“College is too expensive...Post-college under employment is the norm. From the company perspective, everyone who has hired someone knows it doesn’t matter where you went to college. Everyone who has to train and promote people is frustrated with how tough the process is. This is not news; I’m just connecting the dots.”
These comments and his book led me to think more deeply about the need for project-based learning (PBL) as a replacement for the traditional classroom experience. Over the last decade of teaching at the college level, I have witnessed a massive shift in the degree to which college students desperately try to juggle multiple academic and pre-professional responsibilities while attempting to maintain some degree of focus in the classroom for long intervals of time. As a teacher, I am convinced that one of the best ways to help students prepare for the post-college workforce is to immerse them in projects that are steeped in the complexities relevant to their future careers. Or, at a minimum, create engaging projects that force students to refine professional development skills that are fundamental to the workforce, such as teamwork, critical thinking, personal branding, and public speaking.
The research on PDL is compelling. Jane (2008) cited two math studies comparing PBL student groups with non-PBL student control groups at the secondary and college levels. At the secondary level, a three-year British study showed that students engaged in PBL outperformed students engaged in traditional activities in math. In this study, PBL students outperformed non-PBL students on the national exam by three times. A college-level study conducted at Vanderbilt University showed that PBL students outperformed non-PBL students in the areas of solving math word problems and planning, although the groups scored similarly on simple math concepts.
Thomas (2000) conducted comprehensive research on the various types of PBL and found positive effects on student learning. He methodically defined five criteria that establish an activity as project-based learning:
1) PBL projects are central, not peripheral to the curriculum
2) PBL projects are focused on questions or problems that "drive" students to encounter (and struggle with) the central concepts and principles of a discipline.
3) Projects involve students in a constructive investigation.
4) Projects are student-driven to some significant degree.
5) Projects are realistic, not school-like.
Specifically, he found PBL was useful for teaching complex problem solving and decision-making. Overall, the literature supports the view that PBL enhances “a thinking process which includes critical thinking, problem solving, creative thinking and decision-making based upon all interpreted information” (Madhuri et al., 2012).
The multi-billion dollar industry of higher education is not dead, but nationwide many are overrun by slow-to-change bureaucracies which exacerbate traditionalism and conditions where overworked teachers have little incentive to innovate. Let’s face it, lecture is much easier than implementing an effective PBL activity that really stimulates long-term learning and creative problem-solving. It is incumbent upon us teachers, however, to reflect back on a time when the very idea of impact teaching meant the world to us. For me, it still does. We have to harness that love again, then take a long reflective look at the modern teaching and learning literature, our current syllabi, question our learning objectives, and rebuild our classrooms into exciting environments where students leave with both intellectual empowerment and transferable skills sets.
(There are many resources on PBL online. An excellent starting point is here, from the Buck Institute for Education.)
Madhuri, G., Kantamreddi, V., and Prakash Goteti, L. (2012). Promoting higher order thinking skills using inquiry-based learning. European Journal
of Engineering Education, 37(2), 117–123.
Sasson, I., Yehuda, I., and Malkinson, N. (2018). “Fostering the skills of critical thinking and question-posing in a project-based learning
environment.” Thinking Skills and Creativity 29, 203-212.
Thomas, J. (2000). “A Review of Research on Project-Based Learning.” Buck Institute for Education.