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Students in Singapore top international rankings in math and science (again)

Singaporean students record the partial solar eclipse through a telescope at a sports field. Source: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Students in Singapore have once again secured the top spot in rankings for math and science internationally. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has revealed this in a study that is only conducted every four years, assessing students from grades four to eight. 

The 2019 edition of the study was released just a couple days ago, stating that both primary and secondary level Singaporean students have come out on top in both subjects, surpassing other territories such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan.

The country has participated in the study since its inception in 1995, ranking first for the third time now with two previous sweeps in 2015 and 2003. The 2019 study included 72 education systems, with Singapore being represented by approximately 5,990 pupils from the country’s 186 public primary schools, and 4,850 from their 152 public secondary schools. According to the Ministry of Education, students were selected at random. 

The TIMMS study showed that 54% of primary students met the advanced benchmark in mathematics, and outstanding achievement compared to the global median of 7%. Meanwhile, 51% of secondary students were also considered to be advanced.

“The focus is on problem solving in mathematics. To do this, we emphasise student understanding of concepts and proficiencies in mathematical skills and processes” says Dr. Ridzuan Abdul Rahim, senior assistant director and master specialist in mathematics at the Ministry of Education. 

“The student performance in TIMSS has shown that they are able to apply and use their reasoning skills” he added. Rahim also went on to mention that the students’ performance in the study was “very encouraging”.

Children wearing face masks gather around a table inside their classroom. Source: ROSLAN RAHMAN / AFP

In Science, Singapore’s students thrived just as well, with both levels meeting the advanced benchmark. Primary students trumped the global average with 38% reaching the benchmark and 58% of secondary students achieved the same. 

The Ministry of Education’s Academic of Singapore Teachers’ master teacher in biology, Anna Koh says the record-breaking performance of science students confirms that “the inquiry-based learning approaches that we advocate, which our teachers are using in the teaching and learning of science, have gone a long way in helping our students develop core 21st century competencies such as critical thinking.”

“For example, our teachers do not just teach science content, they ensure that students understand the scientific concepts, often presented in real-world contexts, which they apply in different situations,” she says. 

Koh mentions that science teachers in Singapore actively encourage their students to ask questions and collect evidence to support their learning. This method teaches young science students to use knowledge to address curiosity. 

Singapore is well-known for its students’ stellar performance in mathematics and science. What drives this? Quality of teaching, for one. In 2001, deliberate policy decisions were introduced to redesign its teaching workforce, with the goal in mind to develop subject-based expertise. This focus would ensure a solid education to all children and has proven to be effective, with impressive rankings solidifying its success. 

The Ministry of Education’s director-general, Wong Siew Hoong, mentions that STEM has become increasingly crucial. Its teachings are known to help students develop a strong foundation before preparing for careers in a world where technology advances rapidly. 

“Given the proliferation of technology in our lives and the growing importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related competencies such as mathematical and scientific reasoning, problem-solving and critical thinking, it is encouraging that our students continue to do very well in mathematics and science by international standards and have positive attitudes towards learning these subjects”, he says.

“Their mastery of numeracy and scientific literacy will provide them with a strong foundation to develop other skills in life and enable them to seize opportunities in the workplace, particularly in the Stem-related fields.”