George Lucas Educational Foundation
Assessment

Evidence that PBL Works

    Many of us out there know that project-based learning (PBL) inspires students to understand core content knowledge more deeply and gain key skills for success in college and career. Many of us have also directly contributed to results for students on state tests, college-going, and college persistence metrics.

    In addition, we know from surveys and focus groups that most of our students are engaged and excited about learning; however, until now, we did not have a rigorous experimental design study approved by the United States Department of Education.

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    The Data

    Here's some exciting news: the Regional Education Laboratory West (REL West), just released a report called: Effects of Problem Based Economics on High School Economics Instruction. Designed as an in-school, randomized controlled trial that tested the effectiveness of a problem-based economics (PBE) curriculum developed by the Buck Institute for Education (BIE) on student learning and problem solving skills. (Full disclosure: I helped create the curriculum as a teacher in the late 90's and I serve on the BIE Board of Directors.)

    From the BIE website:

    Experimental Study of BIE Project-Based Economics Units

    Finkelstein, N., Hanson, T., Huang, C.-W., Hirschman, B., and Huang, M. (2010).

    A study, conducted by WestEd's Regional Educational Laboratory West (REL West), addresses the following key research questions:

    • Does PBE increase student content learning, motivation to learn economics, and problem-solving skills?
    • Does PBE increase teacher knowledge in economics and teacher interest in teaching economics?

    This federally funded experimental study examined the combined impact of a one-week summer professional development institute and the use of the BIE Project-Based Economics curriculum on the economic knowledge of approximately 7,000 twelfth grade students taught by 76 teachers in 66 high schools. Student outcomes that were studied included scores on the standardized Test of Economic Literacy (TEL), scores on performance assessments of student conceptual understanding. Teacher outcomes included confidence in teaching economics and satisfaction with teaching materials.

    Results

    Both high school students and their teachers benefit:

    • Students outscored their peers in the control group who received the more typical textbook- and lecture-driven approach.
    • Students also scored higher on measures of problem-solving skills and their application to real-world economic challenges
    • Teachers scored higher in satisfaction with teaching material and methods than those in the control group.

    For more info, view the official IES report or the WestEd research site.


    As exciting as this news is for practitioners and school leaders who support PBL, I am still left with some essential questions:

    Do you think more people will decide to use PBL because we now have "hard" data to confirm our beliefs about student learning? If not, what will it take to convince them to use a PBL approach? Does data really help convince people to change practice? If not, what does?

    What do you think?