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The Power of Problem-Based Learning for Math

Updated: Jan 9

It is quite typical for math to be a content outlier when it comes to Project-Based Learning (PBL), yet we know it is crucial to engage students in authentic learning across all content areas. Math is also the one content area where students struggle with seeing its value. How often have you heard, “I’ll never use this in the real world, so why do I have to know it?” The solution to this dilemma is to frame the math learning around engaging, authentic problems and scenarios. This framework or strategy is often referred to as Problem-Based Learning (PrBL).

PrBL and PBL both provide an extended learning experience. In a Project, the time frame for the learning covers several weeks, while in a Problem, the time frame is usually under a week, with most spanning one or two days. This allows for a focus on one or two key mathematical concepts. A review of Common Core State Standards for math suggests that the learning in our math classrooms must provide students with the opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills. As teachers, we know that for students to think deeply, they must be engaged and interested in what they are learning.

PrBL units are centered around a well-structured problem which gives students various and multiple opportunities to read and analyze a situation and develop a solution. Mathematics and mathematical skills are highlighted during a PrBL unit while students are able to use written and oral communication, collaboration, and 21st century skills to solve problems.

There are a few key ingredients to think about when planning a successful PrBL unit. Each unit should include non-routine, complex mathematical tasks. Each student should be able to show his or her learning through an individual assessment of his or her knowledge and thinking. Within the unit, formative assessment lessons allow teachers to check for understanding, then use that data to guide and scaffold instruction as well as to provide students feedback. One of the most important ingredients is a problem that excites students and challenges them to consistently think about math.

Following some simple steps helps teachers create the ultimate experience:

  1. Begin with the math. Clearly articulate the ideas that students need to learn from the project. The best place to find these ideas is in the math standards.

  2. Consider your students. What do they know about the topic already? What skills are needed? Once this has been addressed, decide on a task. Find real-world applications and connections to the tasks/skills. Make sure to choose a problem that has multiple entry points and solutions.

  3. Predict what you think students will find challenging. Identify what questions you will ask to help students think deeper.

  4. Know how students will document and present their work. Understand how students will go about working in teams. Putting these steps into practice results in empowering students to realize they know more than they think they do.  

Let’s do the work necessary to engage our students in deep learning. Here is a resource to help you along your pathway in PrBL. The lessons were written in a collaboration between the Shell Centre and UC-Berkeley. There are over 50 lessons that range from 6th grade math to pre-calculus and statistics. In addition, there is an assortment of expert and intermediate tasks that align with the lessons.

To engage students in authentic learning, teachers must teach students not only to solve problems, but also to learn about mathematics through problem solving. This gives students the ability to both develop procedural fluency and gain a deeper understanding of mathematics conceptually. Problem-Based Learning is the spark to igniting passion in our students. When teachers use a PrBL strategy to teach math, it not only impacts student learning but often transfers the workload to the student as well. While students explore, teachers become facilitators of learning and move away from the busy work of grading worksheets. Allowing students to work longer on fewer problems gives students the opportunity to take ownership of their learning. It provides the teacher with information about how each student is thinking and gives teachers time in class to support each learner. Grouping standards in a project creates opportunities for teachers to cover multiple concepts at a time, relieving the stress they feel to “get it all covered” in a school year. With PrBL, teachers become partners in learning and masters of their craft.

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