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Students’ positive outlook may be key to coping with pandemic

Students’ positive outlook may be key to coping with pandemic

Media release 9 minute read

Australian senior secondary students are likely to have the important qualities they need to help them deal with adversity such as disrupted schooling during the pandemic, according to a new report released today by the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

Results from the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show most Australian students believe they usually manage one way or another (93 per cent), and that when they are in a difficult situation, they can usually find their way out of it (86 per cent).

PISA National Project Manager and report co-author, ACER Deputy CEO (Research) Dr Sue Thomson, said, “Students surveyed as 15-year-olds in 2018 would be in their final stages of schooling now, and have faced major challenges this year. The results show that many of them have high levels of self-efficacy – or belief in their own ability – and hold attitudes that may have helped them through these difficult times.”

ACER’s new PISA report focuses on a variety of aspects of 15-year-old students’ experiences at school that illustrate student background, attitudes and school factors, and how these are related to student performance.

Infographic: A snapshot of Australian student and school characteristics measured by PISA 2018 (PDF)


Australian students reported levels of agreement with statements about self-efficacy which were similar to the OECD average. Ninety-two per cent of 15 year-olds reported I feel proud that I have accomplished things, 73 per cent agreed I feel that I can handle many things at a time, and 67 per cent of students agreed that My belief in myself gets me through hard times.

Female students reported lower self-efficacy than male students, and the most socioeconomically disadvantaged students reported lower self-efficacy than the least disadvantaged students.

Teacher support

Australian students reported a high level of support from their teachers, similar to students in New Zealand, Singapore and Finland, and at a level above the OECD average. Seventy-nine per cent of students reported that their teacher showed an interest in every student’s learning and 81 per cent reported the teacher gave extra help when students needed it.

“Teachers clearly place a priority on providing a high level of support to their students, and this becomes even more crucial during these times of disrupted and remote learning,” Dr Thomson said.

Academic resilience

PISA identified 13 per cent of disadvantaged students in Australia as academically resilient, meaning they overcame their socioeconomic background to go on to high academic performance. Across the OECD, about 11 per cent of disadvantaged students were academically resilient. While all students face difficulties of one sort or another, the most disadvantaged students are more likely to be low performers at school. The academically resilient students are exceptions to this.

“While it is encouraging that 13 per cent of Australian students showed academic resilience and overcame their disadvantaged background to do well, this means that 87 per cent of disadvantaged students did not. They continued to perform at a low level,” Dr Thomson said.

“Most disadvantaged students were not academically resilient in 2018 – they performed at a low level. So it is a concern that some of these students may face very poor outcomes after experiencing severe disruption to their education during the pandemic.”

Parental involvement in school activities

Australian principals reported an increase in parental involvement between 2012 and 2018. There was a 16 percentage point increase for parents who discussed their child’s progress with a teacher on their own initiative and a 14 percentage point increase for parents who discussed their child’s progress on the initiative of one of their child’s teachers. On average, principals reported over half of parents discussed their child’s progress on the initiative of one of their child’s teachers.

Principals reported that a higher proportion of parents from advantaged, metropolitan and non-Indigenous backgrounds initiated discussions with a teacher about their child’s progress.

“In 2020 many parents around the world have suddenly had to become a lot more involved in their child’s education through various levels of remote schooling. It will be interesting to see how this experience changes parental interactions with schooling in the future,” Dr Thomson said.

Other key findings:

  • Nearly two-thirds of students perceived that students cooperated with each other. Students were more likely to have this perception if they were male, less disadvantaged, attending an independent school, in a metropolitan area, and non-Indigenous.
  • On average, over half of the students reported that they seem to share the feeling that competing with each other is important. Australian students perceived that competition at their school was more prevalent than students across the OECD countries. Students in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory perceived competition occurred to a greater extent than students in the other jurisdictions.
  • Students’ frequency of absenteeism and lateness increased between PISA 2012 and 2018, with the largest increase (6 percentage points) found in students’ reports of arriving late for school.
  • Principal reports of student behaviour hindering learning increased between PISA 2012 and 2018. There was a 7 percentage point increase for Australian principals who agreed that students lacking respect for teachers and student use of alcohol or drugs hindered learning, and a 4 percentage point increase for students intimidating or bullying other students.
  • Students reported teacher enthusiasm at levels higher than the OECD average. Over four-fifths of Australian students agreed that it was clear that the teacher likes to deal with the topic of the lesson and the teacher showed enjoyment in teaching. Over three-quarters of students reported it was clear to me that the teacher liked teaching us.

The study also investigated equity in learning opportunities and outcomes, sense of belonging at school, exposure to bullying at school, disciplinary climate in class, students’ fear of failure, growth mindset, teacher feedback and teacher behaviour hindering learning.

About PISA

The report analyses data produced by the PISA survey, a large-scale study of the reading, scientific and mathematical literacy of 15-year-olds conducted every three years since 2000. PISA 2018 was conducted by ACER in Australia on behalf of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) with funding from the Australian and state and territory governments. More than 600 000 students in 79 countries and economies took part in PISA 2018, including a nationally representative sample of 14 273 Australian students in 740 schools.

The Australian report PISA 2018: Reporting Australia’s Results. Volume II Student and School Characteristics by Sue Thomson, Lisa De Bortoli, Catherine Underwood and Marina Schmid follows the December 2019 release of Volume I, which focused on achievement in reading, mathematical and scientific literacy, and international reports released by the OECD. More information can be found at


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