In the field of instructional design, experts have debated whether student-led, problem-based approaches — what researchers call “constructivist” approaches — work. In a new study, cognitive scientist Tina Grotzer and her research partners found further evidence of the effectiveness of structured problem-based learning, in which educators can support students in moving from novice toward expert-level understanding.
Grotzer and a team (including Nancy Oriol, Stephanie Kang, Colby Moore Reilly, and Julie Joyal) examined the Harvard Medical School MEDscience curriculum, founded by Oriol. It uses technology-mediated, problem-based learning simulations to enrich the experience of high school biology students.
Joyal — executive director for MEDscience — and the team noticed that as their problem-based curriculum progressed, students changed the way they approached problems. Rather than waiting for the teacher to give them answers, they made hypotheses based on existing knowledge, discussed their thoughts with their teams, and took risks — all signs of deeper-level learning.
To study this shift in classroom behavior, Joyal, Moore Reilly, and Grotzer used a sample of 21 students from a range of public and private schools in the Boston area. The research team found that the thinking scaffolds — the prompts and support instructors used to guide students through the curriculum and activities — were instrumental in generating a shift toward more expert-level reasoning.
“We know that experts pay attention to a very different set of patterns than novices often do. Novices get caught up in the surface features and can’t necessarily see the deep principles,” Grotzer says. “It’s really important to think what kind of scaffolding helps people take steps towards greater expertise in their thinking and reasoning.”