Singapore Students Excel in Thinking Flexibility And Creatively To Solve Complex And Unfamiliar Problems, Says PISA Study


Singapore’s 15-year-olds excel in thinking flexibly and creatively to solve complex and unfamiliar problems. This is according to the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) computer-based assessment of Problem Solving, organised by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

According to the 2012 PISA findings, our students are innovative, are able to handle uncertainty, and dare to experiment with alternative solutions. These highly valued competencies stand them in good stead in a globalised, information-rich economy increasingly dominated by highly skilled, non-routine jobs, and give them the wherewithal to come together to create a brighter future for our society.

The strong performance of our students reflects our curricular emphasis and our schools’ efforts in developing problem solving skills in our students.

Our broad and inclusive education system has also allowed us to bring out the best in every child. The results of PISA 2012 show that Singapore has one of the deepest and widest talent pools of students who have the ability to apply thinking skills effectively to solve problems. Even our proportion of weaker or low performers in Problem Solving is among the lowest of all participating education systems.

Mr Andreas Schleicher, Special Advisor to the Secretary-General on Education Policy and Deputy Director for Education and Skills of OECD was in Singapore to launch the PISA 2012 results on Problem Solving, and he said, “Singapore’s education system has at times been criticised for encouraging rote learning at the expense of developing creative skills. The PISA 2012 assessment of problem solving skills proves those critics wrong. 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. Indeed, no education system outperforms Singapore on this test.”

Reflecting on the strong performance of our students in PISA, Ms Ho Peng, Director-General of Education said, “We are pleased with the strong performance by our students in PISA 2012. This affirms our efforts in giving our students not just a strong foundation in literacy and numeracy, but also in equipping them with the skills to solve problems in real-world contexts. Over time, our teaching strategies have focused on helping students gain a deeper conceptual understanding and developing their thinking skills. Our students can navigate well in unfamiliar contexts because of the many opportunities to learn not just within the classroom, but also beyond the classroom through co-curricular activities and service projects. We will continue to look for ways to help our students grow to become compassionate and confident citizens, contributing not only to Singapore but also to the world.”

Key Findings

Singapore Students Possessing Traits for Effective Problem Solving

Of the 44 participating education systems, Singapore students are joint-first with Korea students (see Table 1 in Annex).

Singapore students have performed well in problem solving processes which involve:

  • Exploring and understanding the situation around a problem,
  • Representing and formulating hypotheses about the factors involved in the problem and their relationships with each other,
  • Planning and executing the steps in a devised plan, and
  • Monitoring and reflecting on the progress of the plan and the eventual solution of the problem.

PISA study shows that our students perform very well in both the knowledge acquisition processes (exploring and understanding, representing and formulating) and the knowledge utilisation processes (planning and executing), but with an edge in knowledge acquisition (see Table 2 and Figure 1 in Annex).

According to PISA, our students are quick learners, highly inquisitive, and able to experiment with alternatives and process abstract information. They are able to use the knowledge they have to solve the problems, and are goal-driven and persistent in completing their tasks.

PISA also measured students’ relative strengths at handling different types of problems, namely:

  • Interactive tasks where one must explore and uncover the relevant information in the process of solving the problem, and
  • Static tasks where all relevant information is provided up front.

While Singapore students perform very well in both types of tasks, they have an edge in interactive over static tasks, as compared to OECD countries on average (see Table 2 and Figure 1 in Annex). They are able to:

  • Devise and initiate concrete actions,
  • Gather feedback on the effect of their interventions, and
  • Sift out what is relevant to solving the problem.

This suggests that our teachers have been encouraging our students to be curious, innovative and to use their intuition to solve problems.

Deep and Wide Talent Pool

Singapore has the highest proportion of students who are top performers1 in Problem Solving – almost 3 in 10 students, close to three times that of the OECD average. Not only are these effective problem-solvers who can systematically explore complex problems, understand how relevant information is structured, carry out multi-step solutions and carefully monitor their progress towards solving the problems, they are also able to develop an overall strategic plan based on a complete and coherent mental model of the problem.

Among all the participating education systems, Singapore has the deepest talent pool of 25 per cent, i.e. students with strong mastery of a specific knowledge domain and the ability to apply their skills flexibly in other contexts.

Singapore also has the second widest talent pool of 46 per cent, i.e. students who are highly proficient in at least one of the four domains2 in PISA.

Small Proportion of Low Performers in Problem Solving

The proportion of Singapore students who are low performers3 in Problem Solving, at 8 per cent, is a third of the OECD average. It is among the lowest of all the participating education systems. Nevertheless, MOE and our schools will continue to look for even more effective methods to support the learning needs of our low-performing students.


PISA is a triennial international benchmarking study organised by OECD that examines and compares how well education systems are helping their students acquire the knowledge and skills that are essential for full participation in modern societies. It assesses the capacity of 15-year-old students to apply knowledge and skills in Mathematics, Reading and Science, and to analyse, reason and communicate effectively as they solve problems in a variety of real-life situations. Singapore participated in six assessments in PISA 2012 – the paper-based assessments of Reading, Mathematics and Science, and the computer-based assessments of Reading, Mathematics and Problem Solving. Findings on the first five assessments were released on 3 Dec 2013.

This is the second time that Singapore has participated in PISA. A total of 5,369 students, mainly from Secondary 3 and 4, from all 166 public secondary schools participated in PISA 2012. One hundred and seventy-seven students from six private schools also participated in the study. The sampling methods applied by OECD in PISA ensure that the students selected were representative of the 15-year-old population in Singapore.


  1. PISA defines top performers as those whose proficiency level is at least Level 5 out of a scale of 6.
  2. The four domains PISA refers to are Problem Solving and the paper-based assessments of Mathematics, Reading and Science.
  3. PISA defines low performers as those whose proficiency level is below Level 2 (a baseline level of proficiency that allows students to participate effectively and productively in life).