Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Problem with Using Problem-Based Learning to Teach Middle School Earth/Space Science in a High Stakes Testing Society

Academic journal article Journal of Geoscience Education

The Problem with Using Problem-Based Learning to Teach Middle School Earth/Space Science in a High Stakes Testing Society

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This study examines whether middle school students learn as much via Problem-based Learning (PBL) as they do in non-PBL classrooms on multiple-choice tests. The questions on the tests covered textbook content, were predominantly fact-based, and provided by the textbook publisher on a CD-ROM supplied with the text. While not all aspects of "high-stakes" testing involve the use of multiple-choice questions, high-stakes testing often contains a large number of these types of questions. In addition, both the process and final product(s) produced via PBL are often assessed; whereas high-stakes tests seldom have students develop products outside of the completion of a pencil and paper test. Two eighth-grade gifted and talented science classes in a Midwest public middle school were compared. Focused observations, interviews, test score analyses, and document analyses were used.

Problem-based learning is an educational approach where a purposefully ill-structured problem initiates learning and the teacher serves as a coach instead of an information repository (Gallagher and Stepien, 1996). Problem-based learning has many similarities to project-based learning. PBL is necessarily interdisciplinary. PBL is also based upon the theories of situated cognition (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989; Plucker and Nowak, 2000; Resnick, 1987), and consistent with the principles of constructivism (Savery and Duffy, 1995).

Questions have been raised about the appropriateness of using PBL in the middle school setting. Multiple-choice test score analyses of geology and astronomy content indicate that students in a teacher-directed classroom learn more fact-based content than via PBL. Students engaged in PBL have better retention. In a high-stakes testing society with many inherent issues (Casbarro, 2005; Grant, 2004; Marchant, 2003), the best solution is likely an integrated PBL project approach. Teacher-directed instruction could be intentionally embedded within a PBL project instructional model.

INTRODUCTION

Problem-based learning (PBL) is an educational approach where a purposefully ill-structured problem initiates learning and the teacher serves as a coach instead of an information repository (Gallagher and Stepien, 1996). This approach has become a popular curricular innovation, especially at the middle and secondary levels. PBL is necessarily interdisciplinary: By modeling real-world problems, which are seldom unidisciplinary, students are required to cross the traditional disciplinary boundaries in their quest to solve a problem. PBL is also based upon the theories of situated cognition, which posit that transfer occurs infrequently and that learning requires situation-specific competence (Brown, Collins, and Duguid, 1989; Plucker and Nowak, 2000; Resnick, 1987). Rather than present students with information that they may or may not be able to use to

solve problems, situated cognition stresses that knowledge should be presented in context, preferably in a problem-solving scenario (Plucker and Nowak, 2000). In addition, PBL is consistent with the principles of constructivism (Savery and Duffy, 1995).

PBL has been used in science education3/4although not in the same terms'Afor many years (Sitkoff, 1988). The great majority of science programs over the past few generations emphasize an investigative, problem-doing/solving approach where students are active in the learning process. What is new to the educational setting is nigh-stakes testing for K-12 students and their school systems. Discussions on high-stakes testing rage in popular media. Former President Bill Clinton is credited with initiating a discussion on high-stakes testing (Grant, 2004), and the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act with required Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) on state tests has placed a great deal of pressure on both students, teachers, and school administrators to produce high standardized test scores (Goldberg, 2005; Marchant, 2004; Casbarro, 2005). …

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