Why I’m Unsure Project-based Learning Prepares Students for College (Ronnie Estoque)

“Ronnie Estoque is a junior at Seattle’s Cleveland High School. He is a staff writer for Cleveland Publications, an intern at The Seattle Globalist and is interested in pursuing a career in journalism.” This appeared in the Seattle Times, June 16, 2016.

As a junior attending Cleveland High School, I am slowly approaching the arduous process of college applications. This has led me to reflect on whether or not Cleveland has prepared me for college-level work.

In the fall of 2010, Cleveland became a STEM high school with a focus on project-based learning. The newly designed curriculum was meant to emulate a work environment for students while teaching them how to use technology in their school work. Cleveland classes revolve around group work and projects. This unique way of teaching helps students build group-work skills, but does it prepare students for college, where students mostly work independently?

Linda Chen graduated from Cleveland in 2015 and is a freshman at the University of Washington. She enjoyed her time at Cleveland, but now sees one major flaw of project-based learning.

“The one thing I hated was that they (teachers) didn’t enforce student accountability during projects,” Chen said. “Most of the time it was me just doing all the work and someone else taking the credit.”

Group projects, in other words, don’t accurately reflect students’ individual knowledge and, more often than not, the students who work hard and complete their portion of projects also have to do more work to make up for the students who aren’t pulling their weight.

Kiet Sam also graduated in 2015 and is a freshman at the University of Washington majoring in computer science. Sam describes in stark contrast his college-level and the project-based learning at Cleveland.

“In college, almost all my work is completed independently.” Sam said. “Depending on your major there may be more projects, but in general, college is mostly to measure a student’s individual ability to perform.”

Cleveland students are judged on their individual knowledge through tests, but not as frequently as other high schools that don’t use project-based learning. Catherine Brown, the School of Life Sciences principal at Cleveland, said she thinks project-based learning has been good for the school.

Before, there were small pockets of success among the student population,” Brown said. “Now success is the new norm.”

And there’s evidence that the changes at Cleveland have made a difference. According to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, only 17 percent of 10th-graders at Cleveland met state standards for math in the 2009-10 school year. During the 2013-14 school year, that number dramatically increased to more than 80 percent.

Cleveland teacher Steve Pratt, who has taught at the school for 10 years, said the implementation of STEM and project-based learning at Cleveland has also led to a drastic change in student culture. According to Pratt, before STEM and project-based learning, students weren’t as engaged and eager to learn in class. Now, he sees more students striving to take their work more seriously.

“It has done great things for Cleveland even though there are still some things that need to be improved,” Pratt said.

Pratt is one of the teachers who enforces student accountability. In his classes, students can “fire” their group members during projects. Pratt holds a high standard for his students’ group work contributions, but not all Cleveland teachers do the same. He also believes that it can be difficult for students to adjust to project-based learning if they’re coming from a conventional style of teaching, and students can quickly fall behind in the workload. I believe more teachers, like Pratt, should hold students to higher standards.

While project-based learning, along with STEM, has done great things for Cleveland as a whole, I worry that many students won’t be as prepared for college as they need to be. I believe that more teachers at Cleveland need to hold students more accountable for the roles they play in projects. By holding students to higher standards during group projects, teachers will be able to teach them more about responsibility, time management, and prioritization.

Students like Chen and Sam, who do their share of project work — and more — are doing fine in college, although Chen said the adjustment to individual work was tough at first. I am concerned about the students who are piggybacking their way through Cleveland’s system. Those are the ones who will suffer most when they get to college. This worries me, as I also have been a student who has had to do the work of peers who didn’t do their share.

What will happen to them?


Filed under how teachers teach

11 responses to “Why I’m Unsure Project-based Learning Prepares Students for College (Ronnie Estoque)

  1. David Callaghan

    Tech may help assess project work – e.g., the Campus Pack system we have @EdgeHill allows us to see individuals contributions to a wiki.

  2. Thank you for voicing my concerns. Group work can be a handy-dandy way of making sure students don’t mess up our statistics without having to actually get ’em learning…

  3. As a teacher who has gone through PBL training and attempted to implement project -based learning, I agree that accountability is very difficult. Also, I want to point out that PBL is different from “group projects”, in that it has specific features that attempt to create an individual accountability system within a group dynamic. However, teachers run into the same problem as always. It is impossible to track to individual students’ progress, give quality feedback, and mentor students through the process when one has up to 40 students per classroom. At this midpoint in my teaching career, I measure the value and cost of new curricula and methods against sustainability- my ability to maintain my own life and family while teaching and learning with up to 168 students (my union contract stipulates no more).

    • larrycuban

      Thanks for taking the time to give a teacher’s perspective on the student’s concern about PBL and accountability for individual work.

  4. Doesn’t the success of any project depend on the learners and educators determining aims in advance collectively and subsequently ensuring they are embraced throughout the subsequent project through regular reflection?

    • larrycuban

      Without knowing how you would define “success,” Laurence, I would agree that a collective agreement among teachers and students helps considerably in starting, continuing, and completing a project. But, as you know, such collective agreement is only one approach used in PBL. Teachers setting goals is most common, students setting goals is least common and jointly set goals fits in between, given my experiences in schools and research I have done. Thanks for your comment.

  5. Jennifer Lebsack

    Project Based Learning is important in that it fosters collaborative learning and common goals achievement. These are important real-life skills necessary in today’s work environment. That said, PBL is not a substitute for individual effort and accountability. Every classroom should have a balance of both options. In addition, PBL, more often than not, engages learners that do not always respond to traditional approaches.

  6. jaylinnlohrdigitalliteracy

    Hello, my name is Jaylinn Lohr. I am a student at Chadron State and I am preparing to become a teacher. I have really found that I like Project-Based Learning. However, after reading your post it really opened my eyes that it could not be the best way to prepare my students all the time! Thanks for the post and the information!

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