4 Reasons PBL Leads to Deep Math Understanding & Drives Achievement

If you’re an educator and you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ve undoubtedly seen articles about NAEP test scores that were released this week. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is given to fourth and eighth-grade students across the country. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of more than two years of interrupted schooling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, test scores fell. What was surprising to many was how much they fell. According to an article in the Washington Post, there wasn’t a single state where test scores increased. Whether it was the math or reading test, fourth or eighth-grade students, or students who excelled or struggled in the subject; scores either went down or in the best-case scenario, stayed the same. Scores fell to levels not seen in twenty years - math even more so than reading. 


Our instinct, when we get information like this, is to jump in to fix what we see as a myriad of small problems. We will remediate math students! We will make lists of skills, and create small groups, assessments, and worksheets. We will start at the top of the list, go skill by skill, and teach students to do what they couldn’t do before. 


But what if, by creating those worksheets and assessments, by distilling the discipline of mathematics to a list of skills to be taught, we are actually perpetuating the deeper issue? What if the real solution is to fight against the urge to turn math into a concrete list of skills and instead broaden the discipline to something that is authentic, engaging, and connected? Project Based Learning (PBL) does just that. By presenting students with authentic problems to solve and perplexing situations to ponder, PBL puts the focus on the interconnectedness of mathematical skills and the deep understanding necessary to solve novel problems. 


Here are 4 reasons that PBL leads to deep math understanding and high achievement: 

  1. PBL is an engaging way for students to work with both math concepts and math skills.
    Whether because of anxiety or disinterest, math isn’t traditionally a well-loved subject in school. Project Based Learning takes a problem or situation that is authentic for students and shows them how mathematics fits into its solution. Students see that it is necessary to learn math to create a product that is important to them for an authentic audience– and it’s much easier to help an engaged student learn anything, including math. 
  2. PBL requires students to develop a deep understanding of math concepts.
    By presenting a problem that is authentic, project-based learning requires students to really understand how math concepts relate to each other in order to make a plan for finding a solution. Think about the last time you had to use math to solve an authentic problem. Did you only multiply? Of course not; you had to use many different math skills and concepts to find a solution. Project-based learning leads to a deeper understanding of math concepts because it requires students to use multiple types of math and see how they work together. 
  3. PBL teaches students to solve problems, not answer equations. 
    Don’t misunderstand; project-based learning definitely improves student skills at finding the answers to equations. But when students focus only on solving equations, they are forever only worried about what goes on one side of the equal sign. Project Based Learning requires students to be able to think about a situation and apply mathematics to finding not just the solution, but the path to the solution. This creates students who see themselves as individuals who can solve problems. When faced with a situation where they don’t immediately know what to do, these students are far more likely and able to think through the situation and come up with an answer.
  4. PBL gives all students room to grow in their understanding and skills.
    In my district, when we look at the growth students make in the course of one year of math instruction, it’s often the students who excel in math who don’t meet their growth goals. These students are spending much of their time in classrooms where teachers teach grade-level mathematics, and they differentiate for students who struggle with grade-level skills and concepts. Students who came into class having already mastered the skills and concepts of the grade level make almost no growth. Enter project-based learning, where students can engage with the problem at hand using whatever mathematics makes the most sense for them to be learning, whether above, below, or at grade level. 

Following the interrupted schooling and exhausting years of the pandemic, it makes sense to turn to project-based learning to refocus our students and hearten our educators. In mathematics especially, PBL will remind students that they are problem solvers capable of thinking deeply about, understanding, and enjoying mathematics. And when students see themselves as problem solvers and are engaged in their learning, their achievement scores can only go up. 

About the Author: 

Angela Marzilli is currently the PreK-12 STEM Coordinator in the South Portland School Department and a member of Defined’s Instructional Leadership Team. She has also spent her career teaching math to gifted students in grades 3-8 and teaching in classrooms at all grade levels, and she loves both math and project based learning.


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