Is project based learning more effective than direct instruction in school science classrooms? an analysis of the empirical research evidence
An increasingly loud call by parents, school administrators, teachers, and even business leaders for “authentic learning”, emphasizing both group-work and problem solving, has led to growing enthusiasm for inquiry-based learning over the past decade. Although “inquiry” can be defined in many ways, a curriculum called “project-based learning” has recently emerged as the inquiry practice-of-choice with roots in the educational constructivism that emerged in the mid-twentieth century. Often, project-based learning is framed as an alternative instructional strategy to direct instruction for maximizing student content knowledge. This study investigates the empirical evidence for such a comparison while also evaluating the overall quality of the available studies in the light of accepted standards for educational research. Specifically, this thesis investigates what the body of quantitative research says about the efficacy of project-based learning vs. direct instruction when considering student acquisition of content knowledge in science classrooms. Further, existing limitations of the research pertaining to project based learning and secondary school education are explored. The thesis concludes with a discussion of where and how we should focus our empirical efforts in the future. The research revealed that the available empirical research contains flaws in both design and instrumentation. In particular, randomization is poor amongst all the studies considered. The empirical evidence indicates that project-based learning curricula improved student content knowledge but that, while the results were statistically significant, increases in raw test scores were marginal.