|30/09/2003 - Successful learning depends not just on good instruction and the ability to store knowledge, but also on how students approach the process of learning, according to a new OECD report drawing on a study of 15-year-olds in 26 countries.
Learners for Life - Student Approaches to Learning provides evidence that students with strong motivation and a belief in their own abilities are able to take better control of their own learning, and that this helps them to perform much better at school.
These findings suggest that education systems need to concentrate not just on providing sound instruction but on helping students develop attitudes and habits that allow them to manage their own learning effectively, both at school and beyond. The findings cover Austria, Australia, Belgium (Flemish Community), Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Korea, Luxembourg, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.S.
The report draws on data gathered under the 2000 round of the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which assessed the knowledge and skills of 15-year-olds in 43 countries. Within PISA, students were asked about four aspects of their approaches to learning: motivation, self-related beliefs (i.e. self-confidence), learning strategies and whether they have a preference for co-operative or competitive learning situations.
The report groups students into four clusters, according the learning approaches that they say they use. The strongest learners can be characterised by effective learning behaviour as well as habits and beliefs that foster learning. Students in this cluster are especially likely to use strategies employing comprehension: "evaluation" and "control" strategies. They are also likely to have especially high confidence in their ability to achieve even difficult goals (self-efficacy), to put in a large amount of effort and persistence and to be interested in reading.
In Finland, Norway and the United States, 28% of students fall into the cluster of strong learners, while in the Flemish Community of Belgium and in Switzerland only 23% of students make this category (see Figure 1). Students rated as the strongest learners in terms of these characteristics perform, on average across countries, 63 score points or nearly one proficiency level on the PISA scale higher than students in the "weakest learners" category.
The report shows not just that students who are well motivated, for example by an interest in reading, are more likely to reach higher levels of literacy, but also that self-confident students do better, and in particular that students who report applying effective learning strategies tend to take better control of their own learning.
Such students think more actively about what they need to learn and monitor their own progress, rather than relying on teachers every step of the way. In addition to achieving better results at school, they are better equipped to become lifelong learners, i.e. to continue learning beyond the close supervision of the classroom.
The report shows striking similarities in the relationship between various learning approaches and student performances across OECD countries, despite different cultures and education systems. Schools in most countries have at least some pupils who lack confidence, are poorly motivated and have weak learning strategies, indicating that the main task is for individual schools to address these issues among their weakest students.
The report also shows that, across countries, students tend to show higher confidence in reading than in maths. Despite these similarities, however, there are also differences across countries. Danish students have the highest level of confidence in both their reading and their mathematical abilities, while Korean students have the lowest level of confidence (see Figure 2).
The report also notes differences in the approaches to learning among different groups of students:
Overall, the report's findings suggest that there are big educational gains to be made from strengthening student approaches to learning. About a fifth of all differences in student literacy performance is associated with variations in such approaches. Educational reforms may need to reorient education systems to ensure that teachers consciously point students towards effective learning strategies, and help them to build the confidence and interest needed for them to adopt such strategies. This may require teacher training to be changed to ensure that teachers understand how to foster positive learning approaches among their students as well as how to impart knowledge.
Learners for Life - Student Approaches to Learning is available to journalists from the OECD's Media Relations Division (tel.  1 45 24 97 00).
Subscribers and readers at subscribing institutions can access the study via SourceOECD our online library. Non-subscribers will be able to purchase the study via our Online Bookshop.