Academic journal article English Language Teaching

Problem-Based Learning in the English Language Classroom

Academic journal article English Language Teaching

Problem-Based Learning in the English Language Classroom

Article excerpt


The purpose of this study was to investigate the effects of the problem-based learning approach (PBL) on students in language classes in two areas: course content and language development. The study was conducted on 128 students, grouped into the experimental and control groups, and employed an experimental research design. The syllabus, textbook, and instructor were controlled for both groups. The findings of the study showed that in terms of course content, both groups improved but in terms of language the PBL group showed more improvements. The PBL group showed improvements in the post-writing test, that is, their essays were richer in terms of support and arguments for each point, while the non-PBL did not show much difference in their post-writing test. This indicates that students could still acquire the course content with minimal content instruction. The limitations of the study and suggestions for further research are offered at the end of the paper.

Keywords: Problem-Based Learning, traditional approaches, Content-Based Instruction, proficiency

1. Introduction

The need to try new approaches to teaching language in Malaysia has become increasingly urgent, since the general complaint published almost every day in the media regarding the English language for the last few decades points to the deterioration of proficiency especially among the youths, despite the years they toiled learning the language at school. This has also taken its toll in the working sector where potential employers claim that school-leavers fare badly in their communication and writing skills, particularly in English (Nor Hartini, 2006; Zaharuddin, 2007) and in the private sectors due to the need to correspond with foreign counterparts around the world.

Given the barrage of learning and activities the students and teachers typically face each day, there appears to be no room to introduce a new approach in teaching and learning. Nonetheless, we would still advocate the language classroom as one of the first places to address the problem of declining English standards among ESL learners. Previous trends in teaching the English language, particularly to second or foreign language learners, have included grammar-translation method, the audio-lingual approach, communicative language teaching and task-based learning (Larsen-Freeman & Anderson, 2011). In a recent research in ELT in Malaysia, Ting, Mahadhir and Chang (2010) proposed role play as a viable alternative to the traditional method of teaching, when they found their students showing improvements in proficiency towards the end of the course using this approach in their teaching.

Another alternative which is the focus of the current research is Problem-based learning (PBL), an approach which is certainly not a new teaching methodology. The model for PBL emerged from a number of medical schools especially the Case Western Reserve University in the United States of America in the 1950s and McMaster University Faculty of Health Sciences in Canada in the late 1960s (Barrows and Tamblyn, 1980; Boud and Feletti, 1994). The concern at that time was on the effectiveness of traditional science courses in preparing students for the real world and problems they would have to solve as physicians. Other concerns included students' lack of critical thinking skills in class and beyond, and courses being too focused on content, the latter easily causing boredom among students and 'burnt-outs' in them as well as teachers (Tan, 2003). In the humanities, it is still slowly being experimented, but in language it is going at a snail-pace, probably due to the fact that English language is a non-content subject and teachers tend to spend time on the prescriptive aspects of the language. This is evident in the dearth of PBL research published in language (e.g. Mardziah Hayati, 2005).

Before going further, we need to provide a concept for PBL. In a nutshell, PBL is an approach that involves no teaching; students learn by solving problems that are carefully constructed by the teacher according to the course syllabus assigned to them throughout the semester. …

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