George Mason University

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Mason research helps boost students of underserved populations

June 22, 2018   /   by Damian Cristodero

Anne Horak's research centered on seventh- and eighth-graders because of what happens to students in ninth grade and 10th.

Problem-based learning is useful in identifying high-ability middle school students from underserved populations who historically are left out of honors, advanced and gifted programs.

That is the conclusion being drawn by Project ExCEL, a five-year study led by Anne Horak, an assistant professor in George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development.

The study—ExCEL stands for Experiences Cultivating Exceptional Learning—is in its fourth year and is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education through the Jacob K. Javits Gifted and Talented Students Education Program.

“I’m an advocate for students,” Horak said. “We need to do better by them. This is one way they can enjoy their education and get something meaningful out of it.”

Professor of curriculum and instruction Beverly Shaklee and assistant professor of education Nancy Holincheck are also engaged in the study, which focuses on students in seventh and eighth grades in three districts in two states, Virginia and South Carolina.

Why seventh- and eighth-graders? Because of what happens in ninth and 10th grades, Horak said.

“Research shows [that] if students take advanced classes in ninth and 10th grades, they’re more likely to graduate from high school, score better on tests, go to college,” said Horak, who earned her master’s in curriculum and instruction from Mason in 2005 and her PhD in teaching and teacher education in 2013. “That’s why that moment in time is particularly important.”

The college’s dean Mark Ginsberg called Project ExCEL “an impressive example of promoting evidence-based practices in schools in ways that benefit students.”

In the study, students in English language arts classes are exposed to a problem-based curriculum in which they must research and think through problems to reach answers, as opposed to a traditional classroom environment in which the main component is the teacher lecture.

In the problem-based environment, students of underserved populations (black, Hispanic, Latino and English learners) were more likely to be identified for advanced classes, Horak’s study shows. In one district, 38 percent of identified students were Hispanic and Latino. That finding was 13 points higher than Hispanic and Latino students who did not have a problem-based curriculum, and 12 points higher than what the Equity Index, developed by Vanderbilt University professor Donna Ford, indicates is the minimum threshold for the demographic.

Even when a student demographic did not match the Equity Index prediction, the outcome for underserved students using problem-based learning generally exceeded the numbers for students in traditional programs.

“Problem-based learning gives kids the opportunity to function in the classroom,” Horak said. “It’s hard to see what kids are capable of doing when they have to sit and be quiet, and that’s what traditional instruction does.”

The study is also beneficial for teachers, Horak said.

“Their beliefs about student capacity expand in ways that are just incredible,” she said. “They say they see things from students they didn’t know they had the capacity to do. They believe in the importance of curiosity more. They saw students take a leadership role.”

“It’s a win-win,” Horak added. “It’s a win for the students. It’s a win for the teachers.”