Wellbeing and school performance PISA 2003-2015

The triennial PISA study has been tracking school social environments for some years, recognising the connection between academic performance and student wellbeing.

Academic PISA results have remained steady

We have heard a lot about how Australia is doing compared to other countries in STEM subjects. No-one is very pleased with the scores and the discussion focuses on how Australia can get ahead. Australia’s track record can best be described as falling behind because Australia’s scores have not become worse over the course of the PISA reporting, rather other countries have gained and surpassed us.

Social wellbeing indicators in PISA studies are worse

We have not heard much about the social variables regarding student wellbeing reported in the same PISA studies and we should be concerned. Considering that a student who feels he or she belongs at school does better in all STEM subject, it should concern us that Australian 15-year-olds have less of a sense of belonging in 2015 than they did in 2003. In this time, educators and politicians have thrown money at schools and tried to figure out how Australia can gain in the PISA ranking. We haven’t gained and social wellbeing indicators are worsening.

Wellbeing and school performance PISA 2003-2015 1

The PISA data gives us several useful hints across the variables of relationships to teachers, parents, school peers and schoolwork.

Schools and Teachers

Students’ personalities still developing in confidence and self-expression

Kids and teenagers are to a greater degree than adults dependent on positive feedback and support from their social environment. Their personalities are not fully formed and they do not yet have the ability to see themselves as separate from the feedback they get. Students spend a lot of their time at school and consequently, schools do not just provide academic training but are also their main social avenue for relationships and for learning about themselves, learning resilience, how to connect with other people and also to acquire aspirations and ideas for the future.

The teaching of teachers has a dual role

Teachers provide the interface for much of this contact. They are in a position to show students how to work through difficult material and to recognise weaknesses and strengths and the PISA data shows that the bonds students have with their teachers are important for how happy they report that they are at school.

PISA sense of belonging
Australia is not doing great here and is well below the OECD average. It’s that other country, without kangaroos, that is almost acing the sense of belonging results – Austria.

Anxiety – a double-edged sword

The chart below shows how anxiety applies specifically to testing situations. Anxiety about schoolwork and tests is negatively related to performance.

The question is, do anxious students perform poorly because they are weak academically and know they will not do well or are they high achievers who fret about the next test; or do they do poorly because they are unsupported and subject to teaching methods and a social environment that does not support their development. This data is full of chicken-egg questions.

Students who feel supported by their teachers by one-on-one help, report being less anxious about schoolwork.

PISA wellbeing and schoolwork anxiety

Anxiety undeniably is a negative thing and is an impulse young people need to learn to master by developing resilience and confidence. Teachers can assist students to develop these qualities through teaching strategies such as slowly increasing the difficulty of testing or using many smaller tests in preparation for larger tests and making sure students are confident asking questions and by giving support when they are uncertain. Students who get such support report being less anxious for tests and also report less anxiety when studying.

Anxiety in the PISA data findings also seems to be strongly correlated with the expectations for future study. Students who report being anxious also report that they want to be one of the best students in their class and that they want to be able to select from among the best opportunities when they graduate, so in short, they have very high expectations of themselves. Some degree of tension is correlated with high achievement, as it is essential to motivation. Schools and parents have to be alerted to when this reaches a tipping point because when the anxiety goes with the response that the student does not have a sense of belonging at school, the anxiety is correlated negatively with expectations of future study.

The PISA data is not directly tracking any correlation between a sense of belonging and dropout rates. We know from research overseas that the connection is generally established and accepted, probably because it also recommends itself to common sense. This might be why there seems to be no recent and no Australian research on the correlation available. The co-findings of a sense of belonging are different kinds of bullying and anti-social behaviour and these are tracked in the PISA study. The findings run right alongside the sense of belonging responses and fill in the details to explain the responses. Kids with less sense of belonging report higher rates of bullying and anti-social behaviour and also have higher rates of absenteeism and of coming late to school.

PISA wellbeing and bullying

Furthermore, they also report less support from teachers and more anxiety about tests and schoolwork. The final nail in the coffin so to speak, for kids reporting less sense of belonging is that they spend less time “just talking” to their parents. Parents have an important part to play in how their kids experience school. Students who report that they spend time just talking to their parents report higher life satisfaction overall and are less anxious and have a greater sense of belonging at school.

PISA wellbeing life satisfaction

Where does this lead us – summing up

The picture overall is that the majority of students report being happy at school and with life in general but a smaller percentage of the remaining 20 percent of kids report different issues of discontent. The pillars that their satisfaction or discontent rely on is divided between teachers, parents and peers. If one or more of these pillars fall through for a student, consequences on academic work and life expectations will follow.

When the rate of kids reporting less sense of belonging at school has risen from 2003 without a significant change for the better in academic scores, we have to assume that the increased unease at school is not the motivating kind of performance anxiety you expect to see in otherwise happy kids.

Better understanding of a teacher’s role in making kids comfortable with their school work and their study load as well as the emphasis on a student’s social environment promise to decrease the number of students dropping out of secondary education and to increase the number of students who wish to continue education and training after year 10. Such measures also promise to improve student academic outcomes and could then in effect improve the PISA ranking overall.


OECD (2017), PISA 2015 Results (Volume III): Students’ Well-Being, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2013), Graph III.1.2.  Percentage of students who report being happy at school, in PISA 2012 Results: Ready to Learn (Volume III), OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2013), Graph III.2.12.  Students’ sense of belonging: Percentage of students who reported “agree” or “strongly agree” (a) or who reported “disagree” or “strongly disagree” (b), in PISA 2012 Results: Ready to Learn (Volume III), OECD Publishing, Paris.

Connell, J. P., Halpern-Felsher, B., Clifford, E., Crichlow, W., & Usinger, P. (1995). Hanging in there: Behavioral, psychological, and contextual factors affecting whether African-American adolescents stay in school. Journal Adolescent Research, 10(1), 41-63.

The slides are taken from here:

Andreas Schleicher The Well-Being of Students, New Insights from PISA 22 Aug 2017

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