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Project 6: Action Research Project on Problem-Based Learning in Math



Over the years, there have been students who have not performed as well on math testing as they have in the classroom.  As a result, I looked at ways to supplement our current math curriculum that would further enhance our students' cognitive development and motivation in math, while aligning with our school's philosophy of education.  After much research, I chose problem-based learning as means to address our at-risk students needs.  Problem-based learning consists of the students being presented with a scenario that is open-ended.  The teacher starts the lesson by discussing the scenario with the class.  Then students are divided into groups where they must identify what they know and what they need to know.  From there, they use resources to collect information and develop a plan.  Sometimes multiple scenarios are presented in which students have to refine their answer based on the new information given.  The finished product may be a project, a drawing, a presentation, or a debate.  After the teacher debriefs with the students and they discuss the math concept and its relevance to everyday life.  Problem-based learning is a collaborative effort that enables students to be critical thinkers and develop social, creative, and cognitive skills.  

Changes from the Initial Proposal

After beginning, I realized it was premature to be collecting student data on cognitive development and motivation and analyzing this data.  Instead, I discovered that the first step in action research is to have a program developed and executed well before analyzing its effectiveness.  Therefore, I chose to focus on ensuring the teachers were well trained in problem-based learning and were implementing it effectively in the classroom.  I observed teachers and provided feedback, as well as, encouraged discussions regarding difficulties and successes with problem-based learning.  I felt that in order to have problem-based learning evaluated for its effectiveness, I needed to make sure the teachers have the resources to execute the program well.  Nonetheless, the teachers have held onto student data (tests, self-assessments, homework records, student comments regarding math, etc.) to be analyzed and compared with student data over time to see if there is cognitive growth and improved motivation in math.  


The teachers and I met monthly this school year.  Initially we met so I could share my understanding of how to implement problem-based learning and to provide resources and readings to help develop their understanding of it as well.  As time went on, I encouraged conversations about the problem-based learning scenarios implemented.  We shared our frustrations and successes, our observations of students, the changes or modifications we needed for it to work well with our group of students and/or our grade level.  Through this, the teachers developed a common language and understanding of problem-based learning and were able to provide support for each other when needed.

I supported the teachers by asking questions and had them share about their experiences.  In addition, the teachers would email me their problem-based learning scenarios and tell me what materials they would be using prior to their activity.  This way I could assist the teachers in refining their activity if needed.  I also observed some of the teachers during a problem-based learning activity.  This provided great insight on what problem-based learning should look like developmentally at varying grade levels.  This also gave me an additional way to support the teachers involved and provide feedback regarding the implementation of problem-based learning.  To collect information regarding the teachers' thoughts of the program, they answered questions in a survey at the beginning and end of the school year.

I met with the Assistant Head of School weekly to provide her with updates of our work.  Towards the end of the school year I provided her with opportunities to observe three of the teachers doing a problem-based learning activity with their students.  She was most impressed with the initiative students took and how meaningful the activity was for them.

Two of the administrators and I met three times during the year to discuss how problem-based learning could be shared with the school.  We encouraged the teachers to be observed by other teachers so they could gain a better understanding of what problem-based learning is.  However, I was the only teacher who participated this year.  Two teachers are ready and comfortable with being observed starting in the fall.  I am still working with the other two teachers to develop their confidence and provide reassurance that they are ready to share their knowledge with the school.  I am hopeful they will be ready prior to the end of this year.

To share what has been done with problem-based learning, I presented information about the work to the staff at one of our professional development meetings.  The staff was very receptive to the idea and felt it supports our current curriculum and philosophy of education.  We already do project-based learning at our school and problem-based learning provides another means to challenge our students intellectually, creatively, and socially.           

Data Findings

All teachers felt they have to supplement our current math curriculum, Everyday Math, in an attempt to meet their at-risk students' needs.  Four of the five teachers felt that Everyday math did not provide differentiation for the at-risk students; the other teacher felt the program slightly differentiated for at-risk students.  All teachers believed Everyday math shows multiple strategies to solve a problem.  All the teachers agreed that Everyday Math utilizes multiple resources and materials to solve problems, primarily using math manipulatives.  One teacher stated she liked the games and songs, while another stated she liked how the program starts simple so that students build confidence with their math skills.  Unfortunately, all the teachers mentioned that the Everyday Math program tries to address too many concepts on the surface level instead of focusing on fewer concepts in greater depth.  The teachers use supplementation to develop mastery of basic facts and critical thinking skills.  As you can see from the chart below, all the teachers feel Everyday Math does not fully meet the at-risk students' needs.         

Everyday Math meets my at-risk students' needs.


The teachers defined problem-based learning (PBL) as "working cooperatively toward unique solutions," "motivational real-world problems," and "open-ended problems where students practice and solidify math skills and/or concepts."  Overwhelming, the teachers felt the challenging part about problem-based learning is creating the scenario and determining the materials to be used.  They all feel with time this has become easier, but that it is still time consuming.  The advantages of PBL mentioned by the teachers include an opportunity for students to develop communication skills and problem-solving skills and an opportunity for students who are not normally involved in math to engage in the material.  There are mixed responses to whether or not PBL raises the cognitive development and interest in math for the at-risk students.  The teachers noticed that some of their at-risk students had noticeable cognitive growth and an increased interest in math, while others showed no significant difference in performance or interest.  For the at-risk students who showed growth, their confidence rose and they feel more comfortable taking risks in math.  As you can see from the chart below, four of the five teachers noticed their at-risk students having an increased interest in math, but one teacher did not notice any improvement. 

PBL has improved my at-risk students' interest in math.

All the teachers believe PBL provides differentiation for the at-risk students, teaches them essential critical thinking skills, allows for the students to work in cooperative groups and collaborate effectively, and demonstrates there are many ways to solve a problem.  Four of the five teachers believe PBL meets the at-risk students' needs, provides strategies that the at-risk students are able to use, improved the cognitive development of at-risk students, and allows the at-risk students to take more initiative in their learning.  All the teachers felt PBL is an additional assessment tool, that it enhances the Everyday Math curriculum, and is appropriate for the developmental age of all students.  Most teachers used the following materials to support the PBL scenario: graphic organizers, the Internet, evaluation forms to take notes on students, the SMART board, and math manipulatives.  Some teachers are also using self and group evaluations completed by students.  Most teachers felt the students were enthusiastic about and looked forward to PBL scenarios in math. 


For next year, data will be collected and analyzed in relation to the at-risk students' cognitive and interest in math.  There will be multiple ways of collecting this information.  To track the at-risk students' cognitive development in math the teachers will collect and analyze the following data: open response and math tests, self-assessment by students, teacher observations, and CTPIV standardized test results.  To track the at-risk students' interest in math the teachers will collect and analyze the following data: homework completion and teacher observations.

I will continue to meet monthly with the teachers and observe teachers to support their planning and implementation of problem-based learning.  I believe we should discuss such topics as what is an appropriate number of PBL scenarios to do in a year and should it vary from one grade level to the next.  I would also like us to create rubrics together that may be used as an assessment tool for PBL.  In addition, I want to create a website where the teachers can share their successes, resources, and ask questions to further our understanding of PBL.  Lastly, I will be presenting on problem-based learning at the CAPSO convention this fall to share my work and collaborate with other educators. 


  • Read multiple professional books on problem-based learning.
  • Developed an action research plan.
  • Planned and discussed ideas with the Assistant Head of School weekly.
  • Met with four teachers monthly to discuss problem-based learning.
  • Created surveys for teachers to complete at the start and end of the school year.
  • Meet with two administrators three times during the year to find ways to increase school awareness about problem-based learning.
  • Led a professional development meeting for the entire staff on 3/2/11.
  • Observed teachers and provided constructive feedback on the implementation of problem-based learning.
  • Collected surveys and analyzed the results.
  • Presenting on problem-based learning at the CAPSO convention in the fall.


Standards Met

  • Standard 1 - A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by facilitating the development, articulation, implementation, and stewardship of a vision of learning that is shared and supported by the school community. 
  • Standard 2 - A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by advocating, nurturing, and sustaining a school culture and instructional program conducive to student learning and staff professional growth. 
  • Standard 3 - A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by ensuring management of the organization, operations, and resources for a safe efficient, and effective learning environment.
  • Standard 5 - A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by modeling a personal code of ethics and developing professional leadership capacity.
  • Standard 6 - A school administrator is an educational leader who promotes the success of all students by understanding, responding to, and influencing the larger political, social, economic, legal, and cultural context.

Through the meetings with the teachers participating, the staff at the professional development meeting, and the meetings with administration, we have developed a shared vision of what problem-based learning looks like and how it supports our school and students.  The meetings throughout the year were planned and implemented around this vision and problem-based learning activities were created to ensure integration throughout varying grade levels.

By providing the teachers with resources, conversations, and observations of problem-based learning, I guided the instructional program.  I recognized students as active learners and valued reflection and inquiry of the process.  When possible, we utilized appropriate and effective technology.  The teachers involved were able to collaborate and share responsibility by working together and having meetings where we could discuss ideas.  I created an accountability system by holding meetings and discussions, requiring problem-based learning scenarios to be sent to me prior to teaching a lesson, and observing and providing feedback to problem-based learning activities.  I also used surveys completed by the teachers involved to assess their beliefs and attitudes about problem-based learning.

The teachers used each other as a resource and for support in their learning of problem-based learning.  I utilized organizational skills and decision-making techniques to manage our learning support system.  Throughout the year I was monitoring and evaluating the effectiveness of the program and the teachers participating.  Considering we focused on our at-risk math students, it required confidentiality.  The students being monitored were unaware and the teachers and I were discrete about keeping this private out of respect for the students involved. 

I modeled professional fairness in that I am also implementing problem-based learning.  Through discussion we made decisions about how to integrate the program effectively from one grade level to the next.  I am constantly developing as a professional and to improve my own practice I have reflected on my approach.  At the start of the year, I presented a wealth of information.  However, I did not want this to remain this way.  Each of the teachers involved had experiences and information to share, and I created opportunities for conversations.  By doing this, the teachers were able to learn from one another and take ownership of the program as well.  I am a firm believer that the best way to lead is to inspire others.  Teachers need to feel validated for the work they do and recognized for their strengths.  They should have opportunities to share these strengths with other staff members.  In order for teachers to be motivated, they need to feel connected to what they are doing and be part of the decision-making process.

By meeting with the administrators from time to time, I interacted with stakeholders to generate support.  The two-way communication was key in the success of initiating this program.  The Assistant Head of School has been involved in the process along the way, just as the teachers participating have been.  In addition, I led a professional development meeting on problem-based learning to the staff and had them develop ideas about what it would look like at our school.  This will help the program grow when the whole school eventually will be implementing this program.  Lastly, I will be expanding my understanding of problem-based learning by presenting a conference this fall and promote constructive conversations about how problem-based learning can improve student learning and achievement.              

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