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Why High-performing Singapore Science & Math Students Have Low Confidence In These Subjects

Singapore students have periodically topped the global benchmarking survey for mathematics and science many times since 2003.

However, a strange phenomenon was reported whereby students were generally under-confident. The results revealed that only two out of 10 Primary 4, and one out of 10 Secondary 2 students reported that they were “very confident” in learning mathematics.

A consistent result of two out of 10 at both levels indicated that they were “very confident” in learning science.

These were below the global averages for these subjects for the respective groups of students.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) attributed this self-reported lack of confidence among Singapore students “to cultural norms”, noting that similar results were observed in other Asian countries as well.

A valid question that needs to be addressed is: Why are students under-confident despite Singapore’s superior educational approach and consistently excellent performance internationally?

First, it is well-known that these two subjects are Singaporean students’ strengths, indicating that our education system or pedagogical designs have done something right, at least from a results perspective.

So, why are our students still under-confident in not one but two subjects?

I would like to hypothesize that the means to achieving this level of high scores for mathematics and science is through “drilling” (foundational learning and deep mastery) and “upping the ante”, which results in automated learned behavior.

Most of us will be familiar with the “drilling” pedagogy.

Let us then take a look at the “upping the ante” educational approach, where examiners set some tough questions to differentiate the cream of the crop.

In education, we call these difficulty or discrimination indexes.

In 2019, some parents complained about several exceptionally difficult questions in the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) Mathematics paper that left some students in tears.

Some noted that there were similarly “tricky” questions in the national exams in 2015 and 2017.

One parent said her son, who is “very average” in math came out of the 2019 exam “crushed, defeated… and dumbfounded by every question in paper two”.

A Singapore Examinations and Assessment Board spokesman had said then that the questions in the national exams are based on the syllabus and there will also “be a balance of basic, average and challenging questions so that the overall standard of the paper is maintained from year to year to cater to a wide range of student abilities”.

“The challenging questions are structured into smaller parts to support candidates’ attempts … and guide them towards the solution.”

Long ago, when my two children were still in school, they faced this rite of passage. The formative or continuous assessments for science were so tough that my daughter almost gave up.

While she eventually scored an A+ for the subject in the national exam, her confidence in science was so low that she chose a different path thereafter for her education.


The “upping the ante” pedagogical approach and perhaps the kiasu culture here has served Singapore’s education system well in the past, and we have achieved many accolades.

But can we stop and reflect deeper on the psychological impact of this approach and the under-confidence it can cause in students?

A key reason could be learned helplessness because the tests or examinations set are so difficult that our students, to a certain degree, believe that the results are beyond their control.

A recent report from the Institute of Mental Health’s Child Guidance Clinics revealed that about 2,400 new cases of patients every year, mostly teens from top schools, sought help for mental issues from 2012 to 2017. There was a jump of 36 times more referrals between 2009 and 2019.

According to research, the impact of under-confidence can be far-reaching.

One important area is motivation, or the ability to seize opportunities.

We lament that our young people are not hungry enough.

But it could well be that learned helplessness affects their levels of resilience and confidence.
This under-confidence in taking ownership of the outcome of these difficult questions is a learned behavior due to a perceived low internal locus of control.

Externally, the perception of adversity or the unknown is so great that students are conditioned to believe that it is beyond their control and reach.

As a result, the perceived lack of control of the external factors (that is, difficulty, unknowns) grows over the years in their learning journey.


As outlined in the theories of motivation, people are motivated when the results are not too difficult to attain.

However, if not managed properly, demotivation can set in, and learned helplessness can become a psychological shackle that constrains our self-belief, and becomes an assumption.

So, a motivation to learn which leads to a performance that learners value and believe they can achieve has certain psychological impacts.

What can we do?

First, we might want to shift from the approach of “raising the ante”.

Next, we need to help our students to calibrate their levels of confidence and performance, both psychologically and cognitively.

One way to develop well-calibrated learners is to include continuous feedback on our students’ self-assessments on both the levels of confidence and performance at the item level and the entire test paper.

For example, at the item level, students can carry out a self-assessment of his or her level of confidence on a scale of 0 = no confidence, 50=50 percent confidence, 100=100 percent confidence, of getting the correct answer on each item.

Schools and MOE could also provide difficulty indexes for each test item, perhaps starting with math and science exam papers for national exams such as the PSLE, O-Levels, and A-Levels.

With the student’s self-rating at the item level compared with the difficulty index, the student can learn to gain greater self-awareness of his or her level of confidence in tackling questions at different levels of difficulty.

Over time, learners can differentiate whether it is their abilities or the difficulty of the questions that explains their inability to answer a given question.

If this proves to be useful, the provision of a difficulty index can then be expanded to other subjects and exams.

This would help students to build the competency of knowing what they know and what they don’t know, rather than not knowing what they don’t know due to difficult questions that dampen their confidence and resilience.

Perhaps, some might ask, is this difficult to achieve? Could it perhaps be theoretically sound, but not practical?

About a decade ago, I proposed an Air Force Training Evaluation and Assessment System for the Republic of Singapore Air Force to have a learning performance dashboard for each airman who attended courses at the Air Force Training Command.

Over a period of their training duration, individuals gain better self-awareness from the calibration scores between their self-assessment of confidence (psychological health) vis-à-vis their performance (knowledge and skills) at different stages of their training.

Airmen who achieved better calibration scores have a better understanding of their cognitive and behavioral (or skills) abilities.

This formative developmental approach grooms calibrated individuals who have the self-awareness and mental resilience to operate under demanding situations.

I would like to reiterate here that the teachers and MOE have done a great job in teaching and developing the pedagogy to help our students attain good academic results.

The concerns are: What are the means of achieving these results, and why do students have under-confidence self-beliefs, which could have psychological effects and dampen their mental resilience?

The way forward is to identify what we can do to help our students to calibrate their levels of confidence and abilities so that they can compete effectively with good self-awareness and mental strength.

A Straits Times Article by Koh Cheng Boon