IN a lower secondary level Science question, students are asked to explain what happens when the muscles are exercised. Two options are given as answers — muscles get an increased flow of blood or fats are formed in the muscles. (The correct answer: muscles get an increased flow of blood.)
Compare that to a question asked in the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa): Why do you have to breathe more heavily when you are doing physical exercise than when your body is resting?
Based on their knowledge of the blood circulation system, students are expected to extrapolate that heavier breathing is necessary to remove increased levels of carbon dioxide and to supply more oxygen to the body.
Under the assessment scheme provided by Pisa, the question above tested students on three areas — identify scientific issues, explain or predict phenomena based on scientific knowledge and use scientific evidence to make and communicate decisions.
SMK Tengku Ampuan Rahimah, Klang, Selangor, student Lysandra Koon was among the group of Malaysian students randomly picked to sit for the Pisa test last year.
The 17-year-old admitted that the questions she encountered at the Pisa test were nothing like the questions she was used to in her school tests.
“There were a few direct questions but most were indirect questions. We had to read the questions carefully in order to answer them correctly,” said Lysandra.
“I did enjoy answering the questions. The questions were not exactly tough but were focused more on ‘common sense’ that required critical thinking,” she added.
Close to 50 students from Lysandra’s school in Klang were selected to sit for the Pisa test.
Lysandra was given a booklet with 50 questions on Mathematics, Science and Reading although there were several students in her school who sat for the Computer Based Assessment of Literacies, a new interactive test introduced in Pisa last year.
Save for a slight improvement in Mathematics, Malaysian students fared below average in the Pisa 2012 results released on Tuesday.
Ranking 52 out of 65 countries which took part in the survey, Malaysia scored 421 in Mathematics, 398 in Reading and 420 in Science respectively.
The global average score was 494 in Mathematics, 496 in Reading and 501 in Science.
In 2009, Malaysia participated in the survey for the first time and scored 404 in Mathematics, 414 in Reading and 422 in Science.
Pisa is administered by the OECD every three years on 15-year-olds in both OECD and non-OECD countries and offers students questions in the main language of instruction in their respective countries. Each round focuses on one area of either Reading, Mathematics or Science.
Mathematics was the main focus in the Pisa test last year while financial literacy was also included as an element in the Pisa test for the first time last year.
Look to the East
It came as no surprise that Asian countries again topped the list in the ranking of the Pisa 2012 results.
Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea were the top five economies in the latest results released.
Vietnam which was ranked at the 17th gained attention as the only third world economy in the top 20 best-performing list.
A difference of 38 points on the Pisa scale was equivalent to one year of schooling. A comparison of scores showed that students in Shanghai were performing as though they had four or more years of schooling than 15-year-olds in Malaysia.
Malaysia which was continuously ranked in the bottom third in Pisa and Trends in International Mathematics and Science Studies (Timms) had set the goal to be in the top third of countries by 2025 in the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025.
Prof Lianghuo Fan, a consultant of Mathematics textbooks in Singapore and head of the University of Southampton Mathematics and Science Education Research Centre offered his insights into Asian students’ outstanding performance in Mathematics.
In an email interview, Prof Fan said, “In all high-performing countries, students overall showed strong motivation towards learning, which is particularly evident in the subjects, Mathematics and Science”.
“Those countries also have a very supportive social environment for education. For example, parents place more value on their children’s education and have higher expectation, which will affect students’ attitude and their behaviour in learning.
“In addition, the quality of teachers, teacher education and professional development in these high-performing Asian countries are also commendable,” he added.
When asked on how Mathematics can be effectively taught in school, Prof Fan said teachers must motivate students to enjoy and learn the subject in class.
He suggested different ways of motivating the students — effective ways to engage students, making lessons interesting and helping them understand that Mathematics is useful.
“Based on what I learnt from classroom teaching in less high-performing countries, it is not uncommon to see that teachers in some countries often need to spend a lot of time on classroom management and disciplinary matters.
“Also, teachers should let students do enough practice in Mathematics. I think in countries like China, students often have too much work; but in some countries, the problem is just the opposite — students do not have enough practice in the subject,” he added.
Retired Biology teacher Bhul Vindar Kaur, concurred, saying that teachers should play a key role in stimulating critical thinking among students.
She said the Education Ministry was on the right track in transforming the learning of Science and Mathematics in schools.
“Based on the question in SPM (Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia) Biology Paper Two last year, I could see that there were more higher order thinking questions. Some of my students complained that the questions were too difficult. Students were very good at memorising facts, teachers have to now teach them how to probe and prompt,” she said.
Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia’s Professor of Malay sociolinguistics and National Education Dialogue panelist Prof Datuk Dr Teo Kok Seong said higher order thinking skills was generally lacking among students.
“Higher order thinking skills is one of the main elements in the Pisa survey, our exam questions focus too much on testing students’ memory,” said Prof Teo.
He expressed confidence that the Malaysia Education Blueprint 2013-2025 would level the playing field for a new generation of Malaysian students.
“It will take another nine years or so, but we hope to equip students with higher order thinking skills with a new curriculum and school-based assessment method,” said Prof Teo.