Integrating Problem-Based Learning and Cross-Sector Collaboration in a High School English Classroom

Chuck Abell, English Teacher, Rush-Henrietta High School.

In my nearly two decades of teaching secondary English in the public school system, I have experimented with myriad teaching strategies, materials, and philosophies, ultimately embracing some while abandoning others. In that time, I have drawn but few generalizations about pedagogy – in fact, perhaps the only conclusion I can assert with conviction is that no single teaching practice (or likely even philosophy) will work for every student. Just as soon as I have devised the perfect “formula” for teaching adolescents, a new student or group comes along and shatters all of my preconceived notions. Sometimes it seems the duty of a modern teenager to defy all expectations.

That said, it is fair to say that some approaches generally work better than others, and having a sound core philosophy of teaching is a pre-requisite to effective instruction and active student engagement and learning. Minimizing the distance (whether perceived or real) between school and the “real world” – that is, giving students opportunities to participate in authentic activities and meaningful problem solving – seems to be one of the cornerstones of such a philosophy. As a young child, I easily recollect those school activities which bridged these two different “spheres” – for instance, making Christmas presents in art class or going to a Social Studies teacher’s house for an authentic Colonial Era meal – suggesting that even at that age I too had an innate desire to see relevance and importance in the work I was asked to complete.

At the secondary level, the opportunities for meaningful, “real world” activities seem extensive, and yet, as a teacher, I have fallen too easily into the trap of providing students with only “simulated” or “practice” experiences. Of course, these are all relative terms, so, to be more precise, let’s just say that I have over time become aware of some of the “invisible” barriers that exist both for myself and my students (and, indeed, between us as well). One of my personal barriers historically has been the division between the suburban and the urban teaching experience – I have never really understood what it’s like to teach (or, for that matter, to learn) in an urban setting. Similarly, I have had precious little experience with the community college system as either a professor or a learner. So it was with great anticipation that I elected to participate in the MCC Faculty Fellows program through CCTE – not only did I perceive an opportunity to refine my teaching practice by exposing myself to cutting-edge, 21st century teaching techniques and materials, I saw the possibility of a “sea change” of sorts in my teaching philosophy. The opportunity to work closely with colleagues from both the city and MCC promised to enlarge my view of the broader regional education “community” as well as my role as an educator within that system.

Above all, I have been preoccupied with issues related to equity – how as a region we may either diminish or exacerbate gaps between various stakeholders in the educational system, students in particular. There is a quote that says, more or less, members of a given society are more likely to believe a giant lie than a small one. One of my questions going into this research process was whether I have been “buying into” a grand cultural lie of some sort – in particular, that somehow urban and suburban school districts are really “separate but equal” or that because my students do well on State Exams that I must be a better teacher than those whose students do poorly. Joining the Faculty Fellows initiative seemed like a perfect opportunity to gain additional insight into these and other questions.

In the course of the first half of the Fellows Program during the spring of 2012, I engaged in numerous discussions with my Fellows colleagues and encountered a variety of thought-provoking texts, many of which helped illuminated some of the larger questions I had brought with me into the program. Readings on multiculturalism and, indeed, on Action Research were two such examples. The readings that most caught my attention, though, were those that concerned Problem-Based Learning. While more strategic in nature, PBL also carries with it a powerful underlying philosophy – that students benefit from authentic, relevant tasks as well as a certain amount of latitude in how they go about fulfilling those tasks. Perhaps part of what appealed to me about PBL was the challenge that I knew it held in store for me – liberal-minded as I am regarding pedagogy, I also know I like to hang onto the reins when I teach. PBL appeared to give me both permission and a means by which I might shift more autonomy and accountability onto the students.

Over the course of the first few months in the Fellows program, I engaged in focused discussions with three other teachers – two from the city school district, one from MCC — who all shared an interest in a collaborative teaching project. It seems we all were anxious to learn more about “how the other half lived”. I suppose I would have embraced any teaching strategy that would have allowed us to work together, but, as it turned out, each of these other educators had a similar interest in PBL, so that became our technique of choice. As it turned out, though, our project quickly drew in and drew upon other teaching strategies and materials, including 21st century learning.

In reading the research on PBL, I observed several salient points. One was that PBL was not a substitute for teacher guidance but rather a re-allocation of my energies as a teacher. First, much pre-planning is needed to properly execute a PBL unit – certainly more than goes into a typical non-PBL unit. Second, once the unit is underway, the teacher’s role shifts from the “authority” to the “facilitator”, or at times even just the “motivator”. (Amador, Miles and Peters) Sometimes just giving students a good reason to do something is enough – they figure out the method and the essential understandings themselves. I also learned, through examining the research, that PBL is not a panacea. In each study or text I read, some students ultimately rejected the teaching approach – sometimes because of laziness and other times because of bona fide learning style issues. Students who work poorly with others, for instance, or who need an excessive amount of structure are less likely to appreciate PBL, though research also suggests that those student can still benefit from the experience.

In devising a central topic and question for the PBL unit, my collaborators and I realized we needed something that would pertain to each of our students. One of the topics we came up with was Education – it was something that all of the students had in common. Initially, we considered narrowing the topic down to “Countywide Integration”, but after some research and additional reflection we decided to keep the overall topic just “Issues in Education” and then allow each student group to identify a “sub topic” to pursue during the unit. In retrospect, having the variety of topics seems to have been an enlightened choice, as students ultimately selected a diverse array of issues.

By the end of the Spring 2012 semester, our group had pretty much come to agreement on our plan for the PBL unit, as well as a tentative schedule for enactment, though many of the fine details would take months to work out fully. Above all, I knew what my question was – “Would PBL have a positive impact on my students’ engagement and achievement?”

Inquiry Design

This year, I was assigned three different 12th grade courses – AP Literature, Rediscovering the Classics, and Style and Expression. As the first two are literature-based courses and the last one is a writing course, I elected to conduct the PBL Unit/Action Research in Style and Expression. The course has a predominately skill-based curriculum with few if any text requirements. As such, I was confident that it would accommodate the time and structural requirements needed for the Education Unit.

As was suggested in some of the literature, I planned to introduce PBL through a mini-unit on the first day of class. After providing them with an initial “taste” of PBL, I would do a more traditional unit on writing basics (conventions, etc.) for 2-3 weeks before returning to PBL full. For the initial Unit, I conducted a pre-assessment related to various aspects of PBL, including what students knew about research practices, the writing process, and even the specific topic of inquiry – in this case, “Happiness”. Once I reviewed their pre-assessments, I created a series of mini-lessons geared towards perceived gaps in their knowledge. At the same time, each day students received ample time to investigate the topic in small groups (for the first unit, group formation was at my discretion – another suggestion made in the research). Though the Unit was shorter than a typical PBL Unit – only about 1 ½-2 weeks – I tried to follow a “pure” approach and allow students to wrestle their way through the topic. In short, they were asked to do at least one of the following: define happiness, determine the causes and effects of happiness, evaluate how happy their friends and family were, make proposals about how others might increase happiness.

Once that mini-Unit was completed, I did some informal data-analysis and made some revisions to my Inquiry Brief for the Education Unit. Over the course of the next six weeks, my Fellows group continued to meet to refine our proposal, schedule, process, and desired outcomes. One aspect to which we were particularly attentive was our culminating activity/demonstration. In other words, if we were truly trying to “perforate” some of the invisible walls surrounding our respective teaching environments, how might we devise an experience and/or assessment that would help weaken rather than reinforce those barriers? One idea that kept arising envisioned a “Town Hall Meeting” of sorts at which our respective students could interact and engage with each other. This idea quickly became one of the centerpieces of our PBL Unit – a way for students from culturally and economically diverse backgrounds to come together for both academic and social purposes. Soon after we set a date and secured a location at MCC where our students would meet after the research phase of the process was completed.

While these decisions were working themselves out, other decisions were made as well. Foremost, it became clear relatively early in the Fall Semester that each member of our affinity group was working under difficult circumstances – scheduling, curriculum, administration, students, etc. varied widely from educator to educator. As such, we agreed that we would each determine how the PBL Unit could be fit into our own classrooms – other than the over-arching topic and the scheduled Town Hall Meeting, in fact, relatively little uniformity existed in our overall planning. Each teacher adapted the process to meet his/her own needs, and truthfully, I see no other way this could have worked.

One other area in which we achieved partial uniformity was in the use of a Student Forum, an online resource for students to conduct weekly discussions with students from other schools, and sometimes their own school as well. Having little personal experience with blogging or on-line discussion groups, I was happy to allow others to set up and facilitate the Forum. What remained an ongoing challenge, given the above mentioned constraints defined by school and situation, was determining how exactly we would optimize students’ use of the Forum. In many ways, working through these questions of Forum use and how we would structure the Town Hall Meeting functioned as a quasi-PBL opportunity for the members of our affinity group, helping us to empathize with our students and even predict some of the obstacles they were apt to run into during the unit.

What I Learned

How does PBL influence student performance on both formative and summative writing-based assessments in a 12th grade writing class when students work in groups over an extended time period and draw on the experiences and knowledge of students from other schools?

Given the two-fold nature of the Inquiry Question, our discussion of the data analysis will fall into two parts. And actually, even before tackling the issues formally investigated in this project, it’s important to note several “broader” conclusions that have emerged from this process. First, defining the scope and terms of the project has proven quite difficult. Even as I write this report, I find myself asking whether my Action Research is really finished. True, the Town Hall meeting is over and the Summative Assessments are completed, graded, and returned, but the process itself is still alive and well. From one viewpoint, the Issues in Education Unit can be seen as a preparation for Senior Thesis, which is in many ways a solo PBL unit focusing on a meaningful, authentic topic. To that degree, the Summative Assessment for the Education Unit is really just another Formative Assessment in preparation for Senior Thesis. To concretize this point, it is useful to note that I have used the same pre-assessment for all three major units in Style and Expression this semester – that is, the same survey that measures students’ knowledge and understanding of research techniques and the writing process, as well as matters concerning collaboration, knowledge of presentation techniques, and facility with technology. Only the specific content knowledge question (only 1-2 questions out of 12 on the survey) changes with each administration. In a large sense, then, finding a definite start and end to the project and the Action Research is more difficult than it might seem.

For the purposes of the report, though, I am designating the completion of the Issues in Education Required Assessment (completed after the Town Hall Meeting) as the terminus for this research. Based on that time frame, then, I can hazard a few conclusions about the effectiveness of the PBL approach. The first is that it did positively impact student engagement – specifically, the amount of time “on task” and “in the zone” during class time and the degree to which (and intensity with which) students completed assigned homework tasks, including posting on the Student Forum. The other conclusion is more tentative and uncertain – active engagement on the Forum and conducting other secondary research seems to have yielded improved student performance on Required Assessments, but with such a limited study making such a direct assertion is fraught with peril. In any case, it appears not to have hurt anyone in any significant manner.

One of the problems encountered in the data collection process was the failure of technology to yield the necessary data. In terms of the Student Forum, inability to sort by student made the process of tabulating results tedious and far less than thorough. Simply tracking the progress of ten students constituted several hours worth of searching, allowing less time for close reading of their posts.

Of the data examined, one piece — attendance — seemed to yield limited insight into student engagement. In the first six weeks of school overall class absences for my two sections of Style and Expression were at 48; during the next six weeks (the period covering the PBL project) absences spiked to 60 students, seeming to suggest a decrease in student engagement. When examining the next six weeks, though, the period following completion of the PBL project and Town Hall Meeting, absences totaled 72, suggesting something else altogether: students tend to be absent more as the semester/year goes on. While this statistic may certainly provide insight into student engagement, it fails to illuminate much about engagement as it relates to the PBL unit.

That said, some potentially meaningful data did come out of this process, helping to inform our understanding of both engagement and achievement. First, engagement. Here the results were mixed. In terms of engagement during class time, the indications are all positive. The almost complete absence of any disciplinary problems (zero referrals or even one-on-on conversations regarding behavior) is one testimony to active engagement.

Other sources of data trumpeting high student engagement are the teacher field notes and the student evaluations. My ongoing field notes have multiple references to students being “on task” and “productive” in class. Early on in the process (during week one of the project), students encountered technological obstacles with the Forum, yet apparently displayed excellent resilience when working both at home and at school. According to the Field Notes, “On the weekend, the website was actually down. Several students reported an inability to get onto the site when they needed to. In addition, sluggishness in the site and a tendency for posts not to show up when submitted were both sources of frustration. Still, students seem to make the best of the situation, perhaps driven by their curiosity over what other students had written.”  In addition, of the 43 students on my roster, 37 initiated posts the first week – a high number given the glitches in the operation of the Student Forum. Finally, a sampling of 10 students (three high-achieving, four intermediate, and three lower-achieving) showed that 8 of the 10 exceed the minimum word count (100) for Forum posts. By the second week the percentage of students exceeding the minimum word count on posts stayed high (still 80%), with only two of the lower-achieving students falling short on word count.

By the third week the data begins to tell a different story, with some signs of “Forum Fatigue” becoming evident. While the percentage of students exceeding the minimum word count rose to 90% (with 10% going “way over”), other signs point to a decrease in engagement. The teacher Field Notes from that week note several red flags: “Very disappointing – over half the student failed to respond on the Forum last week, and some of those who did are still not using evidence/specific examples to support their views – What’s going on? Are they losing steam?” and “Student teacher shared that many students are reluctant to get additional research materials (secondary sources), even if they have not yet grasped the historical dimension.” So while length of Forum responses appeared to improve, the frequency and percentage of students responding likely dropped a bit, surprising since that Town Hall meeting was, at that point, just a week away.

The week of the Town Hall meeting saw little Forum Activity, since by that point we had decided as an Affinity Group to terminate the posting requirements in order to focus on other priorities (only Brad’s students continued posting during that week). In my classes, the priority shifting to designing and executing a small-scale “study” or experiment focusing on the “current” situation; that is, students were asked to prepare a 15-20 minute survey, experiment, or observation of a selected group to gather data that would inform their investigation of an educational issue. While students had the option to carry out this observation online via the Forum, none chose to do so. Most, indeed, did either a survey or an observation within the school during the course of the school day. As I recorded in my Field Notes during the class preceding the activity, “Students seem eager to do experiment/study but also appear to be unclear on exactly how.”

The Town Hall meeting itself, by all measures, demonstrated a high degree of student engagement; though it did, perhaps, fail to reach its full potential. Field Notes confirm the positive student engagements: “Groups covering a wide range of topics – most students engaged and active.” For approximately an hour, students sat at mixed-school tables and conversed about the designated topic — their “fantasy school” – while being asked to support their arguments with evidence from the research/PBL process. What was evident in the conversations I and other Affinity Group members heard during that hour was that students were more comfortable or prepared to discuss opinions and “personal” examples than they were evidence gleaned from secondary or other research.

In the student evaluations completed in the days following the Town Hall meeting, several students reinforced this observation, noting that “no one knew what to do” or that conversations became entrenched in unsupported opinion. One student wrote, “I don’t think I gained knowledge because everyone had the same ideas.” The most negative voice asserted that “the Forum was misleading. We all thought we’d be supporting our points but the Forum wasn’t mentioned once: useless.”

The vast majority of students, though, were far more enthusiastic about the experience. Many comments related to the mode of learning, concluding that “it was more exciting [than traditional modes of learning] and nothing was too overwhelming” and that “it held my attention more than a traditional project.” Other students reflected that the discussions were informative on a personal level; “it affected my point of view on others’ problems.”

Turning to the question of achievement, the results seem mostly positive. Students appear to have grown as collaborators, researchers, and writers, if not necessarily as time managers, task completers, and presenters. Comparing an identical pre- and post-assessment that covered topics ranging from research skills to the writing process (see Appendix A), the average student score increased from 79% to 91%. When it came to the final essay, however, average student score was a 74.3 as compared with an 88.9 after the “practice” PBL unit at the start of the year. Given that the tasks were quite different in scope and content and that some of the decrease in average grade derived from students who simply failed to complete the essay in its entirety, drawing any significant conclusion from those statistics would be problematic.

A more useful statistic regarding student achievement emerges from the Student Forum. In a random sample of 15 students per each week on the Student Forum, we can easily see how student responses on the Forum became, if nothing else, more substantive over time. That is, students’ willingness and ability to incorporate concrete examples or evidence in the Forum posts showed a marked improvement. Posts including “specific” evidence rose from 13% the first week to 20% the second week, and finally to 73% the third week. Meanwhile, percentage of posts using only “general” examples dropped from 80% to 20% over the same time period, while  posts presenting “no” evidence or examples at all decreased from 27% to 7%. (It bears mentioning that one of the “shifts” or priorities in the new NYS Common Core concerns students ability to marshal quality evidence to support claims and arguments.)

Granted, moderate pressure from the teacher for students to support statements with evidence certainly contributed to student improvement. Still, similar reminders had been given at other points earlier in the semester, so it is probable that simply the repetitiveness of writing experience on the Forum also enhanced student learning. My Field Notes add some credence to that hypothesis – “The repetition of written responses also seems to be helping students learn how to refine their conclusions and synthesize multiple sources (both primary and secondary).” 

Another entry in my Field Journal recognizes the increasing sophistication of students’ arguments:  “From reading their midpoint formative writing task papers (one paragraph presenting an emerging thesis statement and several sources), I can see that students’ thinking is deepening – in relation both to the Happiness unit and to their initial reflections at the start of this unit. The barrage of statistics, anecdotes, and opinions is likely responsible for the subtle changes evident in their thinking.” Multiple responses from the student evaluations help confirm a deepening understanding of complex social issues as a result of the PBL unit.

Though it falls a bit outside the time frame imposed upon this particular study, one other testimony to the effectiveness of the PBL unit is the relative success students are having with their current Senior Theses. While no student elected to pursue any education-related topic for Thesis, students appear to be gathering and analyzing research sources faster and more effectively than they have in past years. Whereas Thesis is normally a six-week process for my 12th grade Style and Expression students, this year they have done it in four weeks with no apparent loss in quality and only a minor decrease in the length and scope of the project.

Another source of data is the CCTE survey (see Appendix B), though the results are of questionable value because it was administered almost a month after the end of the project and after we had already started Senior Thesis. Ironically, despite positive comments regarding degree of choice and frequency students work on projects, as well as frequency with which students read articles and use technology, compared to last year a much higher percentage of students (78%) reported they did not feel successful and a smaller percentage (35%) felt class was “a comfortable place to be”. One of the problems affecting the reliability of this data is that the Spring 2012 survey included students in my AP and Honors classes, whereas the second survey focused only on the Regents students.

What stands out most notably, though, is the contrast between the post-PBL evaluations and the CCTE evaluation, both of which involve the same students. Whereas the former reflected a high degree of satisfaction in over 90% of the respondents, the latter suggests the opposite – disaffection and disappointment. The most likely explanation for this disparity is “research fatigue”. At the time the second CCTE survey was given, students were in the process of doing their third research project of the semester, which is two more than we normally do in that course. (Students had also just finished a rather tough grammar unit which may have proved frustrating and dull to some). The feedback from this second survey has prompted some serious reflection on whether I can afford – from a student affect standpoint – to focus so much time on research, especially when it is at the expense of such activities as creative writing, media study, and fiction reading.

Reflections and Future Practice

Despite the limitations stemming from the modest size of the student samples – limitations created, in part, by faulty technology – this investigation in to PBL (and cross-sector collaboration) has proven meaningful. Student engagement and achievement have certainly suffered none in the process, and have in all likelihood increased as a result of these teaching practices. The almost complete absence of any notable classroom management issues despite the relatively “hands-off” teaching style inherent in the PBL approach alone pays homage to the effectiveness of the methodology. But, also, the clear increase in students’ depth and speed when performing authentic research and writing products is crucial in and of itself. Students like meeting other students, like bridging the gap between “school” and “the real world”, like working together to solve meaningful problems, and like using 21st century technology to facilitate learning. These are fairly indisputable based on the data collected. What is less conclusive is exactly how a Student Forum – and indeed a PBL unit — should be structured most effectively – how long it should last, what modes of presentation are most beneficial, and so on. These questions, though, will gain clarity with further practice and research on my part.

Other remaining questions that will form the basis, hopefully, for future investigations concern the nature of both PBL and research in general. One question in particular deals with the feasibility of PBL in terms of literature-based courses. How can we devise suitably complex questions when the source material for many units may be one or two fictional texts? Minor forays into PBL in my AP Literature class, for instance, have suggested that students need more breadth, if not necessary depth, of material to research for PBL to work effectively. That is, some investigation into the life of the author or the historical context of the literary work might be necessary in order to keep the project from becoming “claustrophobic”.

Another question that remains unresolved centers on the nature of research itself. In fact, this very issue proved somewhat divisive within my Affinity Group and resulted in some consternation in terms of how we would use the Student Forum. Specifically, the relative importance of “primary” sources and “secondary” sources is a matter of some philosophical debate. Where I tend to see an equal value in first-hand experience — even when it is that of a teenaged student — and the “expert” opinions of famed or highly-esteemed researchers, others clearly privilege the latter. At stake is really the question of how we come to understand “reality” – more from a “bottom up” or from a “top down” approach. Given that most high quality secondary sources are based, in some manner, on quality primary sources, a careful balance between the two seems pivotal, all the more so when it comes to educational issues about which one key group of stakeholders – the students themselves – are often voiceless.

Yes, we should impose limitations on the dominance of students in the public forum, but learning is certainly a two-way street. To paraphrase an educator I once met, “We need to enter in the students’ doorway and lead them out through ours.” What seems called for here is an educational structure that will both invite and harmonize the chorus of voices within our education system.

Some notable quotes from students following the PBL unit:

  • “The project was entertaining and fun because we were able to interact with others. I liked this method much better.”
  •  “Instead of being taught information it was cool to interact with peers…and learn what others know about our topics.”
  •  “It was a more efficient and effective way to learn.”
  • “The project was creative. Using others’ opinions and views on something to back yourself up [with] was a great idea, rather than doing it [just] off of a scholarly paper.”
  •  “I would evaluate this as an extreme way to get things done. Personally, I like it and would love to do it again.”
  •  “It was fun, educational, and interesting and was a definite success. It held my attention more than a traditional project.”


Amador, Jose, Libby Miles, and C.B. Peters. (2006) The Practice of Problem-Based learning: A Guide to Implementing PBL in the College Classroom. Anker Publishing Co., Inc. Bolton, MA.

Fitchman Dana, Nancy and Yendil-Hoppy, Diane. (2008) The Reflective Educator’s Guide to Professional Development: Coaching Inquiry-Oriented Learning Communities.  116-120.

Pine, Gerald J. (2009) Teacher Action Research: Building Knowledge Democracies. 254-262.

Project Based Learning Handbook. (2003) Buck Institute for Education.


Appendix A – PBL Pre-Assessment

1. What are three research databases available in the library?

2. What is a primary source, and what would be three general examples of such a source?

3. What is the proper way to cite a source in a research essay?

4. What are some productive ways of handling sources that contradict one another?

5. What devices most contribute to rhythm in writing?

6. What devices or techniques most impact clarity in one’s writing? (not including penmanship)

7. What are several effective methods of annotating a text?

8. What are several strategies for working in groups effectively? How can we accurately measure individual participation in collaborative groups?

9. Other than PowerPoints, what are three technological or physical tools for enhancing formal presentations to the class or another group?

10. When making a formal presentation, what mental/organization strategies can help create intensity and dramatic flair?

11. What “habits of mind” (mental/emotional habits) are most important to success in the 21st century? (cite three)

12. What is your best definition of happiness? What level of “happiness” do you feel that your friends and family members have?


Appendix B – Problem-Based Learning Evaluation                    Student Survey                      Project: END

1. How did the experience of Problem-Based Learning affect your paper drafts and your final paper?

2. Do you think the online forum was successful? If yes, what part worked particularly well? If no, what troubles affected your use of the forum? Do you find the student interaction was of huge, medium, small, or no use to your in your course paper? Would you use it again?

3. How did the face-to-face Town Hall Meeting go? Was it an interesting interaction with other students? If yes, why? If no, why not? Do you feel you gained knowledge by meeting in person? How do you feel the face-to-face interaction affected your learning in the course? Has it given you any ideas for future papers?

4. Compared to more “traditional” modes of learning, how would you evaluate this project as a whole?