PBL – Qualitative Study (Purpose)

Educators are tasked with meeting the needs of a diverse group of learners each day.  These students need to develop 21st-century skills that prepare them for the workplace, such as the ability to think critically and problem solve, practice cooperation, and utilize structured-approaches to meet their end-goal.  This calls for educators to break free from traditional models of learning, and find ways to relate class activities to real-world, authentic experiences.  However, this application is sometimes “complex, multi-faceted, or confusing” (Kilbane, 2014, p. 278), which often causes students to become demotivated or frustrated when working through challenging issues.

The purpose of this qualitative study will be to determine how the implementation of problem-based learning (PBL) impacts the motivation of reluctant learners in the secondary classroom.  The significance of this study is that it may influence instructional approach in classes where students struggle to retain concepts or to engage with the learning material.  Most problem-based learning studies have focused on implementation of the approach with high-achieving students, but there is room to explore its effects on other demographics.  This study will involve purposeful sampling of educator narratives pertaining to student interaction and behavior during PBL-designed lessons, as well as description of student outcomes as compared to traditionally-designed instruction.  Measurements can include anecdotal evidence of discussion-based participation, exhibition of problem-solving skills, and demonstration of critical thinking.  Data can be triangulated to confirm findings by considering interviews with the educators, observation of classroom lessons by the researcher, and analysis of student work samples.

Research Question:  How do teachers describe evidence of student motivation in classrooms where problem-based learning is implemented versus a traditional classroom setting?

This study will be rooted in the constructivist theoretical perspective, which explores the educator’s reported “perceptions, ‘truths,’ explanations, beliefs, and worldview” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 351).  In this framework, students construct their knowledge from their experiences, so an approach that gives students more agency in their education experiences could both make these experiences more robust and more engaging for the student who is driving them. Constructivism considers three major principles: student readiness, spiral organization of instruction, and student ability to extrapolate or go beyond the information given.  Problem-based learning lends itself to a constructivist approach because of the holistic nature of problem-based learning, which supports factual, procedural, conceptual, and metacognitive knowledge.  Educators are able to observe the student as they engage with a problem and learn throughout the process.  Therefore, it is fitting to examine educator perception of student engagement since “we cannot talk about what is learned separately from how it is learned” (Wilson, 1998).

I am interested in problem-based learning as a potential means to create relevancy in the classroom.  There is no longer a need to supply students with rote facts because of the prevalence of technology, so engaging students in ways they find meaningful to their lives is important in establishing an active-learning environment.  Students, especially reluctant learners, might refuse to engage with material that they are unable to directly link to a topic of interest, or they may become frustrated if they cannot easily connect a task with its purpose.  If problem-based learning enhances engagement and motivates students to tackle challenges, it could potentially call for classrooms to be restructured in this student-centric approach or validate educators who are focusing on higher-level, long-term tasks.  My current students are engaging in a year-long project in which they tackle the question of “What is one problem in the world you would fix/change?” Although rooted in activities that support essential skills and power-standards, the project is incorporated into the curriculum as an activity that will eventually be presented to the students as an opportunity to use the skills that they have acquired. The central focus remains the acquisition of abstract skills that will eventually be put to use. A true problem-based learning approach would directly incorporate the project into the acquisition of these skills and thus shift the central focus to completing the project. It would be interesting to see how this shift would affect student motivations for skill acquisition.

Gall, M. D., Gall, J. P., & Borg, W. R. (2015).  Applying educational research: How to read, do, and use research to solve problems of practice (7th ed).  Boston, MA: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Kilbane, C. R., & Milman, N. B. (2014). Teaching models: Designing instruction for 21st century learners. Boston: Pearson.

Wilson, B. G. (1998). Constructivist learning environments: case studies in instructional design. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Educational Technology Publications.

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