Our mothers were right: Hard work and perseverance do pay off

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

How many times have you heard successful people, in all walks of life, credit their triumphs to hard work and perseverance? Now PISA adds to the chorus with some hard evidence: when students believe that working hard will make a difference in their studies, they score significantly higher in mathematics.

This month’s PISA in Focus examines how students’ perseverance and belief that hard work yields positive results are clearly linked to better performance. Students who reported, through the PISA student questionnaire, that they continue to work on tasks until everything is perfect, remain interested in the tasks they start, do not give up easily when confronted with a problem, and, when confronted with a problem, do more than is expected of them, have higher scores in mathematics than students who reported lower levels of perseverance. In as many as 25 countries and economies, students who have greater perseverance score at least 20 points higher in mathematics than students who reported lower levels of perseverance; and in Finland, Iceland, Korea, New Zealand, Norway and Chinese Taipei, this difference is larger than 30 score points.

Similarly, students who strongly agreed with the statement “If I put in enough effort, I can succeed in mathematics” perform better in mathematics than students who did not agree by an average of 32 score points. The score-point difference in mathematics performance that is associated with this self-belief is 50 points or more in Iceland, Korea, Norway and Chinese Taipei – well over the equivalent of a full school year.

The relationship between students’ perceived control over their success in mathematics and their performance in mathematics appears to be particularly strong among the highest-achieving students. Among these students in OECD countries, those who strongly agreed that they can succeed in mathematics if they put in enough effort have a performance advantage of 36 score points over students who did not agree with that statement; among the lowest-achieving students, the difference is only 24 score points. In 24 countries and economies, this difference is 15 score points or more, and it is particularly large – 30 score points or more – in Hungary, the Slovak Republic, Sweden and Turkey.

Students’ perseverance and drive to learn are not immutable; they can be nurtured with the right kind of guidance and teaching. For example, PISA results reveal that teachers’ use of cognitive-activation strategies, such as giving students problems that require them to think for an extended time, presenting problems for which there is no immediately obvious way of arriving at a solution, and helping students to learn from their mistakes, is associated with students’ drive. And students who reported that their mathematics teachers use teacher-directed instruction (such as when teachers set clear goals for learning) and formative assessments (when teachers give students feedback on their strengths and weaknesses in mathematics) also reported particularly high levels of perseverance and openness to problem solving.

Yet, the use of such strategies among teachers is not widespread: only 53% of students across OECD countries reported that their teachers often present them with problems that require them to think for an extended time, and 47% reported that their teachers often present problems for which there is no immediately obvious way of arriving at a solution. On average across OECD countries, only 17% of students reported that their teacher assigns projects that require at least one week to complete.

What this suggests is that many more students need to be given the chance – and encouragement – to show that they are capable of putting in the hard work – and doing so over a longer time – so  that they, too, can ultimately add their voices to the growing chorus.

Pisa in Focus No. 37: Do students have the drive to succeed?
PISA 2012 Results: Ready to Learn: Students' Engagement, Drive and Self-Beliefs
Photo credit: Sisyphus, Simple Drawing and Modern Representation of famous Greek mythology character /@shutterstock


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