Project-Based Learning (PBL)

AP and PBL: It Works!

June 10, 2014 Updated June 11, 2014

I know that many project-based learning teachers are fearful of fully embracing PBL due to the expectations around standardized testing. We need to honor that fear, because it's not coming from a bad place. Why do we worry? Because we care about kids! Many of our kids are held accountable by the standardized tests they take. From Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate to end-of-course and graduation exams, we want to make sure that our students are successful. But how do we avoid the pitfall of only teaching to the test?

The Good News

Lucas Education Research released a study that showed the success of PBL projects in AP government and AP environmental science classes. These projects were deployed in school districts that were different not only in terms of place, but also socio-economic status and demographics. Students who took the PBL course generally scored higher, especially in the areas that called for deeper understanding, where the knowledge is applied in performance tasks in the exam. This makes sense. PBL, with its emphasis on depth rather than breadth, creates learning that "sticks." We remember learning in a context that is relevant and connected to the real world.

AP is Changing

CollegeBoard has released the major changes and a timeline for these changes on their website. A couple of key points they make around these changes are:

Rigorous, research-based curricula, modeled on introductory college courses, that strike a balance between breadth of content coverage and depth of understanding.

Here we can see how 21st century skills, a major component of PBL, are being leveraged and honored in the revision. If we take the appropriate time to scaffold and assess these skills in our PBL class, we are preparing our students for the AP exam, no matter the content. Also, PBL does demand content knowledge, as we want students to learn the content in depth and apply in relevant context. In addition, multiple-choice questions are being reduced in the exams, with a greater emphasis on questions that require deeper thinking.

AP Classroom PBL Tips

Embedded AP Assessments

I wrote a blog on a similar topic about embedding standardized testing stems in a PBL project. For AP, it is very similar. The AP exams from the past are released, and teachers can continually go back and steal practice material from these exams. Instead of doing practice AP exams outside of a project, use parts that are relevant to the project. Find test questions to apply toward whatever content you might be targeting. These could be multiple-choice questions for a quiz on Friday or an essay question as part of the project. This will not only prepare students for the exam, but also give you great formative assessments to know how students are doing and adjust instruction as needed. Additionally, it includes the "test prep" within the context of a meaningful project.

The Meaty Content

As teachers look at past exams, they should analyze the tests for the content that is often tested or is worth a large part of the exam. We want this specific content to stick, perhaps more than other content. PBL can help the learning stick for these areas of the exam. It's similar to power standards, where teachers target learning objectives that are heavily assessed, complex, and perhaps challenging. PBL projects are rigorous and complex, and can provide a great space to hit these major content areas of an AP exam.

Target Critical Thinking

We all want our students to be critical thinkers, and much of the AP exam requires a heavy deal of critical thinking, especially with the changes that are occurring. AP teachers should be focusing on the critical thinking skills needed as well as on the AP content itself. By doing this, teachers are preparing students to navigate critical thinking questions, tasks, and prompts regardless of the content they encounter on the exam. Consider using this rubric from the Buck Institute to support students in building their critical thinking skills.

Hopefully these tips will help teachers design and implement PBL projects that help students learn important content within the AP framework and the skills needed to access the AP exam itself. The AP exam is changing, and students are finding success on that exam through PBL projects. We as educators can support our AP students by creating learning that sticks through PBL!

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  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Assessment
  • 9-12 High School

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