Clair Berube, assistant professor of education at Hampton University, is a recent convert to problem-based learning (PBL). She first attended the VISTA Science Education Faculty Academy in May 2012 and became an immediate believer.
“I think the reason problem-based learning resonated with me so quickly is because I was already on that wavelength,” she says. “It fits right in with my research.”
In the two years since, Dr. Berube has co-authored a paper on how teaching with PBLs increases teacher confidence and has written a book on STEM teaching that touts problem-based learning as effective teaching.
“Coming to VISTA was one of the most influential things I have ever done for my career,” she says.
Her new book, “STEM in the City,” which will be published today, May 30, is a peer-reviewed, scholarly look at the state of STEM education in the United States, particularly in urban areas. Chapter six, “What Effective STEM Teaching Looks Like,” is full of VISTA research and examples of PBL-based lessons.
After her VISTA training, Berube also co-authored a self-efficacy study of pre-service teachers that tested their confidence levels in teaching science.
The study measured the pre-service teachers’ confidence levels before and after they learned how to use problem-based learning as a teaching tool. “The scores went way up in the post tests, meaning they feel more confident about teaching science,” says Berube. Confidence is critical to implementing the PBL approach, the study concluded, because teachers who lack confidence tend to stick to less effective teacher-led instruction methods.
“It’s hard for them to get the hang of PBL,” says Berube. “We kind of beat out the creativity in students (pre-service teachers) so they get nervous with the concept of PBLs, but they really do like it once they get it.
“What the teachers are saying in effect is that they’re panicky because they can’t teach to the test,” says Berube. “Everyone knows teaching to the test is not good, but that’s what happens.”
Besides, according to Berube, teaching to the test has other downsides as well. In a study published in 2004, Berube examined the Virginia Standards of Learning (SOL) tests in several Norfolk middle schools. A week after the SOLs were administered, Berube went into the schools and gave the test again. This time the test included a comprehension instrument, and the students were asked to explain how they got their answers.
“It was the exact same SOL, but in my comprehension measurement, they had to explain,” she says. “This time I only compared those who passed the SOL to their comprehension measurement scores, which included a space at the end of each multiple choice question to explain or defend their answers.
“Even though I was pretty lenient, and gave them credit if they generally comprehended the question, but still, 75 percent of them couldn’t answer the 'why'.”
Part of Berube’s mission is now to explain to the student teachers that teaching for understanding, instead of just teaching facts, will not only help the students pass the SOLs, but will also help the students learn more deeply.
“You can include the standards and score well on SOLs, but PBL is more than that, it can be creative and fun,” she says. “You can be a better teacher with students who are going to love science.
“The teachers are learning how to do higher level teaching. There’s higher satisfaction. The students are getting deeper knowledge."
Problem-based learning is a win for everyone, according to Berube. Teacher confidence, creativity in learning – and teaching – and a deeper knowledge base are all part of the advantages of problem-based learning.
“Honest to God, it’s changed the way I teach science.”