Designing the Project-Based Learning Experience using Motivation Theory
Many of us incorporate project-based learning (PBL) into the classroom because we have experienced, or have read about, its numerous positive benefits. Prior research shows that PBL positively impacts students' orientation toward learning and mastery, enhances students’ interest and value, and teaches students processes such as planning, communication, problem-solving, and decision making. We may also notice how our students seem more motivated by PBL, demonstrating greater engagement, excitement, and effort. As instructors, we too may experience greater motivation, connection with our students, and fulfillment when engaged in PBL. On the other hand, we may notice times when students don’t seem motivated to persist in PBL, and we may find ourselves wondering if the problem lies with the student, the project, the course, or even our own instruction. Hence there is a need to identify and understand the approaches that can maximize the myriad benefits offered by PBL. Realizing PBL’s benefits, however, requires motivated action on the part of both students and instructors. Motivation theory provides a useful lens to identify and understand the individual elements and the social interactions that can support or inhibit learning and engagement in PBL. The purpose of this qualitative study was to identify and describe the factors that influenced student motivation in a junior-level machine design course, taught in the Mechanical Engineering department at a large public institution in the Rocky Mountains. This study was conducted over a period of two years with the same instructor for both years. In year 1, students designed and fabricated drill-powered vehicles. In year 2, students designed and fabricated adapted tricycles for children in the community with physical disabilities. In both years, three focus groups were held at the end of the course. The focus groups were analyzed using a modified grounded theory approach, leveraging existing motivation theory to frame and interpret the results. This led to the emergence of a set of PBL “best practices” that educators can consider when engaging in PBL with students. These best practices are related to the following: autonomy-supportive course faculty, project scaffolding, project authenticity, triggering and maintaining student interest, providing opportunities for skill development, understanding the link between students’ values and their ability-related beliefs, and responding to challenges related to team dynamics and solving ill-structured problems. We also found that the introduction of a project client can enhance authenticity, contribute to students’ feelings of accountability, and can provide a new experience of designing to meet the needs of someone else versus simply earning a course grade. Lastly, our findings show that the context of service can enhance students’ intrinsic interest and value by inspiring a sense of altruism and by providing a new perspective on how engineering design can influence their broader community.