Article Review 5, Better late than never…

While researching flipped classrooms for the last article review, I noticed a reference to project based learning being ideal for realistic, thought-provoking problems. My unit idea centers around the real world problem of water waste/pollution, so I explored the concept further this week. Surprisingly, there was very little hard research on the topic, and those studies were fairly outdated, 2002 and earlier. I ended up finding an article that did a nice job consolidating and summarizing the available research out there.

David, J. (2008, February 1). What Research Says About … / Project-Based Learning. Retrieved October 29, 2015, from

The article is succinct and objective, but lacked breadth and depth of concrete details I appreciate with new ideas. The author leads with a solid working definition, “The core idea of project-based learning is that real-world problems capture students’ interest and provoke serious thinking as the students’ acquire and apply new knowledge in a problem solving context” (David p.82). Because project-based learning (PBL) involves investigating meaningful questions and seeks to develop social skills, advocates say it better prepares students for the critical thinking necessary in the workplace than traditional learning.

Despite this, PBL has yet to become widespread in public schools. The author cites lack of teacher training and time demands as the main reasons. With current educational focus on quantifiable measures, state and district standards, testing, pacing guides, RTI, and teacher evaluations based on these, it becomes easier to see why teachers are reticent to try PBL. The impact or return on investment of PBL is not immediate and not easily measured by the type of tests currently administered. Further, PBL requires tremendous front-end loading of time. For teachers that are struggling to keep up with the demands of the job, it’s a challenge to find the time and resources to build a quality unit that is outside the scope of day-to-day operations.

As I mentioned, studies measuring the effect of PBL on student achievement are few and outdated. This article briefly examines two. A British secondary study from 2002 found that students using PBL for 3 years “significantly outperformed the traditional students in mathematical skills as well as conceptual and applied knowledge” (David p. 83). Also, three times as many PBL students in this study passed the national exam as those receiving traditional instruction. Details of the study were non-existent, so I was left wondering what made this PBL so effective. Did the individual teachers create the units, or were they done, approved, and available for teachers to select? Was this methodology initiated and supported by administration? What was the socio-economic status of the school and what was their access to technology? The only other study was from Vanderbilt University’s Cognition and Technology group in 1992. Compared to the control group, PBL students in this study performed better planning and solving word problems, but both groups scored the same on basic math skills. I was a freshman in high school in 1992. I remember a taking a basic keyboarding class with dinosaur machines. I wonder how much the idea of PBL had been developed at that point and how effective the project was at engaging students. Again, there are no details of this study in the article, so I’m left to speculate. Judging by how far technology has come since 1992, I’d bet PBL isn’t the same animal it was back then either. It seems that the education world is overdue for a comprehensive study on the impacts of this constructivist approach to teaching and learning.

One interesting outcome surfaced many times as I searched and perused articles this week. PBL almost always reduced student math anxiety and led to more positive attitudes toward math. This was an anomaly to me because math is such a linear concept. Although I don’t excel at it, I’ve generally enjoyed math because of this; there is a single, concrete, correct answer that requires application of a specific formula. Knowing there are a variety of learning styles, I wonder if the reduction in anxiety with PBL is a product of the social interaction inherent in the process. Students that struggle in math can ask questions of classmates, observe problem-solving strategies, and somewhat diffuse responsibility across the group. Appearing incompetent in a small group of peers is a lot less intimidating that looking dumb in front of the teacher and the entire class. The increase in positive attitudes likely has to do with the realistic, practical, thought-provoking immersion of PBL projects. Motivation and engagement increase with student choice, a principal of PBL. Harnessing the conceptual nature of math into real-world scenarios puts the topic of math in a language we understand and care more about.

There is a final point that I want to attempt to articulate before wrapping up. The author points out that “although projects are the primary vehicle for instruction in PBL, there are no commonly shared criteria for what constitutes an acceptable project” (David p. 82). In the interest of conducting research, I can understand why one would want to establish a “criteria for what constitutes an acceptable project.” But the author seems to imply that this is a negative aspect beyond the research ramifications. Like the variability among projects, learning outcomes, and assessments acts as a barrier to legitimizing and embracing PBL. Although I think standardization can help initiate the process by reducing teacher apprehension, I firmly believe the process of designing a unit around a real-world problem and intentionally selecting active learning experiences to support critical thinking is a worthy end unto itself. Any seasoned teacher knows that some lessons really hit the mark and others miss completely. Good teaching is a work in progress. PBL is organic, developing and evolving as the process unfolds. Are we to avoid trying something we believe will benefit our students because there is no “standard” for good projects? Or do we best serve our students by trying something new and messy, knowing the end result will be a deeper connection and caring about a problem that really exists and needs the passion of the next generation?

3 thoughts on “Article Review 5, Better late than never…

  1. Hi Craig,

    Nice work and congratulations on getting in your 5th Article Review. From here – it’s on to problem based learning! 🙂

    I enjoyed your review. Thorough and insightful.

    Do you think there’s an age where PBL becomes more appropriate? I guess another way to ask the question is whether or not you think there is a minimum maturity level requirement for PBL?

    What are other methods other than PBL? Do these have merit?

  2. Hi Owen,

    I do think there is an age where PBL becomes more appropriate. I think 3rd grade is a good age to to begin with project based instruction. I believe there are notable developmental changes related age/grade. Around grade three, students become more independent in thought and the school expectations begin to grow (longer spelling lists, more homework, increased responsibility for self, introduction to abstract math concepts). The education system also recognizes this developmental shift. If you look at the Alaska State Performance Standards are in grade-level bands.

    There are variety of other instructional methods such as Backwards Design and Gaming that have merit in instruction. The one element of project based learning that drew the most of my attention was the use of storytelling. Reflecting on storytelling as it relates to my unit allowed me to find places where it naturally fit into instruction and made my unit flow better.

  3. Yeah, it’s a shame the article didn’t go into more detail with exactly what makes project based learning so effective. I’ve actually noticed that in other literature regarding PBL – it’s often very surface-level in its explanations. Nice review – good integration of review and experience. I actually think PBL could be useful for all ages, but instead, you’re focusing on smaller and smaller “projects” as you go down. I know next to nothing about the elementary level though, so I’m admittedly not sure.

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