Project Based Learning in High School AP Classes

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Researchers from University of Washington are finding that project based learning in high school AP classes enables enthusiasm and success of high school students. 

In a new type of advanced government class at Seattle’s Garfield High, the students rarely sit quietly taking notes while their teacher stands and lectures.

Instead, they debate each other. They write legislation. They run for president in mock elections and pretend they’re lawyers arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

They sometimes even stand up and holler, as Sanai Anang did recently, playing a member of a Virginia-based group that lobbies for strict immigration controls.

In a simulated public hearing, Anang, who loves to ham it up, jumped to his feet without being recognized and declared, in a mangled Southern accent, “Ee-lee-gals come over and take our jobs. They don’t bee-long here.”

His classmates and teacher Jerry Neufeld-Kaiser cracked up.

They are all part of a teaching experiment that began six years ago in the Bellevue School District when a handful of frustrated government teachers teamed up with University of Washington researchers and turned the usual Advanced Placement curriculum inside out.

Instead of lectures sprinkled with discussions and occasional projects, they put role plays and simulations at the center of the curriculum — the entree, rather than a side dish or dessert.

Project Based Learning in High School AP Classes

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Their goal was to solve two problems with the A.P. program, the largest set of college-level courses offered in high schools across the nation.

First, they wanted to address the criticism that A.P. classes cover so many topics so quickly that students spend too much time memorizing facts and too little time analyzing their meaning and significance.

The team also wanted to test whether a steady diet of hands-on exercises would help address the rising failure rate on A.P. tests among some minority groups.

The team members started with A.P. U.S. government and politics — one of the most popular A.P. offerings — dumping most of the lectures that usually are the core of the course, and replacing them with five in-depth projects.

They then tackled A.P. environmental science and are now working on A.P. physics.

The transition hasn’t been easy for students used to being told, at the start of each assignment, exactly what they’re supposed to learn.

Students and teachers alike complain the projects can be time consuming to complete — and to plan.

And, done poorly, they can be a waste of time.

But the results so far are promising, showing that the project based classes can provide depth and enough breadth for students to pass the spring A.P. exams.

Students in the experiment, now under way in about five dozen classrooms in Washington, Northern California and Iowa, have done as well and often better on the A.P. exams compared with classmates in the experiment’s control schools that use a lecture-heavy approach.

They’ve often scored higher on a separate test that researchers designed to probe how well students truly understand what they’ve learned — although those results have been mixed.


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Project Based Learning in High School AP Classes

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