Most educators agree that one of the essential goals of education is the development of students who are eﬀ;icient problem solvers for the knowledge society. Three major complaints from employers about college graduates are graduate’s poor written and verbal skills, their inability to problem-solve, and their difficulties working collaboratively with other professionals. To address these areas teachers of English for Specific Purposes (ESP) should apply those communicative approaches which help to develop not only students’ ability to speak, read or write English properly but also their skills in the fields of problem-solution, decision-making and professional collaboration. Problem-based learning (PBL) is one of effective active methods of teaching foreign languages that attracts much attention of those who are interested in raising students’ competences level.
The distinction between PBL and other forms of cooperative or active learning often is blurred because they share certain common features and hybrid approaches abound as instructors adapt methods for particular situations. However, an essential component of problem-based learning is that content is introduced in the context of complex real-world problems. This contrasts with prevalent teaching strategies where the concepts, presented in a lecture format, precede “end-of-the-chapter” problems. In problem-based learning, students working in small groups must identify what they know, and more importantly, what they don’t know and must learn (learning issues) to solve a problem. These are prerequisites for understanding the problem and making decisions required by the problem. The nature of the problems supposes simple answers. Students must go beyond their textbooks to pursue knowledge in other resources in between their group meetings. The primary role of the instructor is to facilitate group process and learning, not to provide easy answers. With the change in format there come different forms of assessment such as group examinations. PBL emphasizes critical thinking skills, understanding, learning how to learn, and working cooperatively with others.
PBL is a student-centered instructional strategy in which students collaboratively solve problems and reflect on their experiences. PBL is based on the educational theories of Vygotsky, Dewey, and others, and is related to social-cultural and constructivist theories of learning and instructional design.
The basic features of PBL are: learning is driven by challenging, open-ended, ill-defined and ill-structured problems; students generally work in collaborative groups; teachers are "facilitators" of learning. In PBL, students are encouraged to take responsibility for their group and organize and direct the learning process with support from a tutor or instructor. PBL can be used to enhance content knowledge and foster the development of communication, problem-solving, and self-directed learning skill.
PBL positions students in simulated real world working and professional contexts which involve policy, process, and ethical problems that will need to be understood and resolved to some outcome. By working through a combination of learning strategies to discover the nature of a problem, understanding the constraints and options to its resolution, defining the input variables, and understanding the viewpoints involved, students learn to negotiate the complex sociological nature of the problem and how competing resolutions may inform decision-making.
A common criticism of PBL as student-centered learning is that students, as novices, cannot be expected to know what might be important for them to learn, especially in a subject to which they appear to have no prior exposure. But the experience of foreign language teachers proves that present-day learners are not the proverbial blank slates, but individuals whose prior learning can greatly impact their current learning. Often they have greater content and skill knowledge than teachers would expect. As their prior learning can both aid and hinder their attempts to learn new information, it is imperative that instructors have some sense of what intellectual currency the students bring with them.
The context for learning in PBL is highly context-specific. It serves to teach content by presenting the students with a real-world challenge similar to one they might encounter were they a practitioner of the discipline. Teaching content through skills is one of the primary distinguishing features of PBL. More commonly, instructors introduce students to teacher determined content via lecture and texts. After a specific amount of content is presented, students are tested on their understanding in a variety of ways. PBL, in contrast, is more inductive: students learn the content as they try to address a problem.
The “problems” in PBL are typically in
the form of “cases”, narratives of complex, real-world
challenges common to the discipline being studied.
There is no right or wrong answer; rather, there are reasonable
solutions based on application of knowledge and skills deemed
necessary to address the issue. The “solution” therefore
is partly dependent on the acquisition and comprehension of facts,
but also based on the ability to think critically. Critical
thinking refers to the ability to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate
information, as well as to apply that information appropriate to a
given context. It is both critical and creative in that synthesis, in
particular, requires the learner to take what information is known,
reassemble it with information not known, and to derive a new body of
knowledge. Students are not necessarily asked to create new
knowledge; instead, they are asked to create something that is at
least new to them.
The instructor or facilitator is not passive during student learning. The most common instructor role is to question the students about their learning process by asking such questions as: “How do you know that?” “What assumptions might you be making?” These questions are meant to get students to become self-reflective about their learning processes, thus another primary feature of PBL is that it is process-centered more so than product-centered. This may seem contradictory as “solving” the problem is an important and critical aspect of PBL. However, while content changes (especially in a rapidly changing technological world), the ability to problem-solve needs to be more portable. No one set of skills will suffice for all time, either; but the ability to generate problem-solving strategies is the “long-term” skill. Information transferability is limited by the information available; how to find and create information is limited only by the learner’s willingness to participate. PBL, by having students demonstrate for themselves their capabilities, can increase students’ motivation to tackle problems. PPB gives participants a chance to think as a practitioner. How might specialists from different fields work together on a problem, a question more germane as disciplines become ever more inter-disciplinary? It is also a question of great concern to employers.
R. Karthikeyan, et al. (2009) divide PBL process into 5 phases: 1) introducing the concept; 2) announcing the problem; 3) grouping and surveying; 4) monitoring and coaching; 5) assessing the performance. Teachers act as facilitators and cognitive coaches. In each and every phase, the roles and responsibilities of Facilitator and students can be defined. The following explains the PBL process and what is expected from Facilitator and students.
Introducing the concept Facilitator enlightens the students with the basic concepts of PBL and enables the students to appreciate the advantages of using PBL Technique. Students are to overcome the barriers of switching over from conventional learning to PBL and to understand the concept thoroughly by having free interaction with tutor and peers.
Announcing the problem or Trigger Facilitator introduces the topic in the form of a trigger, elicits information related to the problem from students and provides elementary sources pertaining to the problem. Students are to understand the trigger or problem and to be mentally ready to meet the problem confidently.
While grouping and surveying Facilitator divides the students into groups by adopting strategies, provides access to resources such as Books, Internet, Journals, Magazines, etc., extends conducive environment for learning to take place. Students are to develop a rapport with fellow group members, to explore knowns and unknowns, to investigate the problem into its minute details.
While monitoring and coaching Facilitator monitors the progress of students and provide support as and when needed trying to avoid controlling and directing their efforts in solving the problem and provides constructive feedback during the activity. Students are to have healthy and constructive discussion among peers to generate possible solutions to the problem.
Assessing the performance Facilitator provides students with opportunities to share their findings, extends follow-up activities, assesses the performance of students and gives feedback. Students are to present the findings in the form of presentation, to assess the performance of facilitator and to assess the performance of self and peer.
In a PBL setting, teachers need to decenter their roles as the source of knowledge by consciously refraining from giving only right-wrong answers and helping students observe how other resources can teach them about effective language use. Acting as facilitators and cognitive coaches, teachers need to ask questions such as: Why? What do you mean? and How do you know that is true? instead of content-laden questions. The purpose is to challenge the students' reasoning and to help them consider carefully each step they take in their inquiry. By asking such questions, facilitators also model critical thinking, with the purpose of stepping back and letting students begin to ask themselves and their peers those same types of questions. As facilitators, teachers also design problems and provide critical resources needed for the inquiry process.
Characterizing problems appropriate for PBL Barbara Duch (1999) singled out the following factors that are essential for good problems (or cases).
An effective problem must first engage students' interest, and motivate them to probe for deeper understanding of the concepts being introduced. It should relate the subject to the real world.
Good problems require students to make decisions based on facts, information, logic and/or rationalization. Students should be required to justify all decisions and reasoning based on the principles being learned. Problems should require students to define what assumptions are needed (and why), what information is relevant, and/or what steps or procedures are required in order to solve them.
Cooperation from all members of the student group should be necessary in order to effectively work through a good problem.
The initial questions in the problem should have one or more of the following characteristics so that all students in the groups are initially drawn into a discussion of the topic: open-ended, not limited to one correct answer; connected to previously learned knowledge; controversial issues that will elicit diverse opinions. This strategy keeps the students functioning as a group, drawing on each other's knowledge and ideas, rather than encouraging them to work individually at the outset of the problem.
The content objectives of the course should be incorporated into the problems, connecting previous knowledge to new concepts, and connecting new knowledge to concepts in other courses and disciplines. [1.c.2]
Problem-based Learning is an approach to structuring the curriculum which involves confronting students with problems from practice which provide a stimulus for learning. Successful implementation of PBL does not come easily. In this process, the strengths and skills of facilitators, their ability to model process skills will be tested. They should have enough knowledge to overcome complex difficulties and need the ability to explore options and generate solutions to cooperative contexts. Commitment, determination and team work are sought from the people involved in the process. A pragmatic and realistic approach together with institutional support could be of great importance as well. Under such conditions PBL has been found and proved to be a successful method of learning.
Barbara Duch, Problems: A Key Factor in PBL, Copyright Sue Groh, Univ. of Delaware, 1999. URL: http://www.udel.edu/pbl/curric/chem103-prob.html
Karthikeyan, R. Venkatraj, Ph.D. and G. Baskaran, Ph.D. Using Problem Based Learning Technique in Teaching English Grammar. // Language in India. Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow. Volume 9 : 10, October, 2009, p.12-18.
Juan Shi, Communication in a Problem Based Learning Environment: Supporting the Teaching Team in the School of Electrical Engineering, Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. 2006.
Mehdi Haseli Songhori, Two Models Compared: Problem-Based Learning and Task-Based Learning. // English for Specific Purposes, World Online Journal for Teachers, URL: http://esp-world.info