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Singapore No.1 in PISA Problem Solving

SINGAPORE – The last 2012 PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) test showed an impressive result of 15-year old students as they top the global assessment of problem solving skills.

The other country which grabbed the top spot includes Korea. Students of both countries revealed an outstanding score on mathematics, science and reading literacy skills which all were evaluated under the same PISA test.

PISA examination is administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) once every 3 years. The results of the problem solving assessment were released this month – April 1, 2014. Mr. Andreas Schleicher, the Special Advisor to the OECD Secretary-General on Education Policy and Deputy Director for Education and Skills explained that the performance of Singapore students disproved criticism of its education system, which has been said to produce rote learners only good at regurgitation.

Problem Solving Singapore

Singapore bagged the highest score of 562 points on the PISA proficiency scale on solving problems that were not specific to any subjects. The result also showed the highest number of top-performing students in problem solving. Part of the student’s exam is to test their planning and execution skills in problem solving. One question on the test requires them to use the menu system of the mp3 player displayed on the computer screen and set it to a particular setting with the least number of clicks possible.

Singapore students came out in the 2nd place in Mathematics and 3rd in both Reading and Science. The results of these examinations were announced last December 2013.  It is said that a total of 1,394 Singaporean students were randomly selected from 172 schools to complete the computer-based evaluation on problem solving. The test was administered to 44 countries and economies and the test questions were combinations of multiple-choice questions and those where students had to make their own responses.

Mr Schleicher was impressed by the performance of Singapore students on the last PISA. “It shows that today’s 15-year-olds in Singapore are quick learners, highly inquisitive, able to solve unstructured problems in unfamiliar contexts and highly skilled in generating new insights by observing, exploring and interacting with complex situations”, he expressed.

Problem solving is one of the most important skills in today’s context. Mr. Schleicher explained that there have been big losses in employment in tasks requiring routine cognitive skills and more are looking to employ people who can do jobs that are non-routine.

On his last statement, he leaves everyone with a very important note:

“A world economy no longer pays you for what you know — Google knows everything. The world economy pays you for what you can do with what you know. That makes a very big difference.”

Shown below is a table displaying the result rankings of countries with students taking the PISA problem-solving test:

2012 PISA Problem Solving Result

Mean Score in PISA 2012Share of Low Achievers (Below 2)Share of Top Performers (Level 5 or 6)Gender Difference (Boys - Girls)Solution Rate on Tasks Measuring Acquisition of KnowledgeSolution Rate on Tasks Measuring Utilisation of KnowledgeSolution Rate on Items Referring to a Static Problem SituationSolution Rate on Items Referring to an Interactive Problem Situation
Mean score%%%Score Diff. Score Diff. Percent CorrectPercent CorrectPercent CorrectPercent Correct
oEcd average50021.411.47-745.546.447.143.8
Hong Kong-China54010.419.313-1657.751.156.152.2
Chinese Taipei53411.618.312-956.950.156.350.1
England (United Kingdom)51716.414.36849.649.149.547.9
Czech Republic50918.411.9814546.946.244.4
United States50818.211.631046.547.146.645.9
Russian Federation48922.17.38-440.443.843.839.7
Slovak Republic48326.17.822-540.543.244.238.8

Why is Problem Solving Skill Important?

Everyone can benefit from having good problem solving skills as people encounters problems on a daily basis. Some of the problems that people encounter are more difficult or severe than others. It is a lot helpful to have the skills to solve all problems efficiently and in a timely fashion without difficulty. However, there is no one way in which all problems can be addressed.

John Foster Dulles, Former US Secretary once said, “The measure of success is not whether you have a tough problem to deal with but whether it is the same problem you had last year”.

So what is a problem?

Concise Oxford dictionary defines problem as a doubtful or difficult matter requiring a solution. It is also defined as something hard to understand or accomplish or deal with by Merriam Webster Dictionary.

6 Stages of Problem Solving

Problem solving normally includes a number of steps before you can get into a decision. “Skills you Need” outlined the 6 steps to effective problem solving.

1. Problem Identification

This is the stage that involved the detection and recognition of the problem. This is also the phase where the nature of the problem is identified. Some may find this easy to complete but for others, this stage requires more thought and analysis. Identifying the problem is oftentimes the most difficult task.

Identifying the Problem

2. Structuring the Problem:

This stage involves a period of observation, careful inspection, fact-finding and developing a clear picture of the problem. This phase is all about gaining more information about the problem and increasing understanding. This phase is also about finding facts and analysis, constructing a more comprehensive picture of both the goals and barriers.

3. Looking for Possible Solutions

At this stage, people generate a range of possible courses of action but with minor attempts to evaluate the problems at this stage. This is the step to where people start to think about possible solutions to the identified problem.

4. Making a Decision

This is the stage that involves careful analysis of the different possible courses of action and then selecting the best solution for implementation. Identified as the most complex part of the problem-solving process, this stage requires a lot of considerations.

5. Implementation

This is the phase that involves accepting and carrying out of the chosen course of action. According to Search CRM, implementation simply means the execution or practice of a plan, a method or any design for doing something. It is possible for problems to occur during implementation most particularly is identification or structuring of the original problem was not carried out fully.


The last PISA 2012 result has once again proved the ability of Singaporean students in the global arena, this time in problem solving skills. This recognition has given pride not only to MOE but also the entire nation. With the ministry’s continuous effort to better education along with parents’ unconditional support, it is not surprising to see Singapore topping all the other PISA examinations on the next scheduled test this 2015.


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