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Singapore, East Asia students rank highest in math & science; feel lowest confidence globally in same subjects

Students in East Asia ranked the highest globally in mathematics and science, according to an international study. Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan, and Hong Kong were the top performers.

But surprisingly, despite being high academic achievers, Asia’s students feel less confident and have lower interest than their global peers in learning math and science.

The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) is conducted every four years and allows countries worldwide to gauge how their students are understanding, applying, and reasoning concepts in math and science.

The 2019 study, conducted by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) in collaboration with Boston College, provides data on elementary school students’ math and science achievements in 58 countries and middle school students in 39 countries.  

In mathematics, five East Asian countries, led by Singapore, outperformed other TIMSS countries by substantial margins amongst fourth and eighth-graders. In science at both grades, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan also performed well and were joined by the Russian Federation and Finland.

Despite topping the lists, 37% of Singaporean fourth-graders feel not confident in mathematics, and only 22% of Singaporean eighth-graders say they “very much like learning mathematics.”

“Our students like learning maths and science but don’t feel very confident in the subjects,” according to Singapore’s Ministry of Education, in a social media post.

“Our students enjoy learning and value the subjects but report lower confidence in learning them than their international peers. This is similarly observed in other Asian education systems and could be related to the cultures of these systems. We will continue to help our students learn deeply, and foster a stronger sense of confidence.”

Other Asian countries such as Japan and South Korea that have a high level of academic achievements in math and science also faced similar trends of low confidence and interest in the subjects, according to the TIMSS

South Korean fourth-graders confidence level in math and science came in second-to-last place, at 57th out of 58 countries. And 66% of Japanese eighth-graders said they didn’t feel confident in science

Only 15% of Korean fourth-graders answered that they are “very” confident in mathematics, compared to the 32% global average. South Korean students also had a very low level of interest in the subjects, placing near the bottom: 57th out of 58 countries in mathematics and 53rd in science.  

Just 22% of South Korean elementary students said they enjoyed mathematics “very much,” falling well below the 45% international average. Only 8% of South Korean middle school students said they were “very” confident in mathematics.  

“The low level of interest and confidence is an issue that [we have] pursued since 1995,” said Park Ji-young, a senior Korean Education Ministry official, in an interview with Joong Ang Daily. “Because [students] work hard in order to achieve high grades, there is a problem of declining interest.”  

Sang Kyung-ah of the Korea Institute of Curriculum and Evaluation told Joong Ang Daily, “There are many analyses of why [students from] East Asian countries lack interest and confidence, but there is also a trend of stressing humility and the instrumental value of study. There is a need for continued research and policy to improve upon this.”

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