PBL – (Topical Reference List)

This paper includes a reference list of literature relating to problem-based learning.  In general, the literature seems to indicate that problem-based learning has several positive effects in the classroom, including on the development of critical thinking and inquiry skills.  Further research needs to be conducted surrounding the use of problem-based learning with reluctant learners and its effects on student motivation and efficacy.

Keywords: problem-based learning, project-based learning, student efficacy

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, including the ability to think critically, solve problems, 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, the complexity of this application 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 approaches in classes where students struggle to retain concepts or to engage with the learning material.  Most PBL studies have focused on the 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 the description of student outcomes as compared to traditionally-designed instruction.  The measurements could include anecdotal evidence of discussion-based participation, the exhibition of problem-solving skills, and the demonstration of critical thinking.  Data could then be triangulated to confirm findings via interviews with the educators, observations of classroom lessons by the researcher, and analyses of student work samples.  Research shall be designed around this question:  How do teachers describe evidence of student motivation in classrooms in which problem-based learning is implemented versus traditional classroom settings?


Achilles, C. M., & Hoover, S. P. (1996, November). Exploring problem-based learning (PBL) in grades 6-12. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Mid-South Educational Research Association, Tuscaloosa, AL Abstract retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/ fulltext/ED406406.pdf

Achilles and Hoover find that PBL should improve education by promoting active and group learning, integrating curriculum, and allowing for learning accommodations.  The study reviewed four schools (three middle schools, and one high school) after training approximately one-third of the faculty at each location.

Teacher qualitative measurements suggested positive outcomes from PBL; spring testing results provided quantitative data.  Results indicated that shorter PBLs were more effective than longer, complex assignments.  Each location experienced difficulty with study group readiness, implying that future implementations might necessitate pre-training regarding group expectations.  PBL was most effective during longer classes; shorter periods required increased creativity and evaluation on the part of the instructor.

Bradley-Levine, J. (2014). Literature review on project-based learning. Retrieved from http://cell.uindy.edu/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/PBL-Lit-Review_Jan14.2014.pdf

Bradley-Levine explores project-based learning as an effective means to obtain student-driven inquiry in the classroom.  She focuses on both student and teacher engagement and process when encountering real-world situations in the classroom, especially those related to technology.  This includes measurement of critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.

The study showed a positive effect for PBL on higher-order thinking, particularly in students with below-average verbal abilities or lacking in previous content knowledge.  Eighth-grade students were divided into three groups.  The first received traditional classroom instruction, include lecture-based acquisition of information – this served as the control.  The second group used technology within instruction – an experimental approach.  The third group learned through PBL and also had access to technology.  Students were then tested in both conceptual and content knowledge, with students from the PBL group showing significant gains in comprehension.

Blumenfeld, P. C. (1991). Motivating project-based learning: sustaining the doing, supporting the learning. Educational Psychologist.  Retrieved from http://s3.amazonaws.com/academia.edu.documents/30505177/ motivating_project_based_learning_sustaining_the_doing_supporting_the_learner.pdf?AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1463341128&Signature=ZWnOnbJNN5b0R5FwSf3xvpreUSY=&response-content-disposition=inline; filename=Motivating_project-based_learning_Sustai.pdf

Blumenfeld makes an argument for a positive effect on engagement for project-based learning, examines effective project design, and analyzes problems that are likely to be encountered during implementation, including proactive supports that can be implemented in order to avoid these issues.  Blumenfeld focuses on technology’s motivating factors for both teachers and students.

However, the research recognizes that there are many aspects of technology and PBL that still need to be examined.  This includes consideration of pre-implementation support, potential negative effects of heavy technology-reliance, and the effective differentiation of learning in a group-based environment.  The study stresses that technology is a positive motivator in cases of PBL but does not supplant the role of the teacher.

Davidson, N., & Major, C. H. (2014).  Boundary crossings: Cooperative learning, collaborative learning, and problem-based learning.  Journal on Excellence in College Teaching, 25(3&4), 7-55.

This article aimed to distinguish between different types of group learning by examining research supporting the efficacy of various approaches.  It did so in order to aid its reader’s ability to distinguish between viable methods of enhancing student involvement and connected goals.  Davidson and Major considered student interest and a student-centered metric in describing the teaching approach.

Edelson, D. C. (2016). Addressing the challenges of inquiry-based learning through technology and curriculum design. Journal of the Learning Sciences.  Retrieved from https://web.stanford.edu/~roypea/RoyPDF%20folder/A101_Edelson_etal_99_MS.pdf

Edelson recognizes the benefits of project-based learning and undertakes an exploration of the challenges faced when implementing this type of instruction.  He outlines five challenges related to technology and the geosciences and then presents possible strategies or solutions in addressing the issues.  The analysis itself is very extensive and considers a longitudinal study that encompasses four iterations of both software and curriculum pertaining to global warming and the greenhouse effect.

Ultimately, the study provided a means to improve the classroom design related to PBL and, in this case, the accompanying technology component.  The researchers recognize, however, that the teacher is an important factor in successful project-based implementation, and Edelson calls for further research to determine effective educator support.  This requires a broadening of the research design in terms of scope, for this initial study focused primarily on the learner.  Furthermore, the design of this study was quite adaptive, and a follow-up study with a more formal design would prove beneficial to an evaluation of a teacher-centered approach.  Continued analysis will need to look also at variations in technology availability across a wide-range of classrooms.

Ferreira, M. M., & Trudel, A. R. (2012). The impact of problem-based learning (PBL) on student attitudes toward science, problem-solving skills, and sense of community in the classroom. Journal of Classroom Interaction, 47(1), 23-30.

Through a mixed-method approach, Ferreira & Trudel examined the impact of problem-based learning on student attitudes toward science, as well as on student perceptions of the learning environment and the resulting impact on problem-solving skills.  The study included forty-eight high school chemistry students, who completed journal entries and answered survey questionnaires.  Researchers examined the students’ approach to problem-solving, and the teacher observed and reflected on students in class.  Results indicated a significant increase in student attitudes toward all three elements.  Further, PBL seemed to develop a stronger sense of classroom community.

Gultekin, M. (2004). The effect of project based learning on learning outcomes in the 5th grade social studies course in primary education. Retrieved from http://www.academia.edu/1456133/The_Effect_of_Project_Based_Learning_on_Learning_Outcomes_in_the_5th_Grade_Social_Studies_Course_in_Primary_Education

Gultekin approaches project-based learning as part of the constructivist theory of education being embraced by the Turkish school system.  The study utilized both quantitative and qualitative measurements in examining fifth-grade social studies students.  Pre- and post-tests were given to students as a control, and a semi-formal interview was administered.  Results indicated that not only did project-based learning lead to academic success, teachers and students alike found the process engaging and meaningful.

Even with this success, there were issues within the findings.  Often, group members would have issues with agreement, in some cases even engaging in active arguments related to the design process.  In other cases, groups had issues carrying out the assignments and lacked the support that is often more readily apparent in a traditional model of structured curriculum.  This suggests that, while project-based learning clearly has benefits and should be recommended for use in the classroom, there does need to be increased emphasis on project stages and other types of implementation supports put into place.

Hertzog, N. (1994, April). Impediments to a project-based and integrated curriculum: a qualitative study of curriculum reform. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New Orleans, LA.  Abstract retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED369185.pdf

Hertzog focused on negative experiences and challenges related to project-based curriculum implementations.  Her study focused on students within a private secular school and only examined those whose cognitive-levels were at or above grade-level.  Data was collected through classroom observation, discussion at administrative meetings, and personal interviews.  The study found that expectations of ‘engagement’ varied greatly between administrators and parents and that parents viewed differentiation of the curriculum as a means of providing an unequal and less-challenging experience.  Parents also were hesitant for students to focus on integrated learning experiences, preferring the more traditional approach of delineated subjects.

Hertzog addresses these competing perceptions, and she concludes that time-structured classes do not allow for fully effective project development.  It would be interesting to further consider Hertzog’s analysis in comparison to a school that lacked rigorous compartmentalization of subjects and daily organization.  Since parents were concerned with the effect of differentiated project-based learning on traditional assessment methods, a future study could quantify testing data of this group of students to determine correlative support in addressing the issue.

Hung, W. (2013). Problem-based learning: A learning environment for enhancing learning transfer.  New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, (137), 27-38.

This article provides a conceptual framework for problem-based learning, especially in the context of using the approach with adult learners.  Hung outlines instructional design guidelines to enhance learning transfer through the use of PBL, building upon Thorndike’s findings from the early 1900s.

Khan, B. H. (2006).  Flexible learning in an information society.  Hershey PA: Information Science Pub.

Khan explores the best ways to create a flexible learning environment for students.  He develops eight factors which systematically lead to successful implementation of meaningful classrooms.  This includes authenticity and collaboration in both traditional and online courses.  Project-based learning proves most successful when cultural and other individual differences are minimized, and communication maximized among the group.

As a qualitative measure of observation, Khan explores the attitudes of online students through a program satisfaction survey.  Although this certainly provides feedback on the eight dimensions of the learning framework that has been developed, it provides no control to compare this framework to a more traditional approach.  The collected data seems purely subjective, and relies heavily on student bias from the sample participants.  It might be beneficial to compare the study results with quantitative measures such as grades for the respondents, or utilize a control by surveying students who participated in an individualized environment.

Khoiriyah, U., Roberts, C., Jorm, C., & C. P. M. Van der Vleuten. (2015, August 26). Enhancing students’ learning in problem based learning: validation of a self-assessment scale for active learning and critical thinking. Retrieved October 11, 2017, from https://bmcmededuc.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12909-015-0422-2

This article is heavily research-focused.  Khoiriyah et al observe that student engagement can be negatively impacted by problem-based learning unless students are more directly guided through other means, such as self-assessment.  The purpose of the study was to develop a valid assessment tool for PBL-learners to utilize within a tutorial setting.

Ömer Delialioglu. (2012). Student engagement in blended learning environments with lecture-based and problem-based instructional approaches. Journal of Educational Technology & Society, 15(3), 310-321 .  Retrieved from http://www.ifets.info/journals/15_3/24.pdf

This article examined the effect on student engagement when technology was blended with various learning approaches.  The study used a computer networks course, designed so that the first eight-weeks were presented in lecture format, and the following eight-weeks were problem-based.  Researchers aimed to determine if there were significant differences in student engagement between the two methods.  The researchers studied 89 students and used “repeated measure ANOVA analysis” to determine that Active Learning and Total Time on Task indicators were significantly higher in the part of the course that followed the problem-based learning design, although course satisfaction did not differ overall.  To ensure that the results were valid, researchers used a regression analysis which confirmed that the differences in engagement resulted from the PBL environment and not from learner differences.

Simons, K. D. (2016). Scaffolding disciplined inquiry in problem-based environments.Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/ download?doi=

Simons focuses on scaffolding strategies as a means to overcome challenges presented by project-based learning.  She purports that this type of support provides a three-fold approach: creating an inquiry-based environment, addressing misconceptions, and encouraging reflection.  Simons provides detailed examples for future researchers, curriculum design teams, and classroom instructors.

Throughout the study, Simons is quick to discuss drawbacks to the scaffolding system, admitting that the system is far from perfect but still beneficial.  Scaffolding is intended for instruction-based needs and falls short in addressing issues of student effort or initiative.  Furthermore, educators must be knowledgeable in a scaffolded approach and quick to observe and gauge student needs.  Finally, students must have buy-in with the approach to prevent the misconception that this extra help is really extra work.  In an effort to interact with students to better the approach, perhaps qualitative data could be collected to view student perception of needed interventions.  It is imperative that educators do not over-support student efforts, for that would defeat the open-ended purpose of project-based learning.

Thomas, J. W., Ph.D. (2000, March).  A review of research on project-based learning.  Retrieved from http://www.newtechnetwork.org. 590elmp01.blackmesh.com/sites/default/files/dr/pblresearch2.pdf

Thomas provides a comprehensive overview of project-based learning, including an analysis of previous research studies addressing this cutting-edge curriculum practice.  He looks at effectiveness of the approach, the role of students in PBL classrooms, and challenges faced during implementations.  Finally, Thomas outlines a means for improving effectiveness of PBL.

Thomas explores PBL within three different contexts: within a school, across a district, and in relation to the community.  He examines factors which influence its spread and viability.  However, there is currently no control for what project-based learning truly looks like and what it must accomplish to be considered a success.  To achieve an exhaustive analysis, one would need to consider these varying contexts by implementing a consistent environment across each.  There also needs to be a quantitative analysis that links project-based learning to standardized test scores, the leading instrument in the traditional-instruction argument.  A systematic, longitudinal study would lead to the rise of PBL as a viable means of student success.

Tiantong, M. (2013, April). The online project-based learning model based on student’s multiple intelligence. International Journal of Humanities and Social Science.  Retrieved from http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_3_No_7_April_2013/23.pdf

Tiantong builds upon traditional research regarding project-based learning to develop a learning model that bases PBL instruction on a student’s Multiple Intelligence.  The study focuses on discussion group observations from ten experts, who were presented the five aspects of the design model.  These experts evaluated the model as a successful means to engage students in learning.

Regardless, the model needs to be further studied through implementation involving actual students, not merely a hypothetical situation. Tiantong focuses on PBL as it relates to online learning, so perhaps students experiencing this type of instruction can be administered a similar test to students not following the Multiple Intelligence model, and assessment data can provide a quantitative measurement for further investigation.

Wijnia, L., Loyens, S. M., Derous, E., & Schmidt, H. G. (2014). How important are student-selected versus instructor-selected literature resources for students’ learning and motivation in problem-based learning? Instructional Science, 43(1), 39-58.

This article specifically discusses the importance of student-selected materials and its impact on motivation in problem-based learning.  Although steeped in research, the article certainly aims to provide practitioners with evidence for a need for voice-and-choice within PBL-classrooms.  Wijnia et al found that both autonomous motivation and perceived competence were improved when students were given agency to select their own literature and that there was no loss in conceptual understanding when compared to the use of instructor-selected materials.


The literature strongly suggests that problem-based learning environments positively impact student learning.  Students appear more engaged in collaborative, student-centered classrooms when compared to traditional lecture designs.  However, even student-centered classrooms may require strong teacher support and an emphasis on providing the structure that some students may need to guide their problem-based explorations.  Gains have been found across all levels of learning, from elementary schools all the way to adult learners.

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