Students' favourite subjects around the world

Students' favourite subjects around the world

July 2019


The 2018 Cambridge International Global Education Census provides a snapshot into the lives of almost 20,000 teachers and students across the world. The Census sought to understand both what and how students learn. It includes two online self-completion surveys, one for students and one for teachers, which were promoted via social media platforms, through Cambridge International’s schools networks and channels, on the Cambridge International website, and at international school events.

The student survey was completed by 9,397 students who reported themselves to be aged 12-19. In this Data Byte we explore one question from the student survey, favourite subjects.

What does the chart show?

The chart displays the proportion of students reporting each subject as a favourite by country. The area of each bubble is proportional to the proportion of student respondents to the Global Education Census from the country that chose the subject.

This analysis investigates the ten countries that were the focus of the survey: Argentina, China (including Hong Kong and Macau), India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Spain, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and the USA. Each respondent could report up to three favourite subjects. Subjects chosen by fewer than 7% of respondents in each of the ten countries were excluded, along with free text responses, resulting in 7,579 responses.

Why is the chart interesting?

The chart illustrates the diversity of students’ favourite subjects around the world. Mathematics was the most popular subject overall, selected by 38% of respondents worldwide and by 37% of respondents included in this analysis. The popularity of Mathematics persists amongst respondents at the country level, with more than 11% of included respondents listing it as a favourite in each of the countries in the chart. English Language was the second most popular choice with 37% worldwide and 31% of included respondents selecting it as a favourite. The popularity of English Language differs by country, however, with the lowest proportion, 6%, in the USA and the highest, 22%, in Indonesia. Mathematics and English Language were also the two most studied subjects among respondents.

Unlike Mathematics, Music and History have varied proportions across countries. Just 3% of respondents from Saudi Arabia reported History as a favourite subject, compared to 16% of respondents from the USA. Respondents from Indonesia had the largest variation among subjects, with a small proportion, around 3%, selecting Business Studies or English Literature, while a large proportion, 22%, favoured English Language. The same proportion of respondents from India and Pakistan chose Business Studies, English Language, History, and Physics, but just 4% of respondents from Pakistan chose English Literature compared to 9% of Indian respondents. Respondents from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan had a preference for STEM subjects, with more than 11% of respondents from both countries choosing each of Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, and Physics.

These survey results offer a fascinating glimpse into the preferences of the students who completed the survey. It would be interesting to investigate whether they reflect the wider population, and the reasons for the differences.

Further information

A detailed report of the findings from the Census, along with country and topic specific reports, can be found here.

Research Matters

Research Matters 27: Spring 2019

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.