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


Initially, problem-based learning (PBL) in an LSP classroom in Slovenia started as a TENTEC (Teaching English for Technical Purposes) Leonardo da Vinci project at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering in Ljubljana. After presenting the project at theIATEFL Slovenia Conference in Ljubljana in 2000, a group of tertiary level language teachers decided to introduce this approach to teaching and learning a foreign language in some Slovene higher education institutions. Consequently, the project started inside the Slovene Association of LSP Teachers ( with the support of the University of Aston, Birmingham, UK and the British Council in Ljubljana in the academic year 2000/2001.

In our association we plan to disseminate our knowledge and experience writing student's and teachers' guides to PBL as well as organizing workshops and publishing articles on this topic. We are about to issue the teacher's guide and are trying to find some partners to work on an international project.

General Overview of the PBL Process

The cross-curricular dimension of PBL requires at least two teachers to be involved in the PBL process: in our case the language teacher and the subject specialist. The subject specialist provides a problem to be solved and he also suggests some literature and provides professional guidance during the project. The language teacher provides the help concerning the foreign language.

Following this approach, students work in teams. After the teams are formed and problems designed, the teacher should make sure that the students are ready for their discussions or meetings, respectively. To hold meetings successfully, students should be able to actively participate in discussions, knowing the role of a chairperson and a secretary as well as how to write the minutes. These notes will also be a useful source for their report, for observing the participation of each team member and will also include technical terms important for improving their language proficiency. After the meeting, a secretary or the whole team works on the minutes, which also serve as a starting point for the new agenda.

There are two meetings where all the teams and the language teacher, desirably also the subject specialists, are present. Moreover, teams have additional meetings and work on their own: they analyse the problem, compare the resources they find, discuss possible solutions and finally decide on the best solutions to the problem.

Students should be aware of their final objective: producing the report on the problem they solve and the presentation of their research and suggested solutions.

Clear and effective communication is of utmost importance. During their meetings students should keep in mind that there may be positive and negative reactions to their opinions and that their suggestions might or might not be accepted. Moreover, they should be able to defend and support their opinions. They should be open and willing to try and understand different points of view, respect each other, and should not be afraid to express their concern if some team member does not co-operate. Their ideas and opinions in a foreign language should be presented clearly and effectively.


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.

Solving a problem - a 7-Step procedure

The first meeting of team members and teacherscovers Steps 1 – 5 and their second meetingcoversStep 7. Step 6 is dedicated to individual research.

Step I :Making the case clear: At this stage the terms and the concepts are being clarified. Students appoint a chairperson and a secretary, which are rotating functions. Other roles: time keeper/progress chaser, reporter, designer/investigator, editor/evaluator can be allocated at the end of the first meeting, keeping in mind the workload is evenly distributed. Finishing this step, all team members should understand the problem and agree it is a problem.

Step II : Formulating questions and queries: By asking questions related to the problem, students define the problem in greater depth and develop deeper understanding of the problem. Alternatively they can brainstorm, use the SWOT analysis or other ways in order to define the problem in more depth.

Step III :Identifying current knowledge: Students try to find answers to the questions from Step II by using their current knowledge and experience.

Step IV : Structuring the ideas and identifying learning needs: Students produce graphic schemes in the forms of mind maps to clearly picture cause and effect of the problem as well as possible solutions. This will help them focus their further research and prepare a logical structure of their future report. They also identify what further knowledge they need.

Step V : Formulating learning aims, distributing assignments among team members: Students reconsider the questions from Step II and formulate a clearly defined goal, which should be broken down into subgoals. Each student is then assigned the task of searching for more information about a particular question. They need to reconsider:

  • What do they need to produce?
  • What do they need to learn in order to be able to produce such an outcome?
  • How are they expected to demonstrate the result of the research?
  • What kind of information do they need in order to carry out the task?

Step VI : Individual research activities: Students search for information in the library, on the Internet, in companies and other organizations, etc. Some specific guidence might be needed from their subject teacher as well.

Step VII : Evaluation of new information: Students evaluate information they have gathered and ask themselves if this information is relevant enough to defend their case and decide if further research is needed before proceeding to the reporting stage. They plan how to use the gathered information and decide if further search is needed.


Writing a report – team work

  • As students have gathered enough information, they will have to translatetheir ideas into written form. In order to do this succesfully, they need to be aware of: the purpose of their writing, their audience, the elements of the report, the way of presenting information and finding, the length of the report, the date of its submission. They should also need to make effective use of the minutes and the studied literature, referencing and citing the consulted sources properly.
  • Writing a report is a carefully planned process, and its draft might need to be rewritten several times before the report is completed. Writing enables students or teams, respectively to discover and evaluate their thoughs. Therefore, it also means rewriting, revising, rethinking (Kolin 2001, 38). After finishing their research, teams plan, draft, revise, and finally edit their reports.
  • Writing a report in PBL is team work. Each member is responsible for the success of the report and should equally contribute to the process of writing.

Presenting in teams

This is the final part of the project in which the problem, research and findings are presented to fellow students and teachers. The message should be clear and well organized, presented in an interesting and enthusiastic way.

When presenting orally, students should be aware of:

  • maintaining the contact with the audience(teachers and fellow students)
  • choosing appropriate contentaccording to the audience's needs, knowledge, interests, expectations
  • making effective use of their voice and pace of speech
  • using appropriate language (N.B. spoken language is not the same as written)
  • organizing the presentation, signposting
  • presenting visual aids
  • predicting possible questions from the audience and preparing possible answers

As students present their research and solutions in a team, the coherence of the team is essential – there should not be several individual presentations but one, jointly presented by several members. The language of linking and handing over to peer presenters should be pretaught.

Assessment in PBL

As this is a teaching approach which is different from traditional approaches, the assessment differs as well. Traditional testing methods like multiple-choice tests, close tests, etc., are simply not applicable. In PBL students work in groups; the process involves a whole range of activities which are very much intertwined. It is not really possible to itemise the contribution made by an individual student. For this reason the framework for assessment in PBL learning environment takes a holistic approach. The assessment process embraces both: the product strand and the process strand.

In the product strand, the products assessed are the written report and the oral presentation of the team whereas in the process strand, we try to assess the quality of the student's involvement in the learning process in terms of his/her contribution to the final product.

For the product strand, several models of rating scales have been developed for the written report and the oral presentation of the team. For the process strand, peer and self-assessment questionnaires have been designed. They are an important complement to the assessment tools of the product strand, since they offer information and feed-back about the learning process to which the teacher has no insight (Kosel 2001, 53). Carrying out peer assessment before the project is finished may contribute to better quality of the continuing process and final product. This also allows the teacher to monitor the course of the project. On grounds of students' feedback (self-assessment and peer assessement), information on the kind of help needed can be found, which enables the teacher to decide how to help the students.

Ideally, both the subject expert and the language teacher would assess the product and include this grade in the total grade for his/her respective subject. In case of the language teachers the share of the PBL in the final grade ranged between 20% and 50% .


Our experience of PBL has met a very positive response from our students. Its cross-curricular dimension, developing understanding and competences needed in students' future careers make a reasonable foundation for successful long-life learning. Therefore, we decided to carry on with our endeavour. However, besides practicing this approach lo learning, monitoring our work and doing research in this field is also our priority.


Djurić, M. 2001. Timing and group formation. In Issues and Ideas: Problem-based learning, ed. A. Gvardjančič, 33 –34. Ljubljana: The Slovene Association of LSP Teachers.
Gvardjančič, A. (ed.). 2001. Issues and Ideas: Problem-based learning. Ljubljana: The Slovene Association of LSP Teachers.
Jurkovič, V. 2001. Role of the subject teacher in PBL. In Issues and Ideas: Problem-based learning, ed. A. Gvardjančič, 35 –40. Ljubljana: The Slovene Association of LSP Teachers.
Kosel, B. 2001. Assessment in a PBL situation. In Issues and Ideas: Problem-based learning, ed. A. Gvardjančič, 53 –60. Ljubljana: The Slovene Association of LSP Teachers.
Kuštrin, I. 2001. Case design. In Issues and Ideas: Problem-based learning, ed. A. Gvardjančič, 29 –32. Ljubljana: The Slovene Association of LSP Teachers.
Lešnik, M. 2001. Assessing PBL projects in a higher education ESP course. In Issues and Ideas: Problem-based learning, ed. A. Gvardjančič, 61 –64. Ljubljana: The Slovene Association of LSP Teachers.
Miklavčič Šumanski, M. 2005. Timsko delo in ugotavljanje skupinskih striktur po sociometrični metodi v proizvodnem podjetju. Master thesis. Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana.
Senge, P. 1994. The fifth discipline. New York: Doubleday.
Vukadinović, N and M. Djurič (eds.). 2003. Problem-based learning (workshop material).
Ljubljana: The Slovene Association of LSP Teachers.


Dubravka Celinšek and Irena Kuštrin - The Slovene Association of ESP Teachers Slovenia


Irena Kuštrin has been an LSP teacher at the University of Ljubljana, Faculty of Social Work for 12 years. Previously, she taught German and English at a grammar school in Ljubljana for 15 years.

Dubravka Celinšek has been an ESP teacher at the University of Primorska, Faculty of Management for 6 years. Previously, she taught English and Slovene at the Technical School Centre in Nova Gorica for 10 years.

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