Stages & Design Influences

As I have mentioned on several pages and posts, I became interested in PBL during my studies for my MA in TESOL & Technology. For my dissertation I created a project (not Project) which ran alongside the main course and incorporated Problem Based Learning. I conducted an Action Research study into the effectiveness of the project – primarily to foster motivation and autonomy.

This was my first attempt at a substantial PBL scenario although really I the focus was Problem Based Learning. The overall scenario, however, contains many elements of Project Based Learning but is missing the crucial elements of a Driving Question and a motivating audience for the final products. It could also do with clear assessment criteria related to the elements of the project.

I could make changes to the design of the scenario to reflect this now but I have chosen to retain the original design to help me reflect on my own developing understanding of PBL.

The project was based around a wiki (for learner information, communication, group pages…etc). If you would like to access a copy of the wiki please send me a request via this site.

The remainder of this post is divided into a description of the project stages and then some of the influences on the way I designed the scenario.



The project stages

The first stages of the project are based around Problem Based Learning (PBL), which provide authentic, learner generated content for the later stages where the learners have the expert knowledge of the material (Baslanti & McCoach 2006, p.246, Hmelo & Guzdial 1996, p.128).

PBL Stages

Stage 1. Learners form groups and choose an area of common interest. They work together to identify a specific problem within the area they would like to investigate further to find potential solutions.

Outcome:            a. Write the problem on their group wiki page.

                                b. Write the areas each group member will research on the wiki page.

                                c. Record at least five minutes of the group discussion. Post on wiki page.

Stage 2. Learners are given input on finding academic articles by the university library staff. They then identify an academic article and podcast / video related specific to their chosen area of research. Learners individually read and listen to research texts then summarise them.

Outcome:            Summarise main points and post on the wiki along with links to the original texts.

Stage 3. Learners meet together to discuss their research findings in order to suggest a solution to the original problem.

Outcome:            a. Record at least five minutes of the group discussion. Post on wiki page.

                                b. Write a summary of the proposed solution on the wiki.

Post PBL stages

Stage 4. Groups work together to plan and deliver a presentation of their problem, research and solution.

Outcome:           a. Groups deliver presentation in class or use online screen capture presentation tools.

                               b. Post presentations on wiki.

                               c. Invite feedback from peers via the wiki page comments function.

Stage 5. Groups work collaboratively to produce a written report of their problem to supplement the presentation.

Outcome:            Group report written / hosted on the wiki.

Stage 6. Learners write a review of a piece of software they have used on the project. This then becomes part of a repository for future learners completing the task.

Outcome:            Learners write their reviews on Software Review wiki page.

Stage 7. Individual reflection on the project and learning arising.

Outcome:            Learners post individual reflections on their wiki.



Influences on Project Design


Choice ranged from group selection of topic areas, the design of their wiki-pages, to the way learners accomplished the stage outcomes. Each stage had clear outcomes but the method of achievement was not prescribed. I provided suggestions of software they may have wished to use, but the tasks could be completed without using new applications other than the wiki.

Communication, Monitoring & Input

The primary affordance of the wiki was for communication. A criticism of PBL has been that it is heavily staff intensive (Hmelo-Silver 2004, p. 261) requiring at least one facilitator working with a single group. The wiki provides a space where the results of learner work is stored and I, as the teacher, could monitor progress unobtrusively. A central wiki page contained a checklist of tasks and outcomes, where groups indicated their progress. The wiki sent e-mail updates when pages were changed. The comment feature on each group page also allowed me to communicate directly with each group and provide positive feedback as well as input.


This project was influenced by analogy with the ideas of complexity theory, specifically emergence where outcomes from complex interactions cannot be predicted. Learning environments are complex places (Morrison 2008, p.19) where the learning that actually occurs cannot be predicted or prescribed. However, unintended or unplanned learning should be recognised, valued and encouraged (Wilson et al 2008, p.41). The tasks created sub-systems within which such emergent learning experiences could arise allowing the learners to reflect on their specific learning and its meaning for them (Tudor 2003, p.9).

Collaboration and Peer-Support

The wiki was a safe environment which was accessible only by those invited. It was a transparent environment where members of other groups could view other groups’ work, engaging and sharing ideas through constructive comments and questioning.


The project was a complex task which was not simplified. Rather it was scaffolded into achievable stages which contributed to overall achievement. The wiki provided a venue for comprehensive and comprehensible instruction, examples of task completion as well as ways to get assistance.

Learning Opportunities

The project existed primarily as vehicle to promote learning English, in addition to ‘Twenty-First Century Skills’ such as information and digital literacy, team working, research and presentation skills, time and project management. My research investigated the project’s ancillary contribution to fostering motivation and autonomy.

Blurring Learning Boundaries

The project spanned physical and virtual environments. Linguistic input, recycling and stage task setting were primarily classroom-based, however, the majority of the projectwork took place outside the physical classroom. Groups could choose the way they worked – either working collaboratively face-to-face or using the affordances of Web 2.0 technology to collaborate virtually.


Related Posts

This is a page displaying images from the wiki used for the project.

This project was very much an example of learning by doing. It did not all go as I expected but I learned a great deal. I will discuss this in this post – My First Attempt at PBL – What did I learn?



Baslanti, U & McCoach, D 2006, ‘Factors related to the underachievement of university students in Turkey’, Roeper Review, vol. 28 no. 4, pp.210-215.

Hmelo, C E & Guzdial, M 1996, ‘Of Black and Glass Boxes: Scaffolding For Doing and Learning.’, ICLS ’96 Proceedings of the 1996 international conference on Learning sciences, viewed 4th May 2011, <>.

Hmelo-Silver, C E 2004, ‘Problem-Based Learning: What and How Do Students Learn?’, Educational Psychology Review, Vol. 16 No. 3,pp.253-266.

Morrison, K 2008, “Educational Philosophy and the Challange of Complexity Theory”, in M Mason (ed), Complexity Theory and the Philosophy of Education, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford, pp.124-136.

Tudor, I 2003, ‘Learning to live with complexity: towards an ecological perspective on language teaching’, System, vol.31, pp.1-12.

Wilson, B Parrixh, P & Veletsianos, G 2008, ‘Raising the bar for instructional outcomes: Towards transformative learning experiences’, Educational Technology, vol.48 no.3, pp.39-44.

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