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by John R. Mergendoller
Senior Fellow

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Topic tags: Research, Decision Making, 21st century competencies


June 8, 2016
Research Brief: PBL Helps Students Become Better Decision Makers

by John R. Mergendoller
Senior Fellow

Advocates of Project Based Learning often claim that PBL provides opportunities for students to become better decision makers, as they focus on “real” decisions that matter and can affect others. Decisions within projects become practice for later decisions and help students develop the reasoning and argumentation skills they will need and use as workers, citizens and in their private lives.

This assertion that PBL improves decision-making skills is an appealing one, but it is also one that has not been firmly substantiated by research. In fact, some researchers argue that teacher-centered didactic approaches like Direct Instruction are the most effective way to teach students how to identify, evaluate and choose the best alternative in situations where there are competing options, but no obvious best choice.

Now, a team of researchers from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign have made an important contribution to this debate by completing a rigorous study demonstrating PBL’s power to develop students’ skills to reason about complex issues and make thoughtful decisions about unfamiliar issues. [See: Zhang, Anderson, Morris, et. al., (February, 2016). Improving children’s competence as decision makers: Contrasting effects of collaborative interaction and direct instruction. American Educational Research Journal, 53, 194-223.]

A Study Comparing PBL vs. Direct Instruction
The study was conducted in 36 classrooms within eight urban schools. The researchers randomly assigned 764 fifth graders to three groups matched in terms of demographic composition and academic achievement: 1) a PBL group; 2) a Direct Instruction group; and 3) a Control group. Teachers of the PBL and DI groups implemented a special “wolf management” curriculum for one hour each day, four or five days a week over six weeks. The Control teachers continued to follow their standard curriculum, and did not include lessons on wolf management.

The Project Based and Direct Instruction teachers focused on the reintroduction and management of wolves in a local area, a real issue that has been debated in Yellowstone National Park among other places. In the PBL curriculum, students played the role of officials at the Wolf Management Agency, formed expert groups that created posters, then debated the issues with each other in small groups. In the Direct Instruction curriculum, they participated in teacher-guided whole class activities and individual seatwork.

A specially prepared booklet was central to both curricula. Divided into three parts, it contained information and problem-solving activities focused on three different perspectives that must be considered when making decisions about wolf management: the ecosystem, the economy, and public policy. Each section of the booklet compared opposing viewpoints, for example, the perspectives of hunters who want a large elk population to hunt (and don’t want elk killed by wolves), and nature lovers who want to hear wolves howling. The booklet provided a balanced treatment, favoring neither wolf eradication nor protection. At the conclusion of the unit, students were asked to make a decision about whether a community should be granted permission to hire professional hunters to kill a pack of wolves that concerned many of its citizens. Students also took a test on the main concepts and information covered in the curriculum booklet.

But most importantly, students completed a “transfer” task to evaluate how well they could transfer the decision-making skills they learned while studying wolves to a new issue. After reading about a complex situation in which a student has to decide whether to “tell” the teacher about another student’s dishonesty, they wrote essays describing their personal decisions. Their essays were coded to determine: 1) whether students articulated multiple sides of the dilemma; 2) the number of different types of reasons and moral principles they considered; and 3) the explicitness with which they weighed different options.

Results? Exactly what we would have hoped.
PBL students demonstrated far better decision-making skills than either the Direct Instruction or the control group students. PBL students considered more than one side of a dilemma, used more comprehensive reasoning, and more frequently evaluated the importance of the assumptions underlying their decision making. This is all the more striking when you consider that both the Direct Instruction and the PBL students used the same curricular materials – they just used them differently. The PBL students reasoned – and argued – with each other about what should be done with the wolves. The Direct Instruction students discussed the same issues with the teacher. The researchers write:


. . . in Direct Instruction classrooms, teachers do most of the initiating and evaluating, leaving students with circumscribed opportunities for extended reasoning and, we suppose, little cause to believe that their own thinking counts for much in making a decision about the wolves. In a collaborative learning environment, students have the chance to become active arguers and decision makers who engage in chains of reasoning themselves . . . [they] have a stronger sense that they ought to test their ideas against the competing ideas of others, either to persuade or to be persuaded.


The Direct Instruction students did score higher on the wolf management post-unit concept and information test, demonstrating once more that Direct Instruction is an effective teaching approach when the instructional goal is retention of concepts and facts, tested immediately after they have been taught. (Other research on PBL suggests concepts and facts are retained for a longer period of time compared to when it is only memorized for a test.)

But if we prioritize careful thinking and reasoning, and seek to equip students to make thoughtful decisions as adults and citizens, then this research suggests that PBL is a vastly superior teaching approach. When the decision-making of the Direct Instruction students on the transfer task was compared with that of the control students – who received no decision-making instruction at all – there was no difference in performance, even though the Direct Instruction students had spent at least 24 hours over six weeks learning how to make decisions.

There are two other important lessons to draw from this research about the importance of (1) well-prepared instructional materials to support students’ learning; and (2) the authenticity of the problem they were addressing and the role they were playing. The curriculum booklets created for the study framed student activity and presented new concepts and information students needed to make thoughtful decisions. Students didn’t just sit around and discuss; they were given prompts and structures for considering points of view, counter-arguments, and so on. They moved back forth, as adults do when considering an important issue, from learners to thinkers, and eventually to decision makers. And it was a real issue they were pondering, argued at public meetings and in letters to the editor. It was an issue in which a real adult had made a similar decision. If students are going to learn to think critically, they need complex, authentic issues to think about, and well-designed or curated materials to help them understand each issue’s complexities.


Do you have questions or comments about this research? Please enter them below.


  • Is there a way to access the PBL unit on wolves to compare the design of the PBL unit to the direct instruction approach? What was the design question?

    Heather Zacarias on June 15, 2016 
    [Reply to this comment]
    • You would have to buy the research paper at the above link to get the full story, but I can tell you that the basic question for the wolf unit was, “Should a community be granted permission to hire professional hunters to kill a pack of wolves?” This was not characterized by them as a “driving question” like we do in our model of PBL - is that what you mean by design question?

      John Larmer on June 21, 2016 
      [Reply to this comment]
    • In the end, on quantitative measures only, DI out scored PBL. You are on the right track to compare instructional materials and I would also question the delivery of instruction. With so many variables at play (focusing on Quan measures including test items) it’s hard to give DI full credit for its limited performance.

      Robert Wilson on June 22, 2016 
      [Reply to this comment]

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