Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Studying more may not make you a top-performer

by Hélène Guillou
Consultant, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

It’s 3pm in Finland. A bell rings, marking the end of classes in a middle school and time for students to go home. In a different part of the world, at the exact same time, other students are also just finishing  up classes. Except for these students, it’s not the middle of the afternoon, but night time, and they have just spent several hours studying in a “cram-school”, after a normal school day.

Even if Finnish students study for a couple of hours after school, they will still have spent significantly less time cracking the books than some of their East Asian counterparts. Yet, when it comes to performance, Finland ranks among the top-performing countries in science.

As this month’s PISA in Focus reveals, students spend considerably more time learning in some countries than in others, but this does not necessarily translate into better learning outcomes.

Across OECD countries and economies, students reported spending 44 hours per week learning. This represents approximately 55% of students’ available time, excluding weekends and eight hours of sleep per day. In some countries and economies, such as Beijing-Shanghai-Jiangsu-Guangdong (China), Qatar, Thailand, Tunisia and the United Arab Emirates, students spend at least 65% of their available time learning; whereas in others, notably Finland, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and Uruguay, students spend less than half of their available time learning. Most of these differences are explained by the variation in the time students spend studying after school, which includes homework, additional instruction and private study, rather than the time they spend in regular school lessons. For instance, students in the United Arab Emirates spend 17 hours more studying after school and 5 hours more in school compared to Finnish students.

When looking at the relationship between time spent studying and performance, the diversity among countries and economies is even more striking. Some manage to both score at or above the OECD average while still providing their students with free time to practice sports, or to discover their passion for other activities such as playing the guitar. And just as Finnish and East Asian students perform at equally high levels while experiencing completely different school routines, in other school systems, students perform below the OECD average despite long hours of studying. In these school systems, the ratio between PISA science scores and total learning time is relatively low. This not only calls into question the efficiency of their education systems but can also signal differences in learning time across education levels, with students compensating for the time spent learning in earlier stages of their education. The ratio might also reveal that, in order to succeed academically, students in some education systems need to spend more time in “planned” or “deliberate” learning because they have fewer opportunities to learn informally outside of school. What some students learn by discussing with their parents, others have to learn by spending more time studying at a desk.

But even if we just focus on planned learning time, not all of its components are associated the same way with science performance. In school systems where less time overall is spent learning science, an increase in the average time students spend learning in regular science lessons is associated with an increase in the average science score. But, for every additional hour spent studying after school, the average science score drops by about 20 points, revealing that learning time in school may be more effective than studying after school. However, students who are already low-performers may be those who need that extra time after school to learn.

It is difficult to say how many hours students should spend studying, if such an optimal time exists. One thing is certain though: being inspired by an enlightening science class sounds much more enjoyable than memorising a lesson far into the night.

PISA in Focus No. 73: Do students spend enough time learning?
Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA)
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Photo credit: @shutterstock 

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