coming year, some of the things that teachers should be reflecting on include which topics to spend more time on, and how lessons can engage more students. Fortunately, there is evidence available to base these decisions on.

PISA (Programme for International Students Assessment) is an international survey of countries’ educational systems, run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. Every three years more than half a million 15-year-old students from 72 different countries and economies take part in maths, literacy and science tests. The 2015 PISA Survey data comes from around the world and reveals the performance and attitudes of 15-year-olds in science, maths and reading. These tips for teachers are based on that data.

Students’ interest in science topics (%)

Spend time on interesting topics

In 60 countries surveyed, students said their favourite topics are disease prevention and the universe.

Including sufficient time to explore these topics in your work scheme could boost student engagement. The time of year you teach these topics matters too: it may help to include them when students are making option choices – or when they feel less motivated and would appreciate a little boost.

Use contexts to broaden engagement

Around the world, boys are more interested in forces and energy, while girls are more interested in preventing disease.

Real-life contexts broaden the appeal of different topics. For example, motion could be taught in the context of how to transport vital medical supplies, or heat transfers could be taught by designing a spacesuit for an astronaut on a spacewalk.

Develop a wider range of skills

The UK’s performance gap in science is just one mark between boys and girls. However, boys outperformed girls in maths by 11 marks, and girls outperformed boys by 20 marks in reading.

Plan lessons to reduce, rather than maintain, this performance gap. Regular extended writing tasks in science lessons develop skills in literacy – for example writing about how EM waves save lives after an earthquake allows students to plan structured answers, link ideas and be creative. Or preparing a safety report for a bungee jumping company could include calculations to develop maths skills.

Encourage science outside the classroom

In all countries, girls engage much less than boys in science activities such as watching TV programmes, attending science clubs, or reading about science.

Social pressure can put girls off coming science clubs, so invite them in person, and plan activities around their interests. Boys lag behind girls in reading skills but are more likely to read science books and magazines. You can support boys’ reading skills by ensuring science books and magazines are widely available, for example in school libraries or classrooms.

Number of countries in which a particular career was in the top five choices

Build careers into lessons

Students’ choice of occupation remains very gender-biased. More than twice as many boys than girls see themselves as future engineers, and nearly three times more girls than boys plan to work as health professionals.

Students become better informed about jobs and careers and can see beyond the stereotype if their lessons showcase science careers, for example engineers designing solutions to help people in a humanitarian emergency.

In the UK, 35% of strong performers in science and nearly 20% of low achievers wanted to work in science, so it’s useful to talk about jobs and careers with a wide range of entry-level requirements. UK students were more likely than almost every other OECD country to see school science as worthwhile to help with jobs, and to support future career prospects.

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Nicky Thomas

Nicky Thomas

IOP gender balance officer
Nicky Thomas

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