Student performance in Finland at international top level (12th Dec 2012)

Joy of learning is lost

The basis for the Finnish youth’s success in international assessment studies is already founded in
primary school. The fourth graders, who were the target for the international comparison for the first
time in 25 years, were highly successful in reading literacy, mathematics and science. The success
continued at the eighth grade. However, the joy of learning is already lost in the fourth grade.

These are the main results of two international assessment studies TIMSS and PIRLS. TIMSS measures
trends in mathematics and science achievement at the fourth and eighth grades, and PIRLS measures
trends in reading literacy achievement at the fourth grade.

– The results tell us how well the curricular contents are learnt, that is how successful the Finnish school
system has been. By contrast, the earlier PISA studies measuring these same three areas of learning
assess how well the students can apply their knowledge to real-life situations, Professor Pekka Kupari
from the Finnish Institute for Educational Research, University of Jyväskylä clarifies.


The reading literacy score of the Finnish fourth graders (568) is the second best among 45 countries
together with Russia. Only Hongkong ranked better (571). Singapore came fourth. The differences
between these countries are so small that in practice, the reading literacy skills in these four countries
are the same.

In science, the Finnish fourth graders (570 points) ranked third among 50 countries after Korea (587)

and Singapore (583). Also the Finnish eighth graders did excellent in science; their 552 points were enough to reach the fifth place in the comparison of 42 countries. The top consists of four Asian countries, led by Singapore (590 points).


The Finnish fourth graders’ score in mathematics (545) was the eighth highest among 50 countries.
Among the OECD countries it was enough to reach the fifth place, and among the European countries it
was enough to rank third after Northern Ireland and the Flemish part of Belgium. The best score in
mathematics was achieved by some Asian countries, such as Singapore (606), Korea (605), and
Hongkong (602).

The Finnish eighth graders’ score in mathematics (514) was the eighth highest among 42 countries and
the second best in Europe after Russia. Also here five Asian countries (Korea, Singapore, Taiwan,
Hongkong and Japan) achieved the highest scores.

Considering the mathematics scores, however, there is some reason to worry. In Finland, TIMMS also
compared the seventh graders’ skills to the earlier TIMSS 1999 and it was noticed that during these
twelve years, the mathematics skills have slightly deteriorated. This has not happened in science.


The achievement scores reveal huge differences between the highest and lowest performing countries
on all three assessment areas. In contrast, the differences within Finland are one of the smallest in
international comparison.

The scores of individual students were not affected much by whether they lived in the countryside or
the city, or by where in Finland they lived. However, the wealth of the home correlated with the scores
in reading literacy, as well as in mathematics and science.

In Finland, the gender gap in terms of the fourth graders’ achievement in reading literacy is 21 points for
the girls, which is one of the largest among the participant countries. However, in mathematics and
science the Finnish gender differences were rather small at both grades when compared internationally.

– From the viewpoint of equal learning, the biggest challenge of the Finnish primary and secondary
education is related to the boys’ reading literacy skills. Also the differences caused by the effect of one’s
home have to be minimised, University Lecturer Sari Sulkunen summarises.


Although the skills and knowledge of the Finnish students are of a high international standard, the
schools have not been very successful when it comes to the students’ attitudes and learning motivation.
The Finnish fourth graders’ reading motivation and commitment to the learning of reading are one of
the lowest among the participant countries. Only one third of the students like mathematics and only
one fifth have a good commitment to learning. The attitudes towards reading literacy and mathematics
are among the poorest in the entire study. The situation is relatively similar regarding science.

The joy of learning is even weaker when taking a look at the eighth graders. Only 10% of the students
like mathematics, 15% value mathematics a lot and merely 6% are committed to learning it. This means
that in country comparisons Finland is among the three with the weakest motivated students. Over a
half of the students do not like chemistry and physics. The situation is slightly better with biology and
geography. Finnish results are also relatively weak for students’ general appreciation for science and
their commitment to learning it.

– The ways of teaching in primary and secondary school need urgent reshaping. The results clearly
indicate that the aims of the National Core Curriculum for Basic Education, which emphasise the
students’ own interests and needs in teaching, have not been achieved, University Researcher Jouni
Vettenranta and Professor Pekka Kupari note.

TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) and PIRLS (Progress in International
Reading Literacy Study) are organised by IEA, which reports on the international student achievements.
The Finnish Institute for Educational Research has answered for conducting the studies in Finland. The
research is funded by the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.

Further information:
– Professor Pekka Kupari, tel. +358 40 805 4257, pekka.kupari@jyu.fi (National coordinator of TIMSS,
– University Lecturer Sari Sulkunen, tel. +358 40 805 3246, sari.sulkunen@jyu.fi (National coordinator of
PIRLS, reading literacy)
– University Researcher Jouni Vettenranta, tel. +358 40 805 4285, jouni.vettenranta@jyu.fi (TIMSS,
– The IEA reports and press release material can be found at http://timssandpirls.bc.edu/data-release-
– The Finnish success in PISA - and some reasons behind it (2007) can be viewed free of charge at:
https://ktl.jyu.fi/img/portal/8317/PISA_2003_screen.pdf . The printed version can be ordered from the
Institute (25e + shipping costs)
The FIER website