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.
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