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Project-Based Learning

New Study Shows the Impact of PBL on Student Achievement

Researchers in Michigan show that project-based learning in high-poverty communities can produce statistically significant gains in social studies and informational reading.
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Does project-based learning (PBL) raise student achievement? If you’ve been involved in PBL for long, you’ve undoubtedly encountered this question. Over the last few years as education researchers at University of Michigan and Michigan State University, we have worked to address this question through a large study of the effects of PBL on social studies and some aspects of literacy achievement in second-grade classrooms. We call this initiative Project PLACE: A Project Approach to Literacy and Civic Engagement.

About the Study 

In our study, we randomly assigned second-grade teachers in high-poverty schools that had low performance on state tests to two groups.  One taught social studies using the project-based units we designed (the experimental or PBL group), and the other taught social studies as they normally did (the control group). We asked teachers in both groups to teach 80 social studies lessons over the course of the year, so that we would be comparing two different ways of teaching social studies, rather than teaching social studies versus not.

None of the teachers involved in the study reported previous experience teaching PBL. PBL-group teachers received detailed plans for four project-based units (on economics, geography, history, and civics and government). Each of the 20 sessions in a unit was written out in detail, while leaving room for some teacher and student voice and choice. Sessions were tightly aligned to Michigan social studies and informational reading and writing standards (which are the Common Core State Standards) and included research-supported instructional practices. (See our article “Projects That Have Been Put to the Test” for more detail.)

Teacher Support

We wanted the study to be realistic in terms of the degree of professional development (PD) support districts might be likely to provide to teachers, so PBL-group teachers received only three hours of initial PD in our approach to PBL and the first PBL unit. Over the course of the year, they watched brief videos introducing the subsequent three units. In addition, coaches from our research team visited teachers an average of 11 times over the course of the year. These visits allowed our team to provide a form of PD as well as to systematically rate the degree to which teachers were implementing each of the three parts of our project/unit sessions as intended. Our team also observed control-group classrooms to gather information about what business-as-usual social studies instruction was like, and to determine whether any control-group teachers used PBL (none did).

Assessment Design

At both the beginning and end of the school year, we administered assessments of social studies, informational reading, and informational writing aligned to Michigan’s standards. We developed all of these assessments ourselves, as appropriate measures were not otherwise available. Experts checked alignment of test items with standards, providing evidence of the validity of the assessments. Those who scored the assessments reached high levels of agreement, suggesting that the assessment scoring system made sense and could be used in a reliable manner. Children in both the experimental/PBL and the control group took the assessments, and when we scored them, we did not know which group the assessment was from. In addition to normal randomized-controlled-trial design, we also administered the assessments to second graders in a high-socioeconomic-status (SES) school district that did not use our units, so that we could compare the PBL group not only to a comparable control group but also to a high-SES benchmark.

Results

Our analyses found statistically significant differences overall favoring the PBL group over the control group in social studies (effect size = 0.482) and informational reading (effect size = 0.181). In the PBL group, gains were 63 percent higher for social studies and 23 percent higher for informational reading than in the control group. In informational writing, differences between the groups overall were not statistically significant. However, informational writing growth was higher, at a level of statistical significance, among teachers who were rated as implementing unit sessions more as intended. (Visit this page to find a link to the latest version of Duke, Halvorsen, Strachan, Konstantopoulos, & Kim, 2017 for details.)

The gap in performance between children in the PBL group and children in the high-SES school district who did not experience our project-based units narrowed in social studies, informational reading, and informational writing (and did not narrow, or narrowed less, for the children in the control group).

Conclusions About PBL and Student Achievement 

So does PBL raise student achievement? Our version of PBL did work to improve achievement as compared to business-as-usual instruction in high-poverty, low-performing school districts. We do not claim that all versions of PBL work, or in all contexts. For example, over the years, we have observed some versions of PBL that are far less standards-aligned than what we designed and that do not incorporate specific research-supported instructional techniques—these may have been shown to be ineffective using our research design. And as noted, PBL was more effective in classrooms where it was implemented with a higher degree of fidelity to the intended model.

Rather than saying that PBL raises or does not raise student achievement compared to other approaches, the most defensible stance from our research is that PBL can raise student achievement in high-poverty communities. Next steps in our field are to continue to inquire and refine our understanding of the specific circumstances under which it does raise student achievement and as compared to what. That is the project for project-based learning.

Project PLACE was funded by the Spencer Foundation and Lucas Education Research of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.

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Nell K. Duke's picture
Nell K. Duke
Professor, University of Michigan

Hi Liz,

Here are some reviews of research on project-based learning or problem-based learning that may be helpful to get you started!

Best,
Nell

Condliffe, B. (2015). Project-based learning: A literature review. Unpublished manuscript, George Lucas Educational Foundation, San Rafael, CA. Available from https://s3-us-west-1.amazonaws.com/ler/MDRC+PBL+Literature+Review.pdf

Holm, M. (2011). Project-based instruction: A review of the literature on effectiveness in prekindergarten through 12th grade classrooms. River Academic Journal, 7(2), 1-13.

Kokotsaki, D., Menzies, V., & Wiggins, A. (2016). Project-based learning: A review of the literature. Improving Schools, 19(3) 267-277.

Strobel, J., & van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL more effective? A meta-synthesis of meta-analyses comparing PBL to conventional classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning, 3(1), 44-58.

Thomas, J. W. (2000). A review of research on project-based learning. San Rafael, CA:
The Autodesk Foundation. Available from: http://www.bobpearlman.org/BestPractices/PBL_Research.pdf

Victoria Cayard's picture

PBL is something that I have been doing research on for a few months now and I can't wait to incorporate it into my classroom. I love that Project Place puts an emphasis on community engagement! It is great to see students learning how to write a proposal, an objective that is aligned to standards, yet they are also learning the process on how to be a change agent in their community. Did Project Place provide funding for the implementation of the four PBL curriculums used in this study? As a teacher currently working in a Title I school, what are some suggestions that you have for funding PBL when resources are very limited?

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Heidi Moeller's picture

This research is such a much needed step toward getting more teachers and schools to use PBL as the driving force for instruction. While academic achievement scores are certainly important, it is equally as important to consider the deep learning connections that students are making by engaging in higher order thinking skills and applying their new knowledge to the community. There are so many more benefits to PBL than just achievement scores! How do we get administrators and districts to focus on the long term impacts?

As a teacher who has created and implemented PBL units with my elementary school kids, year after year these are the memories about school they come back to me with. Nothing makes me more proud than to hear them making connections between what they learned in my class to other content areas.

Heidi Moeller's picture

Hi Victoria,

I also teach in a Title I school and have found funding for PBL to be lacking. There are so many initiatives that district leaders are focused on and PBL planning/development is certainly not a priority. I have found that there are lots of grant opportunities for Title I teachers to attend PBL professional development conferences. Perhaps you can start there!

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Nell K. Duke's picture
Nell K. Duke
Professor, University of Michigan

Hi Heidi,
I totally agree with you that we should consider more than achievement scores when contemplating the use of PBL, or any approach. I don't have easy answers, but I find that it's helpful to document--document standards being addressed (both academic and social emotional), document student development, and so on--for communicating with many administrators. . . and that supports our self-reflection and improvement in any case.
Thank you for sharing about the impact PBL has had with your students!

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Rachel Skinner's picture

I'm very eager to implement PBL into my 5th grade, Title I classroom. Was there any analysis of the impact of the PD on the level of growth for these students? It would be interesting to see the study repeated but with a group that receives the professional support and a group that doesn't. Targeted PD like you provided is so important for teachers, but isn't always provided with efficacy.

Mark Bracey's picture
Mark Bracey
Teacher of new entrants (5-6 year olds) at a public school in Auckland, New Zealand.

An observation: The problem that arises when the question, "will a PBL help lift student achievement" is asked, is that there seems to be 1. an element of uncertainty and vagueness in the answer and, 2. it highlights confusion and multiple interpretations on what a PBL actually is.

A proposal: The key to improving learning outcomes for all students is by creating a learning environment that lifts 'student agency'. 'Student agency' can be measured by the quality of the learning conversations between the teacher and students and between the students themselves. Its existence is obvious by the enthusiasm and curiosity displayed by the students. Research tells us that the most effective learning is achieved when it is student led and directed. A PBL may help create such a learning environment. If it isn't, then I suggest, it is not being implemented effectively. Therefore, I suggest focussing on raising 'student agency' should be the primary goal. How it is achieved is up for negotiation. I have written about my personal observations in the classroom of the rewards of creating high levels of 'student agency'.

https://easeeducation.co.nz/2017/06/05/i-have-created-a-learning-environ...

:)

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Roberta's picture

I am new at integrating Project Based Learning. I am an older teacher transitioning into the 21st Century learning mindset and use of integrating technology. I work in an inner city, low income, private school with low performance scores and this study intrigued me because it seems to address the profile of students I work with. I consider myself a life long learner and I will certainly do what it takes to help my students. I have always tried to use methods and strategies that will engage my students and I believe I have been effective. I appreciate Douglas's comment because if I believe that PBL is the be all end all of teaching and learning than I would have to believe that I have had nothing valuable to offer these past years. That being said, if the study indicates that there is some significant growth gained from PBL than my students deserve to have the opportunity to experience these achievement gains. I am looking for a supportive network of teachers who are more experienced than me in this area. I'm green.

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