Date of Award

12-18-2014

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

Middle and Secondary Education

First Advisor

Dr. Christine Thomas

Second Advisor

Dr. Jennifer Esposito

Third Advisor

Dr. Pier Junor Clarke

Fourth Advisor

Dr. Anton Puvirajah

Abstract

Problem-based learning (PBL), an instructional approach anchored in the framework of the learning theory “constructivism,” is a shift toward student-centered learning; students build content knowledge and problem-solving skills by solving real world problems (Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Savery, 2006; Stepien & Gallagher, 1993). Most of the existing literature on PBL comes from the higher education setting. However, researchers (Hmelo-Silver, 2004; Maxwell, Mergendoller, & Bellisimo, 2005; Ravitz, 2009; Savery, 2006; Strobel & van Barneveld, 2009) have stressed the need for more PBL research that examines its effectiveness in the K through 12 classrooms. The purpose of this dissertation study was to examine the factors affecting teachers’ design and implementation of PBL in the high school mathematics classroom after a prolonged engagement in a professional learning on PBL implementation.

The research question for the study was: After prolonged engagement in professional learning on problem-based learning (PBL), what factors influence teachers’ beliefs in designing and implementing PBL as an instructional approach in the high school mathematics classroom? The research question was answered by examining the changes in teachers’ beliefs about mathematics teaching and learning, changes in their instructional practices and by analyzing their challenges while implementing PBL in the classroom. This dissertation uses the characteristics of PBL (Savery & Duffy, 2001) as a framework, and Green’s (1971) analysis of beliefs as a lens, to answer the research question.

A qualitative case study approach was selected in the current study and teacher beliefs, instructional practices were analyzed (Merriam, 1988 and Yin, 1989). Teachers from a high school located in an urban area in the southeastern region of the United States participated in a prolonged professional development on PBL for a total of 60 hours each year by being a part of the project called “Collaboration for Mathematics and Science Achievement” during 2011, and 2012. Three teachers that attended both professional development sessions were purposefully selected for this case study. I collected data through surveys, interviews, and observations and also utilized field notes and teachers’ journal entries. Results of this dissertation could be beneficial to classroom teachers and could influence curriculum writers to support classroom teachers in implementing PBL in the mathematics classroom.

The findings from this qualitative research study revealed four major themes: 1) Teacher collaboration is essential in influencing teacher beliefs in the design and implementation of PBL, 2) Pressure from the school district to increase students test scores in standardized tests prioritized learning of mathematics in the classroom, 3) Changes in terms of teaching assignment, and changes in the current curriculum discouraged teachers from embracing any innovative reform-based instructional practices like PBL in the classroom and 4) Low expectations in students’ ability and performance dissuaded teachers from implementing reform-based instructional practices like PBL in the classroom.

A major implication from the current study is that in general, teachers should hold the core belief that “All students can learn.” This statement implies that all students can learn according to the standards set forth by challenging curriculum. Mathematics teachers will have to create opportunities for students to explore inquiry-based lessons and cognitively demanding tasks such as PBL cases.

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