Problem-Based Learning: Achievement and Perceptions of Gifted Middle School Science Students

Study Description

This quasi-experimental study was initiated to investigate methods of instruction to improve outcomes for gifted students in the 21st century, specifically the efficacy of Problem-Based Learning for content acquisition and cognitive skill development. Problem-Based Learning has been used in medical schools since the nineties but has not been widely utilized or studied at the elementary, middle, or high school levels. Problem-based learning is a heavily student-centered approach to learning that sets students to work on solving a real-world problem or addressing a complex question.

The study was conducted in a large suburban school district with gifted programming in the mid-Atlantic region. Two groups of students were selected from schools of approximately equal size, and with approximately equal gender and ethnic representation. The Problem-Based Learning (PBL) group consisted of 223 gifted students and the comparison group consisted of 252 gifted students. Six volunteer middle school teachers with varying years of experience and exposure to standard curriculum were selected. The three teachers who were to teach the PBL unit took part in two-day, summer professional development training. There was a PBL summer camp taking place at the same time as the training, which provided the teachers with the opportunity to observe skilled instructors utilizing PBL methods. The teachers who were to teach the standard science curriculum did not receive professional development training. The dependent variables were student performance on standardized science tests and student perception of class quality based on meaningfulness, challenge, choice, self-efficacy, and appeal. Student perception was measured by the Student Perceptions of Classroom Quality (SPOCQ) scale developed by Gentry and Owen for use with gifted students at the secondary level in 2004.

The groups were assessed using a standardized test developed by the district using questions similar to those students would encounter on state science exams. Each group took a pre-test and a post-test to measure academic achievement. In addition, a SPOCQ survey was administered to assess student perception of the two classroom models. Teachers were also evaluated and rated through classroom observation by administrators.

According to the authors, results generally favored the PBL approach. In terms of academic achievement, the PBL group scored higher than the comparison group by a statistically significant amount. As far as classroom perception is concerned, the results were mixed. Appeal, Meaning, and Self-Efficacy were rated higher by the comparison group. Challenge and Choice were rated higher by the PBL group although the differences were not large in any of the areas and the difference in Meaning scores was not large enough to qualify as statistically significant. The authors suggested plausible reasons for the comparison group to have given higher scores in both Appeal and Self-Efficacy, namely that the unfamiliar nature of PBL led some students to be wary of the new approach and to be concerned about the ability to succeed. Given those considerations, the overall conclusion drawn by the authors is that the “indirect and constructivist approach” yields superior results in all areas.

Strengths and Weaknesses

One of the strengths of this study is its sample size. A sample set of 200+ is adequate to yield reasonably significant results. Care was taken to ensure the comparison groups were similar in size and composition, which lends some additional credibility to the results. Another strength was the implementation of the PBL model, from the teacher training, the application of the PBL principles, and the collection of results. The teachers were committed to full implementation of the new model, were well trained, and were independently assessed in their execution by the administration.

One of the weaknesses of this study is that it is geographically confined and may only be relevant in this one area. Another weakness is that the study participants were volunteers and were already invested in the concept. In fact, the school in which the study was performed had been working toward transitioning to PBL, rewriting curriculum, testing units, and partnering with experts. Results with a school and staff less familiar with PBL and its methods could potentially be quite different.

Next Steps for Research

The conclusion this study reached was somewhat troubling. The numbers did not necessarily support PBL over traditional classroom teaching and while the explanations provided were reasonable, they were not testable for this study. One interesting extension would be to perform a longitudinal study to track performance over time, as the SPCOQ numbers would be more meaningful in year two of a study when the students were more familiar with the process. Another interesting direction would be to repeat the experiment with schools not already engaged in working with PBL instruction. That might yield a different result in terms of the fidelity of the implementation. It would also be notable to expand the research geographically, to select sample groups from schools in the South, Midwest, West, North, East, and potentially even examine the efficacy of the PBL method in an international context. Another possible direction would be to test PBL with non-gifted students to determine its effectiveness with a wider audience. Likewise, it might also be of interest to measure non-cognitive skill development. Finally, it would be worthwhile to determine if PBL is effective only in terms of learning science or if it has applications across disciplines.

Classroom Application

If the medical community’s continued use of PBL is any indication, it is an effective teaching methodology. It is surprising that it is not used more extensively, particularly in science classes. There is a growing PBL movement and there are a number of sample PBL projects available, usable a variety of settings. Employers been clamoring for a workforce fluent in 21st century skills and able to apply their knowledge when fulfilling their job duties. The solution does not appear to be more seat-time or dedicating more effort and resources to the same methodologies that created these deficiencies. This study indicates that new and innovative pedagogical methods could be the answer to teaching students the skills they need. PBL is not new to the educational community but has not yet been widely adopted. Given the unique characteristics of gifted children to think in complex and abstract ways; to experiment with doing things differently; and to put together ideas in atypical ways, it would seem to offer an exciting alternative. Furthermore, the effectiveness of this method may not be confined to gifted students and could have broad applicability as well.

Use in Writing

The most interesting part of this study was the result of the content testing. The primary question that the PBL approach raises does it prepare students to succeed on standardized tests? According to this study, it does. However, even if the academic achievement results were identical, PBL might still be an more attractive alternative to educators because it also addresses the development of non-cognitive skills. While soft skill development was not specifically addressed in the assessment or results of this study, the article references a body of research in support of the effectiveness of PBL in the teaching of skills often called 21st century skills, including respect, motivation, confidence, persistence, etc. According to the study, the fact that PBL is highly effective at teaching this type of skill increases its value as a pedagogical tool.