School & District Management

Math Students From High-Performing Countries Memorize Less, PISA Shows

By Liana Loewus — October 11, 2016 2 min read
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Students in high-performing countries for mathematics are less reliant on memorization strategies than their peers in lower-performing countries, according to a new analysis of international assessment data.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the Program for International Student Assessment every three years to 15-year-olds from around the world, periodically publishes reports looking at slices of the data. A 93-page report released last week offers takeaways for math teachers from the 2012 results (the most recent round available).

Among other things, it looks at the relationship between memorization and math achievement. It finds that students who report using memorization alone when studying math are successful with easier problems, but struggle with more difficult ones.

That’s not too surprising—and neither is the fact that students across the world say they use memorization to some extent while learning math.

More notable is that, according to the report, “many countries that are amongst the highest performers in the PISA mathematics exam are not those where memorization strategies are the most dominant. For example, fewer students in East Asian countries reported that they use memorization as a learning strategy than did 15-year-olds in some of the English-speaking countries to whom they are often compared.”

The report says that these findings “may run against conventional wisdom, but mathematics instruction has changed considerably in many East Asian countries, such as Japan.”

The PISA surveys gauged memorization use by asking students whether they agreed with statements such as, “When I study for a mathematics test, I learn as much as I can by heart.”

In the chart above, you’ll see that the percentage of U.S. students who say they learn by heart is just above the OECD average. Students from Macao-China, a high performer, used memorization the least. (China reported results by province—an allowance that was controversial.)

The PISA results also indicate that students are less likely to use memorization strategies if they have positive attitudes, are motivated and interested in problem-solving and math, are confident in their math abilities, and have little or no anxiety toward math.

In addition, boys are less likely than girls to use memorization strategies—and that finding was consistent across participating countries.

See the full report, “Ten Questions for Mathematics Teachers ... and How PISA Can Help Answer Them.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.