School life, student life and student wellbeing – insights from PISA
From its first assessment, the OECDs Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) has been asking students about their motivations and dispositions towards learning, such as their enjoyment of reading and their anxiety towards mathematics.
In more recent assessments, PISA also asked students about their more general social and emotional state, including their satisfaction with life, their feelings and their fear of failure, in order to establish a more holistic appreciation of education outcomes and student wellbeing. In addition, an optional questionnaire on wellbeing was distributed as part of PISA 2018.
All of these questions connect school life with the broader ecosystem in which students live – the family, their peers, and the community – and provide information on the development of 15-year-old students.
Satisfaction with life
Across OECD countries, about two in three students reported that they are satisfied with their lives, a percentage that shrank by five percentage points between 2015 and 2018. More than 85 per cent of students reported sometimes or always feeling happy, cheerful or joyful; but about 6 per cent of students reported always feeling sad. In almost every education system, girls expressed greater fear of failure than boys, even when they outperformed boys in reading by a large margin – and this gender gap was considerably wider amongst top-performing students. Positive student wellbeing was also associated with a higher proportion of resilient students.
PISA 2018 shows that school life is closely related to the wellbeing of 15-year-old students. For instance, the three aspects of students' lives that are more strongly associated with expressions of sadness are how satisfied students are with the way they look, with their relationships with their parents, and with school life. Ultimately, the wellbeing of students may also affect their academic performance. In this regard, PISA data show that students who were frequently bullied were more likely to have skipped school and scored lower in reading.
A positive school climate is one of those things that is difficult to define and measure, but everyone recognises it when they see it. Students appreciate a school environment where bullying is unusual, where students do not feel awkward or out of place, and where establishing genuine and respectful relationships with teachers is the norm. PISA 2018 shows that school climate is closely associated with students' sense of wellbeing.
The disciplinary climate in language-of-instruction lessons is also one of the strongest predictors of reading performance. In all countries, students who reported fewer disciplinary problems in their language-of-instruction lessons performed better in reading, after accounting for the socioeconomic profile of students and schools. More specifically, on average across OECD countries, students who reported that students cannot work well in every or most language-of-instruction lessons scored 25 points lower in reading than students who reported that this never happened or happened only in some lessons, after accounting for socioeconomic status.
Even occasional disciplinary problems were negatively associated with reading performance. Students who reported that disciplinary problems occur in some language-of-instruction lessons scored between five and nine points lower in reading than students who reported that the problems never, or hardly ever, occur.
The good news is that the disciplinary climate in schools generally improved between 2009 and 2018, according to students' reports – especially in Albania, Korea and the United Arab Emirates. For example, on average across OECD countries, the percentage of students who reported that their classmates in their language-of-instruction lessons always, or almost always, listen to what the teacher says, or can work well, increased by about four percentage points during that period. That's good news because all types of students appeared to benefit from a positive disciplinary climate. The relationship between disciplinary climate and reading performance was relatively stable across students' gender, socio-economic status and immigrant background.
Teacher support and enthusiasm
PISA 2018 also asked students whether their language-of-instruction teacher supports them in their schoolwork and is enthusiastic about teaching.
Around three in four students reported that, in most or every lesson, the teacher gives extra help when students need it and that the teacher helps students with their learning. In most countries, students scored higher in reading when they perceived their teachers as more enthusiastic, especially when they said their teachers were interested in the subject.
On average across OECD countries and in 43 education systems, students who perceived greater support from teachers scored higher in reading, after accounting for the socioeconomic profile of students and schools. Equally important, teacher enthusiasm and teachers' stimulation of reading engagement were the teaching practices most strongly (and positively) associated with students' enjoyment of reading.
Of course, most teachers care about having positive relationships with their students; but some teachers might be insufficiently prepared to deal with difficult students and classroom environments. Effective classroom management consists of far more than establishing and imposing rules, rewards and incentives to control behaviour; it requires the ability to create a learning environment that facilitates and supports students' active engagement in learning, encourages cooperation, and promotes behaviour that benefits other people.
A stronger focus on classroom and relationship management in professional development programmes may give teachers some of the tools they need to connect better with their students. Teachers also need the time to share information about students' strengths and weaknesses with their colleagues, so that, together, they can find the best approaches to make students feel part of the school community.
A sense of belonging and parent participation
Clearly, what goes on at school can have an impact not only on students' attitudes towards learning, but on their feelings, in general. Parents recognise this, too, as they cited school safety, school climate and school reputation as the most important criteria when choosing a school for their child, followed closely by students' academic achievement and the offering of specific subjects or courses.
PISA 2018 finds that in all 65 countries with available data, students were more likely to express positive feelings, in general, when they reported a stronger sense of belonging at school; and in virtually all school systems, students who perceived their peers to be more cooperative were more likely to express positive feelings.
Teachers and principals often count on parents to help them create a positive learning environment in their schools. According to school principals, about 41 per cent of students' parents discussed their child's progress with a teacher on their own initiative and 57 per cent did so on the initiative of teachers.
PISA finds that parents' involvement in their child's education is positively associated with student performance. The average score in reading was higher in those countries where more parents discussed their child's progress on the initiative of teachers, and that positive association remained even after accounting for per capita GDP and for other forms of parental involvement in school-related activities.
In fact, for every 10 percentage point increase in the share of parents who discussed their child's progress on the teachers' initiative, the average reading score in the country or economy improved by 10 points on average across the 74 countries with available data, after accounting for national income and other factors. The prevalence of parents discussing their child's progress on the initiative of teachers may be an indication of a school system's responsiveness.
Yet school principals and teachers may be overlooking some challenges if they only pay attention to what is happening inside the classroom. Although a majority of students reported that they feel they belong at school – across OECD countries, about seven in 10 students agreed or strongly agreed that they feel like they belong at school – students' sense of belonging at school weakened considerably between 2003 and 2015 and waned even further between 2015 and 2018. Even students in Japan and Korea, who enjoyed one of the best disciplinary climates of all PISA-participating countries (e.g. they rarely skipped school or arrived late for school, and a clear majority of them reported that they had never been bullied) were some of the most dissatisfied with their lives, at least according to their own reports. In addition, they expressed greater fear of failure, and were about twice as likely as students in other OECD countries to report that they always feel scared or sad.
Furthermore, the share of students who reported being frequently bullied increased by around four percentage points since 2015, on average across OECD countries. More than one in five students reported being bullied at school at least a few times a month. Most of the reported bullying was verbal or relational (others made fun of the student, the student was the object of nasty rumours, or the student was left out of things on purpose) rather than physical. For example, more than 10 per cent of students in 67 out of 75 countries reported that their peers made fun of them at least a few times a month; but on average across OECD countries, around 7 per cent of students reported that they got hit or pushed around by other students that often.
Bullying can have adverse – and potentially long-lasting – effects on students' performance at school and their general wellbeing. Students who reported being frequently bullied scored 21 points lower in reading than students who did not report so, after accounting for socioeconomic status. Frequently bullied students reported feeling sad, scared and less satisfied with their lives. These students were also more likely to have skipped school in the two weeks prior to the PISA test – an indication that they missed out on valuable learning opportunities.
Yet, when asked about their feelings towards bullying, students overwhelmingly reported negative attitudes towards bullying – and positive attitudes towards defending the victims of bullying. For example, on average across OECD countries, 90 per cent of students agreed or strongly agreed that they like it when someone stands up for other students who are being bullied; and 88 per cent agreed or strongly agreed that it is a good thing to help students who can't defend themselves. Policymakers and local educators can capitalise on these sentiments to put in place measures and programs to combat and prevent bullying.
Cooperation amongst students, independent of good relations with teachers, is also associated with higher performance – and with students' wellbeing: in every participating school system, students were more likely to feel they belong at school when their peers were more cooperative.
But the most interesting lesson from PISA is that a higher sense of student wellbeing does not need to come at the expense of lower academic outcomes.