Australian Students getting Positive Results

Australia is among a small group of nations where positive attitudes towards school are linked to student success. What's going on?

By Shane Green

When Professor Jihyun Lee arrived in Australia to teach university students after working in the United States and Singapore for a decade, she was struck by Australian students’ attitudes compared to students in other parts of the world.

It came down to student expectations, says Professor Lee. The attitude among Australian students was this: ‘I’m here, you better make me feel good about myself’.

‘I’ve been here for five years now, I’m getting used to it,’ says Professor Lee. ‘But when I first came here, it was quite a cultural shock for me.’

That difference in the attitudes of students might be partly explained by the findings of research by Professor Lee, from the School of Education at the University of New South Wales .

She sought to find out whether a student’s attitude towards school affects academic performance.

Professor Lee drew on data from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) collected from 2003 to 2012 where more than 60 countries participated.

Apart from testing reading, maths and science, PISA also asks questions about students’ attitudes and beliefs.

They were given four simple options:

  • school has done little to prepare me for adult life when I leave school
  • school has been a waste of time
  • school helped give me confidence to make decisions
  • school has taught me things that could be useful in a job.

Professor Lee found there was no relationship between how a student performed in school academically and their attitude to school in almost all of the countries.

But there were three exceptions: Qatar, Iceland and Australia.

In these three countries, separated culturally and geographically, there was a link between student success and a positive attitude to school.

That Australia falls out of the pattern of no relationship between success and attitudes is a good thing at many levels.

Writing on the broader findings in Aeon, the online magazine, Professor Lee expressed the view that students not being positive towards their school may be a problem.

If students find it difficult to see the direct benefits of their schooling, it’s possible this will affect their views of formal institutions later in life.

‘Formal institutions shape the lives of citizenry,’ she wrote. ‘They need to be upheld, bettered and strengthened – not discarded out of hand. So students should be taught to invest themselves in formal institutions, rather than tear them down or fail to take part in them.’

So the data from the PISA survey places Australia is a good position. That positive attitude towards school among our brighter students may translate into establishment or support of institutions later in life.

Professor Lee believes Australian schools are doing lots of things right.

But are they putting too much emphasis on ensuring students have a great experience at school?

‘Australian teachers in general are very attentive,’ says Professor Lee. ‘I almost feel sorry for Australian teachers because so much time is spent pleasing each and every individual student in the classroom.’

That attention from teachers may be the reason behind the different attitudes by Australian students to their schools.

But is there a cost at an academic level? The very same PISA surveys used by Professor Lee also indicate a slide in the performance of Australia compared to other countries in the survey.

There has to be a trade-off, says Professor Lee.

Teachers have limited resources and time. ‘There are two sides – teaching content versus making sure students feel really good,’ says Professor Lee. Achieving both would be ideal, she says, but the reality of classroom operation may, unfortunately, call for focusing on one or the other.

You can read Professor Lee’s full article in Aeon.

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