Date of Award

Fall 2013

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Science in Education (MSEd)


Education and Human Development

First Advisor

Peter Veronesi


Student motivation is an important precursor to learning, and therefore, is an important component in any successful science classroom. Studies have shown that the more students are engaged in the classroom, the better they will succeed. Several decades of research have shown that students’ engagement predicts their learning, grades, achievement, retention, and graduation (National Research Council, 2004).

One of the engagement strategies include components to the Self-Determination Theory. According to the Self-Determination Theory, there are three factors that work together to motivate students: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy refers to the degree of choice that students have about tasks and when and how to perform. Competence refers to students being able to grasp onto the material and effectively deal and take control of their learning. Students feel a sense of relatedness in the classroom when they feel a sense of attachment and importance to and amongst their peers (Deci & Ryan, 2008).There are many practices that teachers can embrace to promote autonomy, competence and relatedness in the classroom. One such strategy is Problem-Based Learning or PBL. PBL is an instructional approach in which students work in small collaborative groups where learning is driven by open-ended and authentic tasks that encourage students in engage in higher level thinking. PBL activities are a non-restrictive form of learning that allow students to solve real-world problems by applying their content knowledge in a team-based fashion (Mossuto, M., 2009).

Recent studies show that PBL confer a higher level of student engagement. One study found that the implementation of a PBL model had a significant impact on student attitudes towards science and perceptions of their learning environment. According to the study, students agreed that science would interest them more if they could choose science concepts or problems that were relevant to them; if they had more control of their learning; and that they enjoyed learning science when working in a group with peers. In addition, there was a positive impact of PBL on student problem-solving skills (Ferreira, 2012). Another study revealed that students prefer PBL models over traditional models of teaching. Results also revealed that students appreciated the opportunity to improve their facilitation and teamwork skills as well as responsibility of their own learning (Nicholl, 2012). These studies suggest that PBL models provide a multitude of benefits to students which heighten their interests in science and sharpen many essential life skills.

PBL in the science classroom is an excellent practice for teachers to promote all three factors of the Self-Determination Theory in an effort to increase student motivation for success. PBL activities provide students with the autonomy to strategize with their peers to come up with solutions to real-world problems. PBL models require students to draw on their content knowledge to effectively arrive at solutions to open-ended questions. Teachers should take the opportunity to implement PBL models in their classroom to facilitate student engagement and higher student achievement.

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