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Problem-based learning in an LSP classroom
at higher education institutions
by
Dubravka Celinšek and Irena Kuštrin
-  2

Problem design and co-operation with subject teachers

PBL uses problems to motivate and initiate student learning. A critical factor in the success of the project is therefore the problem itself. A challenging title will engage student interest and make them realise that problem-based learning can be fun, not just another boring assignment. It is also important that the final goal of the project is well articulated. Students will lose too much time trying to find the focus of their work if the problem is too general or the description of the problem too vague. A well-designed problem should be interesting, motivating and relevant to the professional field. It should be connected with real life situations; the students should see that the problem they have to solve is something realistic, not just an artificially produced case for teaching purposes. Interests and needs of the students and their future careers should also be considered.

In order to meet these standards and provide relevance for the problems, co-operation with subject specialists is of utmost importance. Sometimes subject experts are tempted to formulate an exam question instead of a problem and here the language teacher – in our case the initiator of the project – should intervene. As most ESP teachers have gained a certain level of expert knowledge in the respective professional field they could also design problems by themselves, or let students design them, the advantage being that topics chosen by the students themselves are of particular interest to them. However, in the latter two cases it is essential that a subject specialist checks the problems for their professional relevance.

In subsequent stages of the project, the subject teacher acts as advisor and tutor who directs the students in their information search and guides them through their research.

Ideally, the subject specialist he/she is also present at oral presentations. Since presentations are extremely time-consuming it may be difficult to find teachers who can afford and are willing to spend extra time, especially if the number of groups participating in PBL is big.

However, the subject teacher should assess the content of the written report.

The role of the subject teachers in PBL could thus be summarised as the following: case designer, facilitator, adviser, provider of literature and assessor.

Team formation and team work

Issues we had to consider were whether teams should be formed randomly, by arbitrary assignment of the teacher, or according to student bonding on a friendship basis. In general the teams were formed on the basis of students’ interest in a certain topic or friendship bonds and regardless of their level of English (Djurić 2001, 34).

The size of the team ranged between 4 and 6 members . Bigger groups proved to be less coherent and more difficult to manage while the smaller could be disadvantaged in terms of distributing the assignments (too many assignments per student).

As to the language level of the students: mixed ability teams proved to be successful as well, since linguistically less able students could contribute to the success of the group on other levels, i.e. searching for the literature, conducting interviews or mini opinion polls, editing the final report, preparing visual materials for the presentation, etc.

Students should also be aware of the characteristics of a successful team which can be defined as a group of individuals working together in order to reach a common goal; they should be all involved in decision-making and help each other to reach the set goals (Kralj in Miklavčič Šumanski, 2005, 10).

As far as team work is concerned, students need some introduction to this kind of work and studying, or learning in a team, respectively.

Team work arises in a form where the tasks are allotted to the group as a whole and not to an individual, whereby the group itself is responsible for distributing the tasks (Marchington in Miklavčič Šumanski 2005, 10). Distribution of tasks within the team should be based on personal characteristics, preferences, knowledge, talents and strengths of its members; this will contribute greatly to building of the team spirit and consequently to the success of the project.

In general our students were not used to learning in teams and also needed help in carrying out their meetings where conversation should be based on a dialogue. In a dialogue, individuals ‘are not trying to win’, they ‘gain insights that simply could not be achieved individually’ (Bohm in Senge 1994, 241), or according to Senge, they become ‘observers of their own thinking’ (1994, 242). ‘Through a dialogue people can help each other to become aware of the inconherence in each other’s thoughts, and in this way the collective thought becomes more and more coherent (Bohm in Senge 1994, 243). Therefore, it is most important for students to be aware of the advantages that team work provides.

Sharing the same objective and being accountable and reliable team members proved to be among the most important factors influencing successful team work.

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