Singapore students excel in problem-solving, a global study shows

Students at Crescent Girls’ Secondary School checking out one another’s O-level results on Jan 10, 2013 when O-level results were released. Singapore’s 15-year-olds don’t just excel in mathematics, science and reading, they are also worl
Students at Crescent Girls’ Secondary School checking out one another’s O-level results on Jan 10, 2013 when O-level results were released. Singapore’s 15-year-olds don’t just excel in mathematics, science and reading, they are also world beaters when it comes to solving complex and unfamiliar problems, a global study shows. -- ST FILE PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Singapore’s 15-year-olds don’t just excel in mathematics, science and reading, they are also world beaters when it comes to solving complex and unfamiliar problems, a global study shows.

They and South Korean teens emerged No 1, beating students from 42 other countries and economies who took part in a problem solving test, a subset of the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) study conducted two years ago which tested students skills in mathematics, science and reading.

For the online test on problem-solving, the 1,394 students here from across the streams in the 166 government secondary schools and six private schools including Madrasah Aljunied Al-Islamiah and Canadian International were required to tackle between four and eight problems with each problem containing several sub-questions.

The Top 10

Rank Country/Economy Score
1.  Singapore 562
2.  South Korea 561
3.  Japan 552
4. Macau 540
4. Hong Kong 540
6.  Shanghai 536
7. Taipei 534
8. Canada 526
9.  Australia 523
9.  Finland 523

Notes: The OECD average was 500. The UK scored 517 while the US scored 508. The difference in Singapore's and Korea’s scores was not statistically significant.Source: PISA 2012 Study 

For example, one question asked students to observe the simulated behaviour of a robot cleaner online and figure out the rules by which the robot cleaner operates.

It required students to explore and uncover relevant information, devise possible solutions, test them and eventually arrive at a final solution.

In a statement on Tuesday, the Education Ministry said the test results showed that Singapore students were quick learners, highly inquisitive, and able to experiment with alternatives and process abstract information.

They were also able to use the knowledge they have to solve the problems, and were goal-driven and persistent in completing their tasks.

It said the strong performance of students here shows that Singapore schools are on the right track in developing problem solving skills in their students.

It also noted that the latest results taken together with those released in December show that Singapore has one of the deepest and widest talent pool of students with the ability to apply thinking skills effectively to solve problems.

Singapore students came in second in mathematics, third in science and reading in the Pisa 2012 study released in December last year.

“Even our proportion of weaker or low performers in problem solving is among the lowest of all participating education systems,” said MOE, referring to the 8 per cent of students here who were classified as low performers. This is a third of the average for students from countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Almost three in 10 students were classified as high performers, close to three times that of the OECD average.

Pisa defines top performers as those whose proficiency level is at least level 5, out of a scale of 6 and low performers as those whose proficiency level is below level 2.

PISA 2012 sample questionTry some sample questions by clicking the picture above.

Dr Andreas Schleicher, special adviser on education to the OECD which conducts the tests, noted that Singapore’s education system has at times been criticised for encouraging rote learning at the expense of developing creative skills.

He said: “The Pisa assessment of problem solving skills proves those critics wrong. It shows that today’s 15-year-olds in Singapore are quick learners, highly inquisitive, able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts, and highly skilled in generating new insights by observing, exploring and interacting with complex situations.

“Indeed, no education system outperforms Singapore on this test.”

sandra@sph.com.sg