Australian teens are up for a challenge

When it comes to problem-solving, do you persevere or give up easily? What about a difficult problem - are you more likely to put it off or do you relish the challenge and think 'bring it on'?

According to a new international study, Australian teenagers performed better than expected in problem-solving (based on their performance in maths) and they were more likely to persevere.

The PISA assessment, carried out in 2012, involved 85 000 15-year-olds from 44 countries and economies. It focused on general reasoning skills, their ability to regulate problem-solving processes and their willingness to do so.

Tasks assessed mathematical literacy, reading literacy and scientific literacy. The challenges included adjusting a new air conditioner that had arrived without instructions, operating a train ticketing machine, and figuring out the behaviour of a robot vacuum cleaner.

The results are detailed in Thinking it through: Australian students’ skills in creative problem solving, released by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

Overall, students in Australia achieved a mean score of 523 points, significantly above the OECD average of 500. Only seven of the 44 countries and economies outperformed Australia.

Students in Australia also reported a significantly higher level of perseverance than the OECD average. Approximately two-thirds said it was not like them to give up easily when working on a problem; almost half said it was not like them to put off difficult problems; and half reported that it was like them to stay interested in tasks they started and work on them until everything was perfect.

Some went above and beyond - one-third of Australian 15-year-olds said it was like them to do more than what was expected of them when they were faced with a problem.

Discussing the value of problem-solving skills, the ACER report said: 'Every individual, regardless of who they are and what they do, will encounter problems that they will need to solve.'

It added that, in some cases, skills and knowledge taught in school are used to solve a problem, but there are other situations that individuals won't be familiar with. The PISA assessment measured how well prepared students were to solve these complex, unfamiliar problems.

'... Australian students are good at generating new knowledge and can be characterised as quick learners - questioning their knowledge and challenging assumptions, and generating and experimenting with alternatives - and good at abstract-information processing,' the report said.

Although males significantly outperformed females in problem-solving in half the participating countries and economies, there were no significant differences between the sexes in Australia.

When the results were broken down into states and territories, the mean scores were similar, apart from Tasmania, where students performed significantly lower than the OECD average.

Students attending metropolitan schools in Australia performed at a significantly higher level (528 points on average) than those in provincial (510 points) and remote areas (475 points).

Indigenous students scored, on average, 454 points for problem-solving - significantly lower than non-Indigenous students (526).

Performance in maths is seen as a good indicator of a student’s ability to solve problems. In Australia, England and the US, the best students in maths also had excellent problem-solving skills.

Commenting on areas for improvement, the ACER report said using knowledge to come up with a plan and execute it is an area where Australian students' skills could be improved.


De Bortoli, L., & Macaskill, G. (2014). Thinking it through: Australian students’ skills in creative problem solving. Retrieved from

How do you assess problem solving skills in your school?

Have you implemented activities that reflect situations that students are likely to face in real life?

How have the students responded to the activities?