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In problem-based learning (PBL), students are presented with a driving question that is open-ended, without an obvious linear path to a solution. In PBL children solve authentic real-world problems while engaging in disciplinary-appropriate practices. Rather than memorizing information, students learn while engaged in an authentic process of exploring data, arguments, and explanations, and formulating their own hypotheses and tentative solutions. Students explore the driving question by participating in scaffolded practices that help them to define a problem statement and a path toward a solution. Students create a set of tangible products that address the driving question, supporting collaboration and metacognition. Research shows that PBL promotes student engagement, improves academic learning, and enhances social emotional learning. In particular, PBL promotes science learning for all students, including students who historically have not had access to STEM careers.
When learning environments are based on learning sciences principles (e.g. project, problem, and design approaches), they are more likely to be motivating for students. The principles – such as authenticity, inquiry, collaboration, and technology – engage learners so that they will think deeply about the content and construct an understanding that entails integration and application of the key ideas of the discipline. For a learning sciences approach to work, students must invest considerable mental effort and must persist in the search for solutions to problems. In many ways, newly designed environments based on learning sciences principles require students to be more motivated than do traditional environments (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). Although there is evidence that students respond positively to these learning environments (Hickey, Moore, & Pellegrino, 2001; Mistler-Jackson & Songer, 2000), it remains unclear whether students are willing to invest the time and energy necessary for gaining the desired level of understanding. Many classroom activities in which students enthusiastically participate do not necessarily get students cognitively engaged.
The concept of cognitive engagement couples ideas from motivation research with ideas regarding learning strategy use. It includes students' willingness to invest and exert effort in learning, while employing the necessary cognitive, metacognitive, and volitional strategies that promote understanding (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004). The use of strategies can be superficial or deep. Superficial cognitive engagement involves the use of memory and elaboration strategies.
Any teacher or parent can tell you that many students are bored in school. But many of them tend to assume that boredom is not a problem with the best students, and that if students tried harder or learned better they wouldn't be bored. In the 1980s and 1990s, education researchers increasingly realized that when students are bored and unengaged, they are less likely to learn (Blumenfeld et al., 1991). Studies of student experience found that almost all students are bored in school, even the ones who score well on standardized tests (Csikszentmihalyi, Rathunde, & Whalen, 1993). By about 1990, it became obvious to education researchers that the problem wasn't the fault of the students; there was something wrong with the structure of schooling. If we could find a way to engage students in their learning, to restructure the classroom so that students would be motivated to learn, that would be a dramatic change.
Also by about 1990, new assessments of college students had shown that the knowledge they acquired in high school remained at a superficial level. Even the best-scoring students, those at the top colleges, often had not acquired a deeper conceptual understanding of material – whether in science, literature, or math (Gardner, 1991). Educators still face these critical problems today.
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