Why Can’t My Kid Improve In PSLE Maths?

Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash
Singapore students are the world’s best in mathematics and science, according to an international benchmarking study TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which pitched the Singapore students against 63 other countries and results released in end November 2017. So how come so many of our children are still having Math tuition? Picture courtesy of Channel News Asia, Mediacorp.

A Historical Bellcurve

For our first-parter of this 2-Part blog on PSLE Maths, we conducted our research and looked at archived as well as recent newspaper records. Published Straits Times articles dating back to just before the PSLE was introduced (passed as legislation by the Education Minister on 31 March 1960, it was to take place in November 1960) to those articles published only last year, reflected one common theme: That since the introduction of Singapore’s Primary School Leaving Examinations (PSLE), Mathematics was and still is the most challenging of all 4 subjects.

So it does not come as much of a surprise that out of a total of some 5,000 Singaporean trainers/tutors on Tueetor’s learner-trainer matching platform, more than a third, or at least 1,540 registered tutors, are offering Maths as a subject on Tueetor. It is also the most frequently searched academic subject on our platform. Not only for Singapore, but also for Malaysia and Indonesia. With “Elementary Maths” being the number one searched subject offering for at least 30% of all total searches every single month.

To give you some context on how historically accurate the above claims are, with regards to the traditionally-high difficulty level of the subject, a Straits Times article published as far back as 1961 had the headlines “MATHS TEST WAS TOO TOUGH, ALL AGREE”. There were also mentions in 1982, 1988 and for one parent who wrote in during the PSLE exam days of 2007, her letter in the Forum pages was headlined “My son, a top student, returned home shattered after difficult PSLE Maths paper.” She was responded to by the Singapore Examination and Assessment Board (SEAB), who also had to break silence in 2009 when Straits Times posed the question “Is there a nascent trend of PSLE Maths papers becoming too tough?” The official response? “No.”

Fun fact: For every 3 Primary 6 students not taking Maths tuition, 7 are. (Eunos Primary School form teacher speaks to his class just before the release of PSLE results. Picture courtesy of Straits Times.)

Back in 2007, Mr Tan Yap Kwang, then chief executive of SEAB, felt compelled to reply by penning down this response. He urged parents to help their children manage anxiety. Mr Yap also contended that the PSLE maths paper (for the year 2007) was similar to past years. He also tried to assure parents that SEAB had a careful and rigorous process that ensures PSLE papers had an appropriate balance of easier and more difficult questions, to ensure PSLE papers have comparable standards to those of previous years. Mr Yap had this to say in the conclusion of his letter. “The PSLE Mathematics paper is hence designed so that it is accessible to most students, but is able to adequately distinguish between students of different abilities in the subject, which is the purpose of the examination.”

Myth Busted? Or Confirmed?

Pic source: Derby City Litho.

With only one progeny left to pass this hurdle, I’ve thrown down the gauntlet to my daughter’s newest tutor at Sakamoto’s flagship Centre at Hougang: is it possible for her to improve sufficiently to be able to not just pass, but pass well? This is despite the Math exam happening in less than 3 months.


Chloe, under the tutelage of Sakamoto Educational Systems’ Kenji-san.

In order to know if she has managed to bust or confirm the indomitable myth, Teacher Audrey has taken pains to compile background reasons affecting not just my daughter, but for most who find improving in Maths a daunting task. She says these 5 background/universal reasons are not true for every student who struggles at Math. In fact, she suggests a mindset change more than anything else. Both the student and the parent must first acknowledge, there is no such thing as insurmountable odds. Here were Teacher Audrey’s and Sakamoto Centre’s observations having been at the forefront of teaching PSLE Maths for several decades since 1985;-

5 Most Common Mistakes/Weaknesses All Primary 6 Students Weak at Math Share

#1. Carelessness, not reading and understanding the problem sum

Carelessness is defined as failure to give sufficient attention to avoiding errors. It also means inattention, heedlessness, thoughtlessness, negligence, remissness. No matter how fluent your child may be in his Math knowledge, ALL students tend to be careless once they do not take care to check through their steps. Teacher Audrey stipulates that on the out-set, wordy, tougher problem sums may not actually be that tough, but they can prove very tricky, particularly in how they are worded and read. The careless student will hence not pay as much heed as a student who is focusing. As a habit, carelessness will cause the student to mis-read or mis-interpret the question, hence making careless calculation mistakes.

Similarly, students who do not take the time out to carefully read and understand the problem sums fail to capture key words and analyze the questions properly. Usually these students perform fairly for Maths but sometimes do not bother to analyze the questions thoroughly as they rush to finish or complete their work/paper impatiently. On the other hand, students who are weaker will have a problem linking the information to the correct methods they’ve been taught to solve the question.

PSLE Maths problem4
In this case, 24 guests was mis-read (and noted down) as girls. Working of the problem was therefore wrong right from the start.
PSLE Maths problem3
In this case, although the values of the various months were written down correctly, the adding up of the values was wrong – culminating in wrong answers because of the careless use of the calculator.

#2. Weak in Fractions, Ratio and Percentage

Usually students who do not do well for Maths see their grades suffer from Primary 5 onwards as the jump in the syllabus can only be described as ‘parkour’ steep for this year. Their performance in solving fractions could be weak due to their foundation (fractions as a topic is introduced from Primary 2), and in turn this would directly affect their understanding and performance in the topics of Ratio and Percentage. A similar weakness Teacher Audrey has seen was in the simple subtraction and/or multiplication/division of fractions, and failure to reduce the answers to the lowest term.


PSLE Maths problem2

#3. Poor Time Management

Ordinarily by Primary 6, most students would have had a go-to method of coping with time pressures during an actual paper. But it could be due to nerves or other reasons that students, in their commitment to getting every question answered well, may spend too much time on a particular question and neglect the time required for the rest.

So when it comes to crunch-time, the student may find herself running out of time to do the questions she could have easily worked the answers to. Students must learn to time-manage and strategise on how much time she could allow on each question. Then she must have an iron will to move on when time’s up, even if she’s not done (with the question). If she’s able to complete all or most questions and/or the paper with time to spare, she is then able to return to the questions she had problems completing the first time around.

Pro Tip: There is no one-size-fits-all for time management strategies, but Teacher Audrey strongly recommends an average time of 1 minute per 1-mark question especially for word problems, so for e.g a 2-mark question means 2 minutes or less, but a 5-mark problem sum may require more than 5 minutes (especially on Paper 2, it could mean up to 6 – 8 minutes). But generally, Paper 1 questions could be done in lesser time. This is so that the child has time to check through his or her answers by actually redoing the paper, rather than merely going through the motions (of a check-through).

sakamoto educational PSLE Maths
Chloe being guided by Teacher Audrey, Sakamoto Educational Systems.

#4. Stress during Exams (otherwise known as ‘exam conditions’)

Oftentimes, students who do not have much confidence in Maths in the first place fall prey to the concept of heightened stress or ‘exam conditions’ during the actual sitting of the exam. Parents may have realized this, noticing that their children perform well or as expected during lessons or simple assessments or tests taken with teachers and/or tutors. But it can be a totally different matter come exam-time.

There seems to be conflicted schools of thought with regards to whether stress related to ‘exam conditions’ or such really exists, but students with this tendency find themselves unable to do well during an actual exam, hence affecting their esteem and confidence even further. Teacher Audrey suggests parents to look into ways to boost your child’s self-esteem by helping them to manage their anxiety. Besides meditation, exercise, music, art and other ways to circumvent this, she also advised parents to not only tone their own expectations but also to help your children in managing their expectations.

#5. Lack of “correct” Practice, Practice, Practice.

Last but not least, the idea that students lack practice or in general, not doing enough practice questions. In fact the reverse is almost always true. That students actually practise a lot; from assessment books to getting additional work via remedial lessons to not just tuition lessons but sometimes additional tuition lessons. (Yes, we have heard of students having up to 3 different tutors just for Maths). But the fact remains that they may not be doing these questions correctly, and in so doing, keep committing the same mistakes in all the work that they are actually practicing with.

However, if their mistakes are discovered on time, the students will then be carrying out correct practice, rather than practicing doing questions but using the wrong methods and/or making the same mistakes over and over again. With “correct” practice, Maths (according to Teacher Audrey) is probably the only subject that you can see a dramatic improvement in grades rather quickly than any other subject.

Myth Confirmed? Myth Busted!

In the case of my daughter, Teacher Audrey was careful to give her assessment only after at least a month of her receiving help from the experienced, veteran Maths teacher. (That’s a lesson a week; 4 lessons in June.)

Teacher’s Report Card:

“To be frank there are many instances where students who’ve only started with me in June of their PSLE year who’ve improved by a margin of some 40 to 60 marks, or even higher. However, I have also had many students on the other end of the spectrum. Students who’ve been with me for years, scored A stars for their regular school exams, but could only manage a B or an A for PSLE. So it really all boils down to the children’s sanity during actual exams, and even their moods…So as a teacher, my go-to method is we will taper off our intensive teaching before the actual PSLE exams, and try to make the children relaxed, motivated and sharp and focused with encouragement, and no scolding!

When it comes to Chloe, I believe with sufficient practice, more care and perhaps she should always clarify her doubts rather than keep her confusion and questions to herself, she would be able to pass and pass well. This is however without exam phobia, and also based on my 4 sessions with her this past June. Though she may be quiet in class, I believe she is very focused and attentive and would definitely do well as long as she clarifies her doubts straight away, rather than completing the lesson still in doubt.”

PSLE Maths problem1
One of the more difficult problem sums, completed by Chloe. Her working (in blue) augmented in red by Teacher Audrey, nevertheless showed her improvement as it was left blank in her first attempt during SA1.

Parent’s (My) Take:

PSLE Maths problem
A recent attempt at another question (considered as relatively easy by Teacher Audrey) she took for the same assessment in May. As she got the question right and she managed to complete it within 2 minutes, the full 2 marks would be awarded.

“Having had 2 other older children go through this rite of passage, I find all too often, children who are weak at Maths find it difficult to improve. Why? Well, because at school, teachers just do not seem to have the time to explain the why behind the how.

So instead of trying to understand the sequence of steps and why they are required to solve a particular question/problem, the student memorises the steps instead and fail to understand fully how the method works. And because of this, I find that Chloe falters when trying to apply the memorised steps to more advanced versions of the problems she’s been practicing blindly in, as she has not understood the method behind the solution.

Math is also a subject that you have to get down and dirty with. If it remains a spectator sport for your child, your child will never improve. Unfortunately, the way PSLE Maths is usually taught makes it a spectator sport for most students, especially weaker ones who can only ogle at the solution; much less their hapless parents who are supposed to be stakeholders in this process. I find that all 3 of my children find it so hard to get out of this situation, preferring to be shown the answer, rather than to work out the answer for themselves. I am grateful therefore to have found teachers who are patient to teach Chloe, one problem at a time, using a method driven by logic and pragmatism, than a seemingly advanced-cognitive/higher-thinking method such as using the model method (as illustrated by Teacher Audrey herself below).”

Why don’t You be the Judge – with these Videos

A current P6 Sakamoto student, alongside one who’s graduated (she’s now a Secondary 1 student) VS veteran Maths and Sakamoto teacher Audrey. The challenge? Who can solve the same PSLE Math problem sum but in the fastest possible time?

The top 2 videos had elapsed recording times of an average of 1 and a half minutes (this is including thinking time); whereas the bottom-most video (Teacher Audrey) had an elapsed recording time of more than 2 minutes.

In Conclusion

In order to improve in the subject that they find most uncomfortable in – PSLE Maths, your child must be willing to step out of his/her comfort zone. He must be able to draw connections with the many various concepts he’s being taught. And be able to draw conclusions when working additional exercises and/or more challenging core concept questions. That would mean he needs to be willing to be an active participant in the whole process of getting better – that includes identifying his weak areas, asking questions, anything that he’s unsure of, again and again until he gets it – that could also mean time. So parents, what would be good for us is a healthy dose of patience with toned down expectations to boot. After all, learning is about the journey, and not just the grades.

Are you unsure of how to help your children improve or are you and your children stumped with a particularly difficult PSLE Maths question? Call Sakamoto Educational Systems at 63879700; or visit https://tueetor.com/sakamotoeducationalsystems for more information on how Sakamoto may help your child in his/her Maths learning journey. Contrary to the level emphasised here, Sakamoto also caters to children from ages 6 through 16 (from K2 to ‘O’ Levels). Like, comment, or share this blog on social media & let us know what you think! Researched & written by Cecilia Leong (veteran parent of 2 past PSLE kids, and 1 current one). Here’s wishing all PSLE kids all the best, and parents? It doesn’t matter what your child gets in the end, what’s more important is her sanity!