One in five of all our students fail to achieve minimum levels of reading or maths. That’s shocking. What’s even more shocking is that if you look at the pool of disadvantaged students, that figure skyrockets to one in three, compared to one in ten among advantaged students.
But some disadvantaged students beat the odds and succeed – and that’s we call academic resilience.
These figures are straight from the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The good news is we can fix this but there is a long way to go. One key difference between the resilient and non-resilient is the growth mindset, a belief that one’s ability can increase over time, that intelligence is not fixed but changeable. Encouraging students to believe that will be a key driver in any changes and any improvement.
In addition to scoring lower on tests such as PISA, research has shown that students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds have poorer educational outcomes than their more affluent peers on a range of measures, including school completion.
Yet, despite this association between socioeconomic disadvantage and poorer educational outcomes, a small number of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds do excel at school. Just over 13 per cent of socioeconomically disadvantaged Australian students, and 11 per cent of students across the OECD on average, show what PISA terms ‘academically resilience’ by scoring in the highest quartile of reading literacy performance.
This apparent success despite the odds is the focus of a new ACER report that examines what, if any, characteristics these academically resilient students share, why this might be, and what we can learn from this small group that might assist in improving outcomes for all students.
Enjoyment of reading helps
Learning to read is a challenging task that requires persistence and motivation. It has been suggested that enjoyment of reading and motivation to master tasks may be two manifestations of academic resilience. Similarly, Dweck suggests goal-oriented students tend to be academically resilient and exhibit higher levels of confidence than others, and they are likely to seek challenges and be persistent.
In Australia, and across the OECD on average, academically resilient students tended to enjoy reading more, were willing to work hard to master tasks, and indicated more of an inclination to set and pursue goals than did non-academically resilient students.
Figure 1. Differences between resilient and non-resilient students in attitudes and dispositions
While these findings may be as one would expect, there is interesting variation across other participating countries in students’ enjoyment of reading. In Japan and the participating Chinese jurisdictions, both academically resilient and non-academically resilient students scored at or above the OECD average on the enjoyment of reading index. In Denmark, Norway and Sweden neither group appeared to really enjoy reading, although non-resilient students enjoyed it less than resilient students.
Figure 2. Average scores on Enjoyment of reading index, resilient and non-resilient students, Australia and comparison countries
Gender differences at play
Given that females outperform males in PISA reading literacy in every country, gender is likely to be a major factor in whether a student is academically resilient. Interestingly, while a larger proportion of Australian female students than male students were academically resilient, there was no statistically significant difference between their reading literacy scores. This suggests the resilient males are even more resilient than their female peers.
Table 1. Mean scores PISA 2018 Reading Literacy, by gender
|Australian femalesMean (Standard Error)||Australian malesMean (Standard Error)|
|Whole cohort||519 (2.0)||487 (2.2)|
|Non-resilient students||373 (4.1)||352 (3.5)|
|Resilient students||613 (6.0)||617 (7.3)|
Whole school influences
Prior research has found that the average socioeconomic profile of a students’ school is strongly associated with their performance on PISA.
While a substantial proportion of academically resilient Australian students attend schools in the lowest socioeconomic group, far more resilient students than non-resilient students attended schools in the highest two quarters of aggregated socioeconomic background, suggesting that attending schools with more advantaged peers may play a role in a student’s chance of being academically resilient.
Table 2. Distribution of resilient and non-resilient students by school socioeconomic background
|School aggregated Socioeconomic background||Resilient students (%)||Non-resilient students (%)|
There are a number of reasons attending schools with more advantaged peers may play a role in a student’s chance of being academically resilient. It may be the influence of peers on students’ motivation for learning, or because the more advantaged schools themselves have better access to resources than less disadvantaged schools, that students attending more advantaged schools receive stronger support from parents or teachers, or perhaps that they were selected to attend these schools on scholarship.
The importance of a growth mindset
Research has shown that holding a ‘growth mindset’ – a belief that your ability can increase over time – is linked to better academic achievement and can even temper the effects of socioeconomic disadvantage.
Data from PISA supports this theory, as Australia’s academically resilient students were more likely than non-academically resilient students to hold a growth mindset. Eighty per cent of academically resilient students disagreed with the statement ‘your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much’, compared to just 41 per cent of non-resilient students and 70 per cent of Australian students on average.
Growth mindset, along with enjoyment of reading, motivation and goal setting, stand out against gender and school profile as areas related to academic resilience that can be readily targeted by education systems to help address socioeconomic disadvantage. By directly addressing these issues in the classroom, we may be able to improve outcomes for the 87 per cent of Australian students who have not overcome their disadvantage.
Dr Sue Thomson is Deputy CEO (Research) at the Australian Council for Educational Research, and the National Manager of the PISA project.