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November 17, 2011 / compassioninpolitics

Research on the advantages of problem based learning (PBL)

I’m going to suggest the following research resources:

* Research on Project Based Learning (PBL)
* Meta-Research on Project Based Learning (PBL)
* Does Project Based Learning (PBL) Work?
* Research on Project Based Learning (PBL) (Edutopia)


The influence of contextual factors on cognition has also engendered a good deal of research and has, according to the citations in PBL research, had an important influence on the authenticity and autonomy elements of Project-Based Learning. According to research on “situated cognition,” learning is maximized if the context for learning resembles the real-life context in which the to-be-learned material will be used; learning is minimized if the context in which learning occurs is dissimilar to the context in which the learning will be used (Brown, Collins & Duguid, 1989). Additionally, research on contextual factors has led to the recommendation that, to the extent that it is important for students to be able to apply what they learn to solve problems and make decisions, instruction be carried out in a problem-solving context. Learning that occurs in the context of problem solving is more likely to be retained and applied. Such learning is also seen as being more flexible than the inert knowledge that is acquired as a result of more traditional didactic teaching methods (Boaler, 1998b; Bransford, Sherwood, Hasselbring, Kinzer, & Williams, 1990).

As well as these two studies:

The effectiveness of Project- or problem-based learning can be evaluated by looking at the performance of program graduates. Ljung and Blackwell (1996) describe Project OMEGA, a program for at-risk teens that combines traditional instruction with problem-based learning (part of the Illinois Network of Problem Based Learning Educators) that constitutes a school-within-a-school. The authors report positive transfer following enrollment in Project OMEGA. Graduates of the program all passed their English, US history, and mathematics courses in the year following exposure to the program, although the authors fail to provide sufficient information to allow one to evaluate the meaning or significance of this outcome.

Shepherd (1998) reports that problem-based learning can have a positive effect on students’ acquisition of critical thinking skills. Shepherd describes a nine-week project in which students work on defining and finding solutions for a problem related to an apparent housing shortage in six countries. Although the number of students involved in the study was quite small (20 students in the experimental group and 15 in a control group), Shepherd found a significant increase on the part of the experimental group, as compared to the control students, on a test of critical thinking skills (The Cornell Critical Thinking Test). Additionally, experimental students reported increased confidence and learning, as a result of the nine-week project, on a self-report measure given after the


An earlier study reported by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt (1992) was conducted with over 700 students from eleven school districts, with five of the sites employing matched control groups. Students were given three adventure “projects” over the course of three weeks (the “Jasper” series: videotaped problems that package all the information required for project work, but allow some autonomous activity), two on trip planning and one on using statistics to create a business plan. The effectiveness of these projects was measured by means of a series of tasks administered after the three-weeks of project work. Results were reported in five areas: basic math concepts, word problems, planning capabilities, attitudes, and teacher feedback. As expected, the largest gains were observed in planning capabilities, word problem performance, and attitudes towards mathematics. Students exposed to the Jasper problems showed positive gains in all areas compared to untreated control students. According to the researchers, the significance of the study was that it demonstrated that a brief Project-Based Learning experience (“anchored instruction,” in their terminology) can have a significant impact on students’ problem-solving skills, metacognitive strategies, and attitudes towards learning. Results from the attitude surveys were similar to those reported by Boaler (1997): In comparison to the gains made by untreated control students, experience with a project approach to mathematics was associated with a reduction in anxiety toward mathematics, greater willingness to see mathematics as relevant to everyday life, and increased willingness to approach mathematical challenges with a positive attitude.

There is also a study on math project based learning by Boaler which is cited pretty regularly.

* 2000 Review on Project Based Learning quoted above is available here.

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