A statistical analysis of the effects of project-based learning on student high school and college outcomes

Craig, Tara Theresa
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This dissertation research study is an analysis of the effects of project-based learning on a cohort of high school students’ achievement on mathematics and science standardized tests and graduation rates. The study also investigates college enrollment and first year grade point averages (GPA) for students taught solely through project-based instructional methods in high school. In the 21st century, STEM fields dominate our work force, but there is a decline in interest and persistence towards these fields that can be traced back to high school achievement in mathematics. The people that are choosing and prepared for STEM majors and careers are not representative of the US population, as they are lacking ethnic and gender diversity. The underlying premise is that inquiry-based teaching practices engage and motivate students leading to increased learning; however this premise is not currently fully supported with empirical research. This research compares students that attended a high school that teaches all courses through project-based learning with a matched control group of students. I first analyzed the demographic makeup of students that chose to apply to Manor New Tech, a STEM-focused, PBL school. Then, I developed multiple linear regression models that allowed me to determine that students attending the PBL school performed as well as the control group on math standardized exams and significantly better on one of the science standardized exams. Further analysis showed that ethnic and gender achievement gaps on the standardized assessments were maintained when students attended the PBL school. Similarly, students that attended the PBL school as likely to graduate high school. Comparing the PBL school with a more affluent school that also teaches all courses through PBL showed that graduates from the PBL school of focus in this research were significantly more likely to enroll in 2-year institutions of higher education and just as likely to enroll in 4-year and private institutions in Texas as the more affluent school. Finding that attendance at MNTH does not harm students’ standardized test performance or graduation rates could imply that being taught through PBL does not enhance high school and college outcomes. It could also imply that students taught at the PBL school, MNTH, are not experiencing authentic PBL, or conversely that students attending the comparison school, MHS, are receiving instruction through project-based methods as well. Lastly, the standardized assessments used to measure achievement may not be sensitive to some higher order skill development that may occur when taught through inquiry-based methods. Future research plans are to create new achievement measures that will capture more robust learning than traditional standardized tests. Using these instruments, further analysis of difference in students’ performance when they are taught through inquiry methods will be conducted.