With all the competition to get into the right universities to secure the best jobs, secondary school students are often encouraged to take after-school classes in subjects already taught in school to help them improve their marks—even if that means forsaking other fun and interesting ways of spending after-school hours, such as playing sports, taking music lessons or volunteering at a local community centre or hospital. But, in the end, to what extent does that investment in after-school classes pay off?


A new OECD report, based on results from the 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment survey, has a somewhat surprising answer. Quality Time for Students: Learning In and Out of School finds that 15-year-old students in countries that perform well in PISA spend less time, on average, in after-school lessons and individual study, and more time in regular school classes, than students in countries that are poor performers in PISA (see the graph attached). And this is particularly true when the time students spend in regular school lessons is considered as a share of total learning time. Since the types and purpose of after-school lessons vary widely, it could, of course, be that some students who are not performing well in a given subject attend after-school lessons to catch up with their classmates. However, the evidence also suggests that it is the quality of regular school lessons, not the quantity of learning hours, that has the most impact on student performance.


While PISA results show that some types of after-school classes are related to better performance, they could also reinforce existing inequalities among different socio-economic groups of students. For example, in some countries, lessons led by a school teacher tend to reduce the impact of students’ socio-economic background on their performance in school, since disadvantaged students are more likely to attend this type of lesson and are then, in turn, more likely to achieve higher scores in regular school than students who do not participate in any after-school lessons. Meanwhile, group lessons led by a teacher who is not from the regular school tend to reinforce the impact of socio-economic background on performance, since advantaged students can better afford the fees for this type of lesson and they are then more likely to achieve higher scores than students who do not participate in any after-school lessons.


But effective learning is not just about what is available to students; the students, themselves, have to contribute something: their belief that doing well in a particular subject is important. PISA 2006 asked students whether they believed that doing well in science is important. Results showed conclusively that when students believe so, spending more time in science classes in school is the most efficient way of improving their performance.


Join the discussion: Do you think after-school lessons are a good invesment?


Quality Time for Students: Learning In and Out of School, ISBN 978-92-64-08754-5 (print)

ISBN 978-92-64-08705-7 (PDF), will be available at www.oecdbookshop.org in February 2011.