As a high school teacher, I am becoming increasingly aware of my Chemistry 11 students’ lack of foundational knowledge—they are missing key concepts from Science 9 and Science 10. A few years ago, I began to hear phrases like “I’ve never seen this before” as I referred to concepts from previous years. In Pre-Calculus 12, I began to see an increase in Math 9 mistakes. The students who repeated these phrases and made these errors were usually participants in our school’s Project Based Learning (PBL) program.
Although the students claim that they have not seen the material before, my conversations with instructors in the program suggest that they have taught all parts of the curriculum but that students were unmotivated to learn. Upon reflection, I believe that a key issue is the lack of formal assessments in the PBL program. Without the need to affirm concepts in a written format, students lack the motivation to learn from the projects of their peers. I believe that another outcome from the lack of testing in the PBL program is that an unusually high number of PBL senior students now have IEPs with test-taking anxiety.
To follow up on my thoughts about this issue, I visited a Science 10 PBL class to hear their group presentations on types of chemical reactions. Each group presented one of the six types of chemical reactions. The presentations were well done, but the students seemed preoccupied with their own work during their classmates’ presentations. I wondered how much they had understood about the other types of chemical reactions. In line with this, another teacher told me about his Science 9 class group projects in which students studied different systems of the human body. He stated that the nerve group knew about nerves and the digestive group knew where the food went, but there had been little understanding across groups. On another occasion, I was walking through a PBL Math 8 tutorial when I overheard two students talking about how to find the area of a circle. As he pointed to his iPad, one student said, “You just put the radius here and it gives you the answer.” I stopped to encourage them to use their calculators to do the math but they were only concerned about getting an answer, not how it was determined.
To understand the process of PBL better, I volunteered for the newly created PBL committee at our school. I wanted to understand both the technology that the PBL program uses and the effects of PBL firsthand. My first project was Viral Infections with a Science 8 class. Partner groups prepared short presentations in their chosen format. The results ranged from acceptable to excellent with the stronger student in each pair playing the larger role. The follow-up assessment confirmed that there was little crossover of knowledge between project groups.
For their second project—Density—I followed the criteria set out by the PBL program protocol in our school restricting the presentations to Keynote (similar to PowerPoint) on iPads. The students completed eleven specified Keynote slides for which I provided scientific equipment to use for pictures and an example project. The project took five 80-minute classes. After the upload was successful, I asked my students to delete their presentations and photos from the library iPads.
The results of the Density project varied. Some students fully met the project criteria and were finished before the fifth class. Others did not complete the task even with multiple instances of individualized instruction. Throughout the process, we encountered a number of glitches. First of all, the iPads were shared among classes and the students did not sign in to use them. This meant any user had access to all the data on a particular iPad. Some of my students’ work was deleted between sessions. I had cautioned my students not to leave any photos of themselves on the iPads. However, I went through the iPads after the project was complete and found many personal photos (which I deleted). I also found photos dating back eight years even though I was told that the iPads were purged on a regular basis. I was surprised to find that all the uploaded presentations from the Science 8 class were available on any iPad as I had assumed the lab tech had assigned a teacher-specific, secure Dropbox.
Even though the project covered one of the central curricular ideas of Science 8, most of the project time was spent learning Keynote and how to use iPads. As with all work, some students over-relied on help from others and some did not use their time effectively. Absences caused some students to fail the assignment. By the end of the project, I wondered if this had been time well spent as there was no discernible increase in their understanding of density. Knowing that most of the learning had been about the computer program, I hoped that the next project would not include this part.
The next project increased individual effort as there was no partner work. I spent a day outlining the project before we started with the iPads. We created, played with, photographed, and videotaped five types of slime. This formed the main part of the new project. Things worked better. By the end of the second class, several students had finished their Slime Project and volunteered to help others. I uploaded their projects and purged their iPads at the same time.
From a teaching perspective, was this PBL successful? Yes and no. Assessment that followed the project-based learning work did not show an increased level of understanding regarding density, chemistry concepts, and calculations. The students did, however, learn a lot about iPads. On the negative side, the project based learning took longer than other methods of teaching without creating an enhanced understanding of the subject material.
Through the years, I have noticed other issues with the PBL program. Many of these students have a hard time working by themselves and automatically seek affirmation from their PBL classmates before starting an assignment. In some classes, they all look to one individual and copy his or her work. PBL students often have difficultly handing in assignments on time. The extended field trips take them out of the classroom more often than their peers, sometimes for weeks at a time.
In conclusion, project based learning does have a place in the classroom and can provide learning opportunities beyond the course curriculum. However, those of us who teach curriculum-rich courses need to be aware that PBL results in a deep understanding of only a small part of the knowledge needed for success in future courses and that students who have been part of a PBL program may lack basic understanding of key concepts. Additionally, regular assessment should be a part of PBL classes to prepare students for advanced courses.
Notes: In our school, the PBL program eliminates tests or quizzes. Marks are based solely on project work. Students are interviewed before being accepted into the program. All student work is done with iPads.
The PBL program at our school uses Apple products only.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Lorrie Welch
Dr. Lorrie Welch has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering and in a previous career worked as a professional engineer. She has been teaching math and science in the North Vancouver School District since January, 2003.
This article is featured in Canadian Teacher Magazine’s Spring 2021 issue.