A High School Math Teacher at Camden County Schools Uses PBL to Drive Student Achievement

"It’s easier than you think!" This is the advice I gave to my colleagues who were hesitant to try Project Based Learning (PBL) using the Defined Learning platform. I attended a summer institute to learn about Defined Learning after previewing a handful of tasks. During the summer institute, I conducted a performance task, the Aquarium Designer, with my colleagues. It was really fun and I got to use math the way I want my students to. Defined Learning helps put a name to a face- I can tell students how math is used in the real world, but through the Defined Learning tasks, they can see it for themselves.


My philosophy for teaching math is to help students understand how math will help them be successful in life. The topic we are learning about may not be needed, but the skills they develop are essential. For example, while teaching polynomial long division recently, we related the process to the traditional long division students learned in elementary school. While trying to figure out how to make like terms, the students used critical thinking and conceptualized what something would look like. They may not use polynomial long division in life, but they will certainly use the skills they developed along the way.


When I heard about Defined Learning, I could tell right away it would fit well for our school. The tasks are dynamic and encourage students to be true citizens in the real world. They need to interact in groups and take responsibility for their learning. I was pleasantly surprised by how easy the site was to navigate. Defined Learning does everything for you: the tasks could be used as-is and the grading was easy.


Getting Started with Defined Learning Performance Tasks

I started with the Nutritionist task as an introduction to help teach the concept of PBL. I  deployed the task in the middle of the unit after students had developed some background knowledge and skills, but still needed to discover more to be successful in the project. I modified the task slightly to add mathematical demands. Students created a menu, finding total calories, percentage of calories from fat, etc.


The next task we tried, Wildlife Biologist, was significantly more mathematically demanding. The students explored the idea of exponential decay, creating brochures to demonstrate their understanding. We were hesitant about teaching the unit this way, but the kids’ work blew us away! They handed their projects in, but next time we plan to explore using Defined Learning’s Portfolio Manager to streamline the grading process.


Positive Results

So far this year, we have seen gains in engagement and achievement. The biggest change has been the interaction among the students. In both projects we tried so far, students worked in randomly assigned groups. The students are now asking to work in groups on a regular basis, negotiating how to divide up and share work and talking to each other. Students who were completing C work before the Defined Learning projects are now regularly handing in B work because of the benefit of interacting with their peers.


I am no longer hesitant to have my students do a real-world performance task - I’ve learned that even if students “fail”, they still learn something so the time spent is well worth it. The great news is, the students are not failing. They are thriving!


About the Author:

Danielle Hallinan is an 18-year high school math teacher in a vocational district in Camden, New Jersey. She currently teaches honors algebra 2 and pre-calculus.


Subscribe to the #1 PBL Blog!

Receive new articles in the world of Project Based Learning, STEM/STEAM, and College & Career Readiness. 

Subscribe to our blog