Students given more research opportunities perform better in achievement tests

Analysis by the education ministry has found that students who were given more research opportunities during so-called "comprehensive study" classes at elementary and junior high schools have scored higher in nationwide achievement tests and had greater motivation for learning.

In the first analysis of its kind, the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology looked into the connection between the scores of the nationwide achievement tests covering sixth-grade elementary and third-grade junior high school students in April last year, and the content of the comprehensive study classes that are given roughly two hours a week at their schools. The latter data was obtained through questionnaires conducted at the same time of the achievement tests.

As a result, it emerged that students who were given more investigational opportunities during the comprehensive study classes performed better in the nationwide achievement tests and had a greater desire to learn. The general study hours were introduced on a full scale in the 2002 academic year as part of efforts to provide students with cross-curricular programs aimed at developing their abilities and qualifications to find out problems and solutions on their own.

The comprehensive study hours, however, were cut down in the 2011 school year in order to boost the hours for teaching key subjects out of concern that the so-called "relaxed education" policy led to declining academic abilities. In response to the latest government analysis, experts are calling for increased comprehensive study hours to improve students' scholastic abilities and motivation to study.

In the questionnaire given at the time of the achievement tests, the ministry asked students whether they were engaged in learning activities to find problems, gather and sort out information and make presentations about their research results. As a result, the average percentage of questions answered correctly in the basic Japanese language test reached 68.8 percent among elementary school students who said they were engaged in such learning activities at their schools. However, the figure declined to 54.8 percent among students who said they were not involved in such activities. A similar trend was observed in the applied Japanese language test, in which the average percentage of questions answered correctly stood at 56.4 percent and 38.6 percent, respectively. The arithmetic test also showed a similar pattern.

As for junior high school students, the average percentage of questions answered correctly in the basic mathematics test reached 68.5 percent among students who were engaged in investigational activities during the comprehensive study hours, while the figure dropped to 59.5 percent among students otherwise. A similar trend was seen in the applied mathematics test, in which the average percentage of questions answered correctly stood at 47.4 percent and 37.3 percent, respectively. The Japanese language tests also indicated a similar pattern.

With regards to motivation for learning, a greater number of students at schools that provide students with research opportunities during the comprehensive study classes answered that they either liked or deemed it important or useful to study the Japanese language, arithmetic and mathematics.

In Akita Prefecture, which has often scored the highest marks in the national achievement test, the percentage of students who were engaged in research activities during the comprehensive study hours was 20 to 30 percentage points higher than the national average. The average percentage of questions answered correctly stood at 5 to 10 percentage points higher than the nationwide average.

"The connection between the comprehensive studies and the academic abilities has been revealed for the first time," said education ministry official Manabu Tamura, who conducted the analysis. "Comprehensive study classes can provide an answer to children who are wondering why they study at schools. Such classes can motivate students to learn more, leading to better academic performances in other subjects."

In the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) conducted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) every three years covering 15-year-olds in its member countries and regions, Japan performed brilliantly in 2009 and 2012. "The assessment covered students who had taken comprehensive study classes since their elementary school days," Tamura said. The OECD is also reportedly interested in the outcome of such programs.

The education ministry is going to take a closer look at cross-curricular classes including the comprehensive study hours in the upcoming revisions to the government guidelines for school curriculum.

Masahiro Murakawa, professor at Naruto University of Education who heads a project team analyzing the content and results of comprehensive study classes at schools across the country, said, "Students at schools that provide distinguished exploratory classes, such as one where students analyze local environmental problems and dispatch information on solutions, have demonstrated higher scholastic abilities. This is because they can use the knowledge of various subjects -- from the Japanese language, math and science to social studies -- in an interdisciplinary manner. Furthermore, children become more confident about themselves and have higher self-esteem through such studies. It is important to provide comprehensive study classes centering on students' experiences -- and the hours for such classes should be increased rather than be cut back -- for the sake of Japan's future."

August 19, 2014(Mainichi Japan)

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