Is Learning-Styles Based Instruction Effective?

While I disagree with Cuevas’ general assertion that “it appears to be time to put the learning styles approach to rest in practice”, he does make an excellent point in explaining that “good teachers develop a variety of ways to present their content over the years and treat each student as a unique individual” (Cuevas, 2015, p. 330).  My issue lies not in giving credence to differences in learning and approaches, but that Cuevas interprets the learning styles approach as suggesting that one mode or style of learning is best for an individual in all situations.  To simplify the practice in such a way is congruent with saying all introverts are social outcasts or that extroverts do not ever need time to themselves.  And, just as we cannot pigeonhole learners, to borrow a turn of phrase from Cuevas, we cannot pigeonhole curriculum or content.  Within each discipline, there are unique topics or understandings that naturally lend themselves to certain methods of teaching.  Riener and Willingham (2010) seem to consider this relevance to context when they assert that it is “largely ineffective to try to find ways of delivering instruction that are based purely on preference yet independent of content” (Cuevas, 2015, p. 312); however, this kind of disconnected practice is rarely, if ever, implemented.  It would certainly overburden an educator to consider a different variant for each lesson dependent upon learner modalities, but, should an educator develop multiple ways to deliver content, it is generally considered solid instructional format.

Within my high school English class, it is not uncommon to differentiate instruction for a shared academic outcome, and the voice and choice provided does present the solid results that Cuevas claims are lacking.  Much is dependent upon perspective: Cuevas claims that “it would seem inefficient and unproductive to attempt to teach math through auditory means” (p. 312), but my high school math classes and those I encountered in college were all lecture-based with perhaps a bit of discussion, at which Pashler et al (2009) explain auditory learners “excel” (p. 311).  Thus, to return to Cuevas’ comment regarding individually unique students, the best approach to learning styles instruction is not to fully disregard the takeaways of the procedure, but to adapt according to student need when and how appropriate.  As educators, we should always cultivate student strengths and allow them to reach their full potential.

Cuevas, J., (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education. Volume: 13 issue: 3, page(s): 308-333.

A Review of Problem-Based Learning Literature and Research

Abstract

This paper includes a comprehensive review of literature pertaining to problem-based learning.  In general, the literature seems to indicate that problem-based learning has several positive effects in the classroom, including on critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and student engagement.  These gains are most effectively realized in implementations that appropriately account for student readiness.  Further research needs to be conducted surrounding the use of problem-based learning with reluctant learners and in diverse classrooms, as well as the application of proposed best practices regarding scaffolding and fostering motivation for these groups.

Keywords: problem-based learning, student engagement, student readiness, scaffolding

Educators must engage students in the learning process and help students obtain the necessary knowledge and skills that they will need to enter the workforce upon completion of their education. Both of these tasks might be considered as having increased in difficulty, or at least evolved and changed in recent years.  For one, teachers must compete for students’ attention with myriad distractions, including an ever-widening and increasingly tempting array of technology and entertainment media.  In addition, the requirements for success in the modern workforce are becoming more and more demanding; students hoping to compete in the 21st-century workforce need the skills to match, including the ability to think critically, solve problems independently, work collaboratively, and utilize structured approaches to complete tasks and achieve long-term goals.  Traditional models of learning are not necessarily appropriate for these shifts in the educational landscape, and educators must utilize the most effective ways of relating class activities to real-world, authentic experiences.  However, the complexity and demands of these attempts can cause students to become demotivated, paralyzed or frustrated when working through challenging issues or on projects with long-term payoffs.

One method of approaching these issues is problem-based learning (PBL), “an instructional (and curricular) learner-centered approach that empowers learners to conduct research, integrate theory and practice, and apply knowledge and skills to develop a viable solution to a defined problem” (Walker et al, 2015).  The purpose of this study will be to determine how the implementation of PBL impacts the motivation of reluctant learners in the secondary classroom, with the study itself motivated by this research question: How do teachers describe evidence of students motivation in classrooms in which problem-based learning is implemented?

This study will be rooted in the constructivist theoretical perspective, which explores “perceptions, ‘truths,’ explanations, beliefs, and worldview” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 351).  Since these will necessarily differ for each learner, the instructional needs of each learner will also vary.  Students construct their knowledge from their unique experiences, so an approach that grants students increased agency in their education could improve the relevance and efficacy of this process for that student.  Constructivism considers three major principles: student readiness, the spiral organization of instruction, and student ability to extrapolate or go beyond the information given.  Student readiness could include a student’s ability to function in the independent framework of a PBL-designed classroom, and constructivism recognizes that thinking and learning are “situated in physical and social contexts” (Schunk, 2016).  Constructivism matches well with the holistic, student-centered nature of problem-based learning, which supports the development of factual, procedural, conceptual, and metacognitive knowledge.  Educators are able to observe the student as they engage with a problem and learn throughout the process, constructing their own knowledge of the student’s learning process and the student’s needs.  Therefore, it is fitting to measure student engagement in part via educator perception since “we cannot talk about what is learned separately from how it is learned” (Wilson, 1998).

It is equally important to consider the historical context of PBL, which has its roots in health sciences curricula and was widely adopted in the medical field during the 1990s.  The approach was developed in 1960 at McMaster University medical school in response to the impossibility of retaining increasingly dense information through rote memorization (Davidson & Major, 2014).  As application of this emphasis on critical thinking and application spread, emerging studies questioned whether physicians who studied within a PBL context were as prepared as those who had a more traditional clinical preparation, with all results pointing to equal success upon professional entry.  Further, the anecdotal reports suggested that “students [were] more engaged in learning the expected content” (Torp & Sage, 2002).  With such promising results, PBL has become more popular across a broader range of education, and it is particularly fitting to expand the field of inquiry to learners at the secondary level in an era when increased access to data is similarly displacing emphasis on fact retention in favor of critical thinking and synthesis skills.

Key Terms

For the purposes of this literature review, problem-based learning will be defined within Walker et al’s (2015) context above, as a student-centered classroom approach that allows students to develop higher-order thinking skills during their learning process.  The structure of a PBL-classroom can be further characterized to include “(i) learning in small groups; (ii) a teacher facilitating learning in a group; (iii) learning by means of problems that are first discussed in the group’ and (iv) learning by means of self-study after which a discussion in the group follows” (Dolmans & Gijbels, 2013).

Student engagement is the attention, interest, curiosity, optimism and passion that students demonstrate in the course of learning or being taught.  This extends to the level of motivation they might have to learn and progress in the learning process.  Student engagement reflects the degree of motivation.  This definitions mirrors that of Newmann (1993), who described academic engagement as “the student’s psychological investment in and effort directed toward learning, understanding, or mastering the knowledge, skills, or crafts that academic work is intended to promote.”

Student readiness shall refer to the learner’s ability to “take responsibility for the learning context to reach their learning objectives” (Cigdem & Ozturk, 2016).  Motivation is an aspect of learner readiness, measuring both satisfaction and student achievement.  It can include both instructional readiness and social skills.

When discussing scaffolding in the context of PBL, the term refers to Belland’s (2013) interpretation as “support provided…that allows students to meaningfully participate in and gain skill at a task that they would be unable to complete unaided.”  Increased support and structure would be provided to students not ready to engage in some of the more independent tasks of student-centered, problem-based learning.

Review of the Literature

A common feature of PBL implementations is the use of technology.  Given that today’s workplace and world require the use of technology to complete complex tasks and that teachers must make learning engaging for students who are already accustomed to making heavy use of technology in their everyday lives, technology and PBL seem like a natural fit.  Studies on technology-driven implementations have generally shown a positive impact for PBL on student outcomes.  In a 2014 study, Bradley-Levine examined the effect of technology-based PBL on eighth-graders and found significant gains in comprehension, critical thinking and problem-solving skills compared to groups receiving lecture-based lessons and to groups taught with technology but without PBL; this study did not contain a control group with PBL but without technology.  Blumenfeld (1991) discusses technology as a motivating factor for both teachers and students, noting that technology’s effect is positive when used in tandem with PBL but that technology does not supplant the role of the teacher.  Edelson (2016) also recognizes the importance of the teacher as an important factor in successful PBL and technology implementations.  This study utilized an extensive longitudinal analysis of software and curriculum in the geosciences and presents suggestions for improving the classroom design related to PBL and technology, including the need for effective teacher support and the need for more research to determine what exactly such support would entail.  The existing literature suggests that technology and PBL, paired together, can improve student outcomes, though most researchers also agree that technology cannot substitute for effective teaching and other aspects of the learning environment in the implementation of PBL.

Some studies have focused on characteristics of the classroom environment that might be conducive to learning in a PBL-designed curriculum and the effect of PBL on the classroom environment, especially when PBL involves collaborative learning. Ferreira & Trudel (2012) studied the impact of PBL on a classroom with forty-eight high school students, including on “student attitudes toward science and perceptions of their learning environment.”  Results, collected via teacher reflections and researcher examinations of student work, indicated a significant improvement in student outcomes for all three elements, and teachers also observed a stronger sense of classroom community.  This positive result is in contrast to an older study on a private school from Hertzog (1994), who found that traditionally time-structured classes do not allow for fully effective project development, though the chief obstacle in Hertzog’s study was parental and administrative reluctance to embrace non-traditional curriculum.  Achilles & Hoover (1996) also emphasized the importance of class schedules in their study reviewing the results of PBL at three middle schools and one high school. This study found that PBL was most effective during longer classes, as shorter periods can require increased creativity and workload from the teacher.  In addition, if students are not yet ready for more independent, long-term versions of PBL, simpler problems with a shorter timeframe can be more effective than longer, more complex assignments.

Another form of progression in PBL can be moving from more-structured to less-structured approaches as students progress in the development of social and critical thinking skills.  This type of scaffolding is recommended by Davidson & Major (2014) in their comparison of PBL to other forms of small-group learning, as they argue that “exposing students to problem-solving learning in sequence from more structured to less structured will provide scaffolding to prepare them to succeed.”  An emphasis on the development of social skills is supported by the results of Gultekin’s 2004 study on fifth-grade social studies students.  Learning in a PBL framework resulted in academic success, and teachers and students found the process engaging and meaningful; however, intra-group disagreements often impeded the completion of assignments, and the PBL implementation did not have support as immediately apparent as in a traditional model.  There are clear benefits to be gained from PBL relating to achievement, the classroom environment, and social skills, but potential obstacles in group work mean that these benefits will only be fully realized with an appropriate scaffolding of the skills and support needed to fully implement a PBL-designed curriculum.

It is not necessarily the case that well-functioning collaboration is required for an effective PBL implementation.  Sprujit et al (2013) investigated the use of PBL in seminar-sized classes of about 25 students at the university level, as many implementations of PBL have been carried out in small-group settings.  They found that PBL had a positive effect on learning, but, surprisingly, much of the learning in the course was reported as occurring via students interacting with the teacher and material rather than each other.  That said, this study, as with many other studies on PBL, relied on anecdotal teacher feedback as its primary method of assessment, which may color the results somewhat in the absence of triangulation of student-centered feedback.

One of the issues that may arise as an obstacle to fully effective PBL implementations is a reluctance to accept PBL-designed classrooms, on the part of parents, teachers, or students.  In an examination of negative experiences and challenges related to a PBL implementation at a private school, Hertzog (1994) found that expectations of student engagement with the material varied greatly between the administrators and the parents.  Parents were more likely to view PBL and differentiation negatively, as a means of restricting the challenge of the learning experience and minimizing their preferred approach to traditionally delineated subjects as opposed to the cross-curricular nature of PBL.  Continued research on the effectiveness of PBL at satisfying the needs of various ability groups has played a key role in fomenting the popularity of this strategy since Hertzog’s study.  Teachers may be reluctant to depart from the traditional lesson plans with which they are already familiar, especially since effective PBL implementations can require increased creativity and feedback from the instructor (Achilles & Hoover, 1996).  In addition, student engagement can be negatively impacted by the independent nature of PBL if there is not direct guidance through other means such as self-assessment to guide students and “stimulate them to become self-regulated learners” (Koiriyiah et al, 2015).  This potential negative impact of PBL on student engagement is somewhat at odds with the rest of the literature that has generally found a positive effect, but this contrast can be easily explained by the primacy that other research has placed on student readiness and scaffolding (Davidson & Major, 2014).

One of the most important challenges for PBL implementations is the varying degree of student readiness, and this is also an area which has recently seen a great deal of attention.  Simons (2016) adds to the philosophical discussion and comparison of group work from Davidson & Major (2014) by proposing a three-fold approach to addressing the issue of student readiness for PBL via support and scaffolding: creating an inquiry-based environment, addressing misconceptions, and encouraging reflection.  Simons’ approach is intended to address instruction-based needs and asks educators to be knowledgeable and quick in gauging and supporting student needs, and students are asked to understand that the teacher’s feedback is intended as support rather than a means to introduce additional tasks.  Left unanswered by Simons is how to ensure this student motivation, though Ferreira & Trudel (2012) found a positive impact on student attitudes that stemmed from PBL itself.  Student enthusiasm, or at least indifference to, PBL was demonstrated by Nguyen et al (2016) in a study of university engineering students, a field chosen because professors had expressed concern about student resistance to PBL; however, student surveys suggested no difference in student engagement between PBL, collaborative, or traditional classrooms.

Another possibility for encouraging student motivation could be allowing students a certain amount of freedom in selecting their materials.  Loyens et al (2014) examined the impact of giving students agency to select their own reading materials in a literature classroom and found increases in student-reported motivation and perceived competence, with no loss in conceptual understanding compared to the use of instructor-selected materials.  Since “scaffolding can support student success in PBL, especially when we consider they may not otherwise initiate their own inquiry, understand or integrate new content, or think reflectively” (Simons, 2016), PBL strategies that simultaneously provide this support and also grant students agency in selecting their materials and defining their problems could increase motivation and allow for more effective PBL implementation and differentiation.

Summary of the Findings

The existing literature is in broad agreement on the positive effect of PBL on student outcomes, including comprehension, critical thinking, problem-solving skills, engagement, and the classroom environment.  PBL works well in tandem with other innovative educational strategies such as technology, and the positive impact on student outcomes has been found in a wide variety of classrooms, including online.  When negative effects for PBL have been found, they have often stemmed from a lack of student readiness; for this reason, scaffolding and other progression techniques are important to prepare or differentiate students based on their individual needs.  A lack of student readiness can also negatively impact student buy-in to PBL, an essential factor in successful implementations, so compensating factors, such as increased student agency or real-world technological applications, may be needed to maintain student engagement.

Because one impediment to successful PBL implementations may be reluctance on the part of parents and other stakeholders, research must continue to fill in the gaps.  Further studies are needed linking PBL to achievement and standardized test scores, as parents and administrators often have incentives to value these measures more than teacher-reported observations of critical thinking and problem-solving skills.  In addition, since PBL fits best within a constructivist theoretical framework, it would be desirable for more studies to use student-centric measures of the impact of PBL in addition to teacher and researcher observations.

Student readiness, or the lack thereof, may be the primary classroom obstacle to successful PBL implementations, which may explain why few studies have been undertaken examining PBL implementations for low-ability students.  There is ample evidence for positive PBL effects on high performers, but little evidence regarding low performers, who are often excluded from PBL studies.  More research is needed on whether it is possible to leverage the positive effect on student engagement that PBL has already demonstrated for high performers into a successful implementation for reluctant learners or a means to effective differentiation in a classroom with students of mixed abilities. Some recent articles have theorized the importance of scaffolding and moving from more-structured to less-structured PBL designs as students progress, and more study is needed on the effect of these techniques in actual application.

References

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

Belland B.R. (2014) Scaffolding: Definition, Current Debates, and Future Directions. In: Spector

J., Merrill M., Elen J., Bishop M. (eds) Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology. Springer, New York, NY

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.pdfAWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJ56TQJRTWSMTNPEA&Expires=1463341128&Signature=ZWnOnbJNN5b0R5FwSf3xvpreUSY=&response-content-disposition=inline; filename=Motivating_project-based_learning_Sustai.pdf

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

Cigdem, H., & Ozturk, M. (2016). Critical Components Of Online Learning Readiness And Their Relationships With Learner Achievement. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education,0(0). doi:10.17718/tojde.09105

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.

Dolmans, D. and Gijbels, D. (2013), Research on problem-based learning: future challenges.

Medical Education, 47: 214–218.

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

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.

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Newmann, F. M. (1993). Student engagement and achievement in American secondary schools.

Choice Reviews Online, 30(07).

Nguyen, K., Borrego, M., Finelli, C., Shekhar, P., Demonbrun, R., Henderson, C., Waters, C. (2016). Measuring Student Response to Instructional Practices (StRIP) in Traditional and Active Classrooms. 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings. doi:10.18260/p.25696

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

Schunk, D. H. (2016). Learning theories: An educational perspective – With access (7th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Simons, K. D. (2016). Scaffolding disciplined inquiry in problem-based environments. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.458.5661 &rep=rep1&type=pdf

Spruijt, A., Wolfhagen, I., Bok, H., Schuurmans, E., Scherpbier, A., Beukelen, P. V., & Jaarsma, D. (2013). Teachers’ perceptions of aspects affecting seminar learning: a qualitative study. BMC Medical Education, 13(1).

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

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

Torp, L. & Sage, S. (2002).  Problems as possibilities: Problem-based learning for K-16 education (2nd ed.) Alexandria: ASCD.

Walker, A., Leary, H., Hmelo-Silver, C. E., & Ertmer, P. A. (2015). Essential readings in problem-based learning: exploring and extending the legacy of Howard S. Barrows. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

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

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.

PBL – Qualitative Article Critique

Summary

Spruijt et al’s 2013 paper, Teachers’ Perceptions of Aspects Affecting Seminar Learning, is a qualitative study that investigated ways to optimize problem-based learning (PBL) approaches with seminar classes, defined as learning groups of approximately 25 students.  They note that this type of class is gaining popularity at the university level due to budget constraints, especially within medical schools that tend to espouse social constructivist viewpoints.  However, PBL has previously been delivered in tutorial settings with smaller numbers of students, and there is not much data that explores ways to maximize student engagement and learning with larger groups.

The study participants included twenty-four teachers with prior experience as seminar facilitators from Utrecht University in the Netherlands.  The participants were invited out of a total pool of 174 eligible faculty members, were offered a small stipend for participation, and were assigned to individual focus groups based upon personal scheduling preferences.  They participated in semi-structured focus group interviews, in which three focus groups met twice with an interval of two weeks led by one moderator.  Each session lasted approximately 90 minutes. The sessions were audio-taped, fully transcribed, and then independently coded by two researchers using thematic analysis.  An iterative process of data reduction resulted in an understanding of the aspects that influence seminar learning.  The sessions themselves used predefined open questions formulated from prior active learning research, were new to the participants, and allowed the moderator to ask additional follow-up questions for clarification.  At the end of each session, the moderator summarized key points and had the participants verify for understanding.  One week after the session, participants were provided with a summary and request for corrections and comments, which further validated the data.

To analyze the data, Spruijt listened to the recordings, read the transcripts, and composed a descriptive summary.  She then discussed her findings with the session moderator to ensure consensus.  Then, the data was entered into a software program that used a latent thematic analytical method to report themes, or the key contributors to seminar learning reported by the teachers.  Since this process included interpretative data, a second researcher independently coded a portion of the transcripts and ran this through the software to ensure validity.  The teachers described the PBL as successful, with aspects positively affecting seminar learning identified by the teachers falling into seven categories: teacher, students, preparation, group functioning, seminar goals and content, course coherence, and schedule and facilities.  Importantly, teachers measured their ownership in curriculum development, the quality and quantity of preparation materials, the classroom climate, group continuity, student predisposition to seminar learning, the number of course questions, and alignment of course activities.

Critical Analysis

The use of a qualitative focus group study to explore the research question of how educators viewed the seminar approach and its impact on students was ideal, as it allowed for group interaction that provided robust data and a wide-variety of responses related to the previously unexamined topic.  White (1995) endorses such an approach by explaining that this type of method can “give rise to a synergy that is lacking from individual interviews” and ensure validity of experiences.

However, the number of educators who participated in the study compared to those who were invited was quite low.  There is a chance that the respondents were more highly motivated and that this influenced the success of their personal seminar approach.  Further, since all of the focus group participants were from one university and one general field within the university, further research would need to be conducted to ensure the generalizability of the findings.  Spruijt et al (2013) mention that it would have also been helpful to independently interview the participants outside of the group setting to enrich the data further.

An interesting finding from the study suggested that interpersonal group relationships did not affect engagement in the course and that most success came from interaction with the teacher and materials.  Theoretically, problem-based learning is often thought of as relying heavily on small group dynamics to construct knowledge and explore issues, so this finding is somewhat counterintuitive. The study’s use of anecdotal teacher feedback as its independent variable may not have captured students’ perspective on the importance of group dynamics in learning. Therefore, further research examining both student and teacher feedback on learning could be useful.

The study found that PBL can be successfully implemented in the seminar-sized classrooms that are common in US universities and high schools.  Educators so inclined should move forward with this instructional strategy, placing an emphasis on quality content, cohesive curriculum design, and strong teacher-student interactions.  In active learning approaches, emphasis is often placed on interpersonal, student-to-student group dynamics, but this study suggests that teachers must still be considered an integral part of the learning process even in PBL settings that might involve a significant amount of small group work.

References

Spruijt, A., Wolfhagen, I., Bok, H., Schuurmans, E., Scherpbier, A., Beukelen, P. V., & Jaarsma, D. (2013). Teachers’ perceptions of aspects affecting seminar learning: a qualitative study. BMC Medical Education, 13(1).

White GE, Thomson AN: Anonymized focus groups as a research tool for health professionals. Qual Health Res 1995, 5(2):256–261.

PBL – Qualitative Research Design

My research question is “How do teachers describe evidence of student motivation in classrooms where problem-based learning is implemented?”  This is best addressed using a qualitative research design, which would serve as a basis for “understanding current practices” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 445).  A phenomenological case study would allow for in-depth observation of student engagement in this particular active-learning setting, as well as awareness of any changes over time. The basis for a phenomenological perspective lies in the educator’s description of motivation, which is a measure of the educator’s lived experiences within the classroom.  However, it would warrant examination from a constructivist viewpoint, as well, for student motivation is a result of how the students might have “constructed reality” within the problem-based learning environment, and the consequences of those constructions directly impact “their behaviors…and interact[ions]” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 351).

It would be best to utilize a small sample size in order to allow more in-depth reflection and analysis of the evidence, but the teachers should encompass a wide range of experience.  It would not be uncommon for students to appear more engaged in a veteran teacher’s class if the educator was more comfortable with the active learning environment; varying the participants would adapt for these differences in teaching efficacy and allow the focus to remain on the phenomena of interest, the focus in this case being motivation in relation to problem-based learning as an instructional approach.  Each participating educator should be identified within a secondary-level classroom to ensure the generalizability of results in relation to student developmental level and expectations.  Purposeful sampling would allow researchers to “rely on their judgment” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 353) to select participants that meet these considerations.

Since educators are describing their own observations within the classroom, the data will reflect an interpretivist view, and the research design will need to include procedures that support and validate the findings in light of such subjective anecdotes.  The best method to obtain teacher descriptions would be through interviews with the educators.  However, to assure the validity of interpretations and assumptions, the researchers should observe the classroom that is being described as “participant observers” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 354), which would allow for stronger evaluation and explanation of results.  This would ensure representation of both “emic and etic perspectives” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 345).  Data could be further triangulated by examining student work samples that would reflect engagement with the material.  This would crystallize the findings, as it “use[s] multiple methods to collect data about the same phenomenon in order to confirm research findings or to resolve discrepant findings” (Gall et al, 2015, p. 354).

In analyzing the data, research interpretation should be based on grounded theory principles, which in this case could be instructional theory related to active learning.  The researcher could then reflect on educator conversations and description to develop major themes resulting from the analysis.  In a study that included multiple educators, this would ensure that individual bias was minimized.

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.

PBL – Quantitative Article Critique

Summary

Nguyen et al’s 2016 paper, Measuring Student Response to Instructional Practices (StRIP) in Traditional and Active Classrooms, measured and compared student response to problem-based learning in an active classroom and student response to teacher-centered instruction in a traditional classroom.  They note a meta-analysis of 225 studies that found that active learning strategies increased learning and decreased failure rates across all disciplines (Freeman et al, 2014).  However, many engineering instructors were hesitant to adopt active learning for fear of student resistance, and Nguyen et al wanted to confirm if this was an accurate perspective and why that seemed to differ from other research results.  Specifically, they wanted to conduct a study that documented student resistance to the instructional strategy.

The study participants, predominantly male, came from three undergraduate engineering courses at a large public institution in the Southwest.  One hundred and fifty-one students enrolled in an engineering course, and the students had no knowledge of their section’s instructional approach during enrollment.  Sixty-seven students were enrolled in a mechanical engineering course, which served as the traditional classroom.  A second mechanical engineering course of fifty-three students utilized problem-based learning and served as the first active learning class.  The third course, consisting of thirty-one electrical engineers, utilized collaborative problem-based learning and was the second active learning class.  Researchers chose to focus on multiple classes from a single institution in order to minimize variation effects resulting from a change in setting.  The experimental design allowed researchers to focus on two aspects of response: the impact of classroom strategies on student response, as well as the ability for the survey instrument, detailed below, to reflect the differences seen in each classroom.

The undergraduate engineering students who participated in the study were given a research-designed survey: the Student Response to Instructional Practices (StRIP) Survey.  The questions on the survey differentiated between the two active learning courses to ensure accuracy of responses and provide data for analysis between the group and individual approaches to problem-based learning.  The StRIP Survey allowed for the collection of empirical data focused specifically on student response to problem-based learning.  Questions relating to the traditional instructional practices were also included in order to allow for further analysis of their effect on student response.  This StRIP Survey went through six development phases, including item generation, validity testing, and piloting of the protocol.  Despite having multiple sections, students completed the survey in approximately fifteen minutes.  The survey focused on student response to in-class activities, student perception of the instructor, student satisfaction with the course, and student prior experience with problem-based learning.

Since much of the survey contained Likert-data, researchers used a non-parametric test to analyze the responses.  To determine if there were any statistically significant differences in student responses from the three courses, the researchers conducted a Kruskal-Wallace Test.  Post-hoc Nemenyi testing with a Tukey distribution was utilized to compare statistics for each individual survey item and determine statistical differences between the three courses.  Results suggest that students responded positively to problem-based learning and did not exhibit signs of resistance.  However, it is also worth noting that students responded positively to all three instructional environments and that the survey, while able to differentiate between individual and group problem-based learning classrooms, was not able to strongly differentiate between the traditional course and the other two courses.

Critical Analysis

There were limitations to the research because of the small sample size and its specific focus on engineering courses.  For example, engineering is a discipline that often benefits from hands-on and collaborative work, which could have created inherent motivation for students to engage in active learning.

The traditional course did not register on the post-hoc tests to have more significant instructor involvement than the other courses, suggesting that instructor involvement was still a core component across all classes.  However, follow-up discussion with the traditional course instructor suggested that he was more engaging than standard lecturers, perhaps skewing the results.  Further research would need to be conducted to accurately compare a traditional course with an active learning classroom based upon educator experience.

Further, the present StRIP Survey does not distinguish between different modalities of student response to learning.  The researchers have considered delineating between four motivation-related characteristics: participation, value, emotion, and evaluation.  This would allow for a more holistic understanding of the effects on student engagement in relation to instructional practice and strategies.

This study would have benefitted from regression-modeling, which would have allowed researchers to examine factors influencing student response to survey questions.  For example, student preparation for learning might have easily impacted their readiness to engage in problem-based activities.  In addition, the problem-based classrooms had fewer students than the traditional classroom, with the collaborative problem-based class being less than half the size of the traditional classroom.  While it would not be surprising for a smaller class to reflect strong student engagement, Nguyen et al did not find major differences in student engagement across the three classrooms.  Even if problem-based learning were found to offer significant benefits over traditional classrooms, the size of these benefits would need to be measured against any increase in cost per student.

Despite the need for further study, this research successfully implies that student resistance to problem-based learning is not a significant obstacle, even in engineering, a field in which some instructors expressed concern that this would be an issue.  Paired with the research that this type of learning decreases student failure rates, educators should highly consider the incorporation of active learning techniques within their courses and should not worry that student resistance will present an obstacle.

References

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,111(23), 8410-8415.

Nguyen, K., Borrego, M., Finelli, C., Shekhar, P., Demonbrun, R., Henderson, C., Waters, C.(2016). Measuring Student Response to Instructional Practices (StRIP) in Traditional and Active Classrooms. 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings. doi:10.18260/p.25696

 

 

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?

References

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=10.1.1.458.5661&rep=rep1&type=pdf

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.

Summary

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.