Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

Want Your Students College Ready? Use PBL

Guest blogger Thom Markham makes a case for PBL.

February 7, 2011

Editor's note: Today's guest blogger is Thom Markham, a psychologist, educator, and president of Global Redesigns, an international consulting organization focused on project-based learning, social-emotional learning, youth development, and 21st-century school design. He formerly directed the Buck Institute for Education's national training program in PBL and is the primary author of BIE's Handbook on Project Based Learning.

College readiness, always a hot topic, is getting hotter. The Obama administration has set a national goal of having the highest proportion of college-educated citizens in the world by 2020. Yet at the same time, researchers tell us that two out of five college students are not equipped to handle the academic, financial, and social responsibilities of college. (Download a recent report on college readiness from ACT) In other words, 40% of high school students aren't "college ready."

Predictors of College Success

What's really interesting is that, once again, the research reminds us that the deficiencies in college readiness don't represent cognitive deficits. I realize that many high school graduates require remedial courses to learn to write an essay or master basic math. But this research shows that the biggest predictor of college success is a student's conscientiousness, as measured by dependability, perseverance, and work ethic. The next best predictors are agreeableness, including teamwork, and emotional balance. All this, in my mind, leads to one conclusion: More project-based learning.

Role of Social-Emotional Learning in PBL

What do these personality attributes associated with college readiness -- dispositions, as they're known to psychologists -- have to do with PBL? Let me briefly digress to explain how PBL and social-emotional learning support one another.

In the last two decades, social-emotional learning experts have settled on three factors that support the success of a young person: (1) A solid relationship with an adult mentor, such as a parent, priest, teacher, or coach; (2) a sense of mastery that develops as the mentor guides the young person forward and reviews their performance; and (3) an internal sense of meaning and purpose that comes as the young person is offered opportunities to explore questions of value and relevance.

PBL draws upon these exact elements for success. Great PBL begins with a respectful relationship between teacher and student. PBL is also a process of learning, not merely a method for ingesting information for a test at the end of the unit. This process allows for plenty of regular, ongoing feedback, which leads to student mastery. And, at the heart of a good project is a relevant, open-ended, student-centered question that speaks to a student's innate desire to know more about the world and how he or she fits into it.

Bottom line: If you use PBL in the classroom, you are not only teaching the stuff of school, you are supporting the social-emotional development of your students and getting them ready for college.

PBL to Teach Student Behavior

I'll just add one other thought: What if you want to specifically teach work ethic, perseverance, or dependability -- the kinds of dispositions that really prepare a student to be a self-managing learner in college? PBL works well here, too, if you use well-designed rubrics that identify the exact behaviors you expect, teach students how to use the rubrics to guide their behavior, and -- the critical piece -- put a grade in your grade book that reflects how "dependable" a student has been in the project.

Common core standards for social-emotional learning are coming, but there will never be a test or national curriculum for "dependability." So you will need to judge these "soft" skills by "soft" standards. It's not that difficult, however. Most teachers and students know what this behavior looks like in practice -- and they can identify the necessary levels of performance. (If you need sample rubrics, visit my site and click "contact.")

Thom Markham, Ph.D., President of GlobalRedesigns, and Senior National Faculty member at the Buck Institute for Education, is a psychologist and educator who served as a Director with Active Learning, Inc., an innovative motivational and learning skills camp program for high school and college students, taught at an award-winning high school, where he led school reform efforts and developed a highly-acclaimed internship-based program, and co-founded the Marin School of Arts and Technology, an innovative charter high school in Novato, California.

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