This is a 5-6 minute read.
I teach in the School of Languages at Sabancı University where we prepare learners for their English language medium undergraduate studies. We teach English in an academic context through content based instruction.
As mentioned elsewhere this was a complex project which lasted for 14 weeks of an overall 16 week semester. One day a week (4 class lessons) was dedicated to PBL with learners also expected to complete additional work outside these class hours.
Our purpose in implementing PBL
The PBL strand enabled us to kill several birds with one stone (although no animals were hurt during the project).
Our primary purpose was to provide another, personalised and interesting, context in which to improve the learners English language skills and knowledge as well as building their confidence as productive and meaningful users.
The project also promoted the learning, development and recognition of hard and soft skills (also know as 21st Century skills), competencies, critical thinking and attitudes that foster self-directed and life-long learning.
Additionally, we set a Driving Question (more below) that focused learners on gaining knowledge that they, and those they shared the knowledge with, could use in their university studies and professional careers.
Finally the project had to be motivating for our learners. In fact, this was a crucial element – we had to engage learners, over an extended period of time, in a form of learning they were unused to (our learners come to us after 12 years of exam based education.) If they were not motivated to learn in this way then the whole project would be pointless and the stated aims unachievable.
Our Driving Question
Driving Questions (DQs) provide the focus for the project. A good PBL DQ provides a challenging, relevant, real-world scenario. In our context, preparing learners to use English in an academic context, we set our project as an academic research project with a driving question
“How can we develop our skills, knowledge and attitudes to support our university studies and future professional careers?”
We spent time in class helping our learners to identify specific areas to study that may provide answers for the question. Areas the learners identified and chose for team study included: sports psychology, stress management, chess, travel, living away from home, social clubs….etc.
These led to team specific DQs such as
“How can learning about stress management develop our skills, knowledge and attitudes to support our university studies and future professional careers?”
Teams then worked to research and gain knowledge to answer the question. They ultimately presented their research as a poster presentation at the School of Languages Conference.
Reflection is a key element of PBL, without reflection it remains project work. The DQ focuses reflection in two directions. Firstly on the subject/content knowledge learned – in the case above this would be about stress management and its application to their university studies and their professional careers.
The DQ also focuses reflection on the skills, competencies and attitudes learned or developed through the project. Once learners had identified areas in which they had learned of developed they were also encouraged to consider how they could be used proactively in the future.
Additionally, as the development of English language skills and knowledge was the primary aim of the PBL strand we also asked learners to reflect on language development and their confidence in using English productively.
As reflection is such a key component of PBL we scaffolded* it carefully providing questions to guide individual and team reflection. Teachers also prompted and encouraged deeper reflection in the team tutorials.
We asked each group to make their work and reflections available on a digital platform that was available to their teacher and group members. Here are some examples that have been posted on our PBL website with the permission of the learners.
The public product
The final product of PBL should be a shared, recognised and celebrated publicly with as wide, relevant and interested audience as possible. The learners are aware of this from the start of the project and thus it becomes an important driver of the project, through which the production of high-quality work is encouraged.
Our public product took the form of a School of Languages Conference during which each team displayed and presented their posters for attendees at the conference. The conference was held over two days in a prominent position, during lunch time to enable all members of the university community to attend.
The posters also now form a permanent part of the display on in the SL building.
As a rehearsal and to identify areas to change for the conference teams also gave presentations to their peers in other classes. It was very interesting to hear during their end of project reflections how much they also valued giving these presentations both in terms of practicing for the conference and as providers of knowledge.
One of the areas that many of the learners identified during their reflection was the value of teamwork, how much they had enjoyed working as a member of a team and the ways they had learned from their teammates.
I think this was also an element that the teachers who delivered PBL shared. The project was initially planned and designed by a small team. However, once it we started to deliver the strand all the PBL teachers took ownership and the shared ideas and experiences to make for a richer experience for learners and teachers.
A nice example is the way that as the course progressed teachers prepared and shared new and creative ways to encourage and capture learner’s reflections – more of which in a later post.
The Structure of our course