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Helping Students Thrive Now

Angela Duckworth and other behavioral-science experts offer advice to teachers based on scientific research. To submit questions, use this form or #helpstudentsthrive. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

The Only Class a High School Dropout Never Missed

By Kristin DeVivo — February 24, 2021 2 min read
How do I get my students actively engaged in learning?
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How do I get my students to become active, engaged learners?
Amber Graeber, a teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, will never forget the student who quit high school but continued to come to her AP U.S. Government and Politics class. Day after day, he showed up, and she would wonder why.
He called himself “the worst dropout in the history of dropouts,” Graeber remembers, because of his faithful attendance. They laughed about it, but they also discussed why he came: In her project-based class, there was an active role for him, the learning was connected to the real world—the workings of Congress, the Supreme Court, and presidential campaigns—and he really enjoyed it.
Over the last decade, the George Lucas Educational Foundation has invested in research to evaluate the effectiveness of project-based learning (PBL). The evidence is compelling: Rigorous PBL engages students in challenging, authentic, and meaningful learning experiences, which results in significant boosts to academic achievement. This holds across multiple grade levels, subjects, and for all types of students.
Here are three ways you can begin to integrate PBL best practices into daily class activities:
Start with a driving question that will prime students’ interest and create a purpose for learning. A teacher in a typical 3rd grade science class might ask: “Who can tell me two reasons why dinosaurs are extinct?” A teacher in a PBL classroom might approach it this way: “Why do I see so many squirrels but can’t find any stegosauruses?” In a high school civics class, a traditional question might be: “What are the three branches of the U.S. government?” In a PBL classroom, a teacher might approach it this way: “What is the proper role of government in a democracy?”
Ask students to reflect on what they know and what more they need to find out. Create a new question for each subunit that relates to the driving question, such as, “What other organisms live in the squirrel’s environment, and does the squirrel need them to survive?” or “To what extent is Congress designed to make laws that reflect the will of the people?” This method makes the learning coherent, and it ensures that instruction remains student-centered and active.
Encourage students to work together to create a community that makes arguments, listens, bounces ideas around, and builds on each other’s contributions. In a 3rd grade science class, consider opportunities for your students to explore the squirrel’s habitat outside or with video footage, taking notes and sharing ideas in preparation for an oral presentation in front of their peers. In a high school civics class, students can take on roles as members of Congress and debate bills as a way to practice writing, argumentation, and deliberation skills.
To this day, Graeber’s student remembers the classwide debates, discussions, and mock campaigns. And every election cycle, he tells her, he researches who is on the ballot using the same analytical tools and critical-thinking skills he first learned in AP Gov.

The opinions expressed in Ask a Psychologist: Helping Students Thrive Now are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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