Educators often talk about 21st-century skills and the benefits of incorporating communication, creativity, collaboration, problem-solving, and critical thinking into lessons. These are skills students rarely learn straight out of a textbook. The best way to teach them, we’ve found, is by making these skills a relevant part of their active lives.
If that sounds daunting, rest assured, it doesn’t always have to be. One way we have taught these skills is through project-based learning (PBL), where students apply what they’ve learned during a hands-on project that is relevant to the real world — and their lives.
To that end, a new report developed by MIDA Learning Technologies, which we researchers worked on, shows that students engaged in PBL understand concepts more deeply than those receiving traditional instruction, resulting in improved problem solving skills. Past research reviewed in the report also suggests that PBL students perform better on a wide range of assessments including standardized testing. The full report includes quantitative and qualitative evaluations of students’ problem-solving abilities after implementation of a pre-built, project-based STEM curriculum in science class.
The study examined students in second and fifth grade, and took place during the 2015–2016 school year. Experimental classes were asked to implement the PBL model for the entirety of the school year, while the control group classes did not engage in PBL. The design of the study asked teachers to implement Defined STEM performance tasks in their science classes, and then looked at the transference of problem-solving abilities to the mathematics classroom.
Scores indicated that second-grade students exposed to PBL outperformed the corresponding control group by 49 percent. The fifth-grade group had similar results. In addition, teacher reflections in interviews and focus groups indicated that student enthusiasm, motivation, and engagement in the experimental classes were very high.
Interestingly, girls outperformed boys when in the PBL setting. The research also found that introducing students to PBL and getting them to think critically about real-world issues improved their performance in other subjects, not just the one where PBL was used.
Effectively implementing PBL
Educators participating in the research used Defined STEM as the core resource to implement PBL in their classrooms. The tool is designed to offer educators pre-built, project-based lessons complete with stardards-aligned resources, engaging videos, activities, and grading rubrics. Teachers received ongoing professional development on how to implement PBL in their classrooms and were highly supported by their administration. Teachers were given free range of the tool, but had to engage students in a minimum of one project a quarter. Many of them used the pre-built lessons to supplement traditional lessons and fill gaps in the curriculum.
Each task contains between three and six products that allow students to demonstrate their understanding of content, concepts, and skills. The learning experience focuses on student-centered inquiry and group learning, with the teacher acting as a facilitator.
For teachers who have not experienced PBL, the shift can create uncertainty in the classroom, especially for those who feel the need to give students “soapbox” speeches and lectures. With PBL, teachers become more of a classroom guide who facilitates learning and allows students to discover answers on their own.
Some teachers hesitate to do this. They want to jump in and give the answers rather than allowing students to solve problems and learn from mistakes. In reviewing the comments collected during the study, it became increasingly apparent that as teachers’ comfort levels with PBL grew, so too did their perceptions of the methodology’s overall effectiveness in engaging students.
Reflecting on the early phases of implementation, teachers collectively suggested that being able to see the process of PBL in action would have helped them through the early phases of the initiative. “Being able to see a PBL class prior to implementation may have lessened the sense of ambiguity we experienced,” said one educator.
This new research should encourage teachers to try PBL, because the results show that it works. Findings consistently indicated that project-based learning enhances student performance, motivation, student engagement, teacher/student interaction and the learning of 21st-century skills such as collaboration.
A fifth-grade teacher participating in the study said of students: “From the beginning of their school experience, everything was fed to them. Getting them to think in the beginning on their own, outside of the box, was very hard. They were not used to doing this. They were used to someone giving them the solution. By the end of the year they were actually saying here is what it is, they were able to think about the problems and come up with solutions.”
PBL leads to increased student engagement
According to qualitative data collected during the research period, teachers found students to be more engaged and motivated when using the PBL methodology. When students engage in PBL, they’re naturally more motivated to learn because they are able to correlate lessons to their everyday life. Rather than learning material for a test and forgetting much of it after the assessment is done, students engaged in the process of investigating problems and collaborating with their peers must consider ultimately how best to effectively communicate their findings. Throughout the process students have quite a bit of autonomy in designing and organizing their work. Learning responsibility, independence, and discipline are three outcomes of PBL.
By the end of the school year, teachers reported that the “Kids [got] extremely excited about the videos and the projects and asked repeatedly if they were going to do Defined STEM today?”
Educators reported that the students liked working together and doing the research. Having videos to watch gave them an idea of what to do, showed how the lessons relate to careers, and gave them some context. With each task, students took on more responsibility, asked fewer questions and were eager to jump in and get started on their own.
Both the quantitative and qualitative findings of this study are consistent with a growing body of research suggesting that project-based learning provides a deep, meaningful understanding of content by engaging students in a highly motivating learning environment. Students using PBL perform better on both standardized assessments and project tests than students in traditional direct-instruction programs, and they learn essential life skills such as analytical thinking.
In the future, children will enter a workforce in which they will be judged on their performance. They will be evaluated not only on their outcomes, but also on their collaboration, negotiating, planning, and organizational skills. By implementing PBL, we are preparing our students to meet their futures with a repertoire of skills they can use to succeed.