PISA 2015 – collaborative problem solving

Teenage students in Singapore have once again outperformed their peers around the world in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) testing, this time in collaborative problem solving.

New PISA 2015 data show Singapore topped the international rankings with a mean score of 561 points – the OECD average is 500 points. Japan (552 points), Hong Kong-China (541), Korea (538) and Canada (535) round out the top five. Australian students performed well, coming in 10th with 532 points, just behind neighbours New Zealand in ninth (533).

The OECD says students in Australia – along with those in New Zealand, Japan, Korea and the United States – performed much better in this assessment than would be expected, based on their scores in the PISA 2015 science, reading and mathematics tests. Australia performed equal 10th in science, equal 12th in reading and equal 20th in mathematics.

Girls outperformed boys in collaborative problem solving in every participating country and economy. The gender gaps are largest in Finland (48 points), Sweden (42), Australia (41) and New Zealand (41).

PISA testing takes place every three years and measures how well 15-year-olds are prepared to use their skills and knowledge to meet real-life challenges. A total of 72 countries and partner economies took part in the 2015 reading, science and mathematics tests; 52 participated in the computer-based, collaborative problem-solving test, which was a new domain for that PISA cycle. It measured students' ability to work with two or more people to reach a solution by pooling their knowledge, skills and efforts.

Problem-solving tasks and measurement scale

The test identified four aspects of individual problem solving (exploring and understanding, representing and formulating, planning and executing, and monitoring and reflecting) and three collaborative problem-solving competencies (establishing and maintaining shared understanding, taking appropriate action to solve the problem, and establishing and maintaining team organisation). Students tackled three types of tasks:

  • Jigsaw or hidden-profile tasks where the group members all have different information and skills and need each other to arrive at the solution.
  • Consensus-building tasks where groups have to come to a consensus after considering everyone's views, opinions and arguments.
  • Negotiation tasks where not all group members share the same goal and so the task is to find a win-win situation for individuals and the group as a whole.

There are five proficiency levels on the collaborative problem-solving scale: Levels 1-4 (with 4 being the highest) and below Level 1.

Top performing students, those proficient at Level 4 (scoring equal to or higher than 640 points), ‘can successfully carry out complicated problem solving tasks with high collaboration complexity. They maintain an awareness of group dynamics and ensure that team members act in accordance with their agreed-upon roles, while simultaneously monitoring progress towards a solution of the given problem. They take initiative and perform actions or make requests to overcome obstacles and to resolve disagreements and conflicts.'

To be proficient at Level 3 (540-639 points), students need to complete tasks with either complex problem-solving requirements or complex collaboration demands. ‘They can recognise the information needed to solve a problem, request it from the appropriate team member, and identify when the provided information is incorrect. These students can perform multi-step tasks that require integrating multiple pieces of information.'

Being proficient at Level 2 (440-539 points) means students ‘can contribute to a collaborative effort to solve a problem of medium difficulty. They can communicate with team members about the actions to be performed and they can volunteer information not specifically requested by another team member.'

Students at Level 1 (340-439 points) ‘can complete tasks with low problem difficulty and limited collaboration complexity. They tend to focus on their individual role within the group, but with support from team members, these students can help find a solution to a simple problem.'

Snapshot of the results

  • In Australia four out of five students (80 per cent), performed at Level 2 or higher: 15 per cent achieved Level 4 proficiency; 34 per cent achieved Level 3; and 31 per cent of students were at Level 2. Around 16 per cent of Australian students achieved Level 1 proficiency and 4 per cent were below Level 1.
  • Across OECD countries: 8 per cent of students achieved Level 4 proficiency (in Singapore 21 per cent were top performers); 28 per cent of students performed at Level 3; and 36 per cent of students achieved Level 2 proficiency.
  • On average across OECD countries, 28 per cent of students were able to solve only straightforward collaborative problems, if any at all (Level 1 and below Level 1).
  • Girls performed significantly better than boys in collaborative problem solving in every country and economy. On average across OECD countries, girls scored 29 points higher than boys. This is in contrast with the PISA 2012 assessment of individual problem solving, in which boys generally performed better than girls.
  • There were no significant performance differences between advantaged and disadvantaged students, or between immigrant and non-immigrant students, after accounting for performance in science, reading and mathematics. However, girls still scored 25 points higher than boys after accounting for performance in the three core PISA subjects.

Suggestions for educators

In an editorial in the report – PISA 2015 Results (Volume V): Collaborative Problem Solving – OECD Director of Education and Skills Andreas Schleicher says ‘… in a world that places a growing premium on social skills, a lot more needs to be done to foster those skills far more systematically across the school curriculum. Strong academic skills will not automatically also lead to strong social skills.'

The report notes although some countries are now including collaboration in their curricula, it's not a skill that's taught explicitly, rather through the teaching of other subjects. Top ranked performer Singapore introduced its Project Work pedagogical programme for Grade 11 in 2000. Students are assessed in relation to knowledge application (generating, developing and evaluating ideas and information) and communication (presenting ideas clearly and coherently in both written and oral form). Students need to use collaboration and independent learning to progress through the project tasks, but these skills are not assessed.

The OECD says results from the PISA collaborative problem-solving assessment show only 9 per cent of the differences in students' scores (after accounting for their performance in the three core domains of science, reading and mathematics), is observed between schools. ‘This would seem to indicate that no matter which school parents send their children to, their children have the opportunity to develop strong collaboration skills. However, PISA data cannot discern whether this is because schools are more equitable in providing learning opportunities for collaborative skills, or whether collaboration skills are mainly developed outside schools.'

Commenting on the gender gap, it says boys need particular support and educators might do this through developing their attitudes towards collaboration. Students were given a questionnaire about their attitudes towards collaboration which found girls tend to value relationships more than boys, whereas boys value teamwork more. ‘Schools should support both boys and girls who have trouble in forming healthy, positive and mutually supportive relationships with others,' the report advises.


OECD. (2017). PISA 2015 Results (Volume V): Collaborative Problem Solving. PISA, OECD Publishing: Paris. http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/9789264285521-en

How do you help your students to foster positive and supportive relationships with others? As a teacher, how do you model these skills in your interactions with colleagues?

How do you assess collaboration in your classroom? What tools do you use to measure the success of collaborative problem-solving activities, tasks or projects?