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‘Whose learning is it anyway?’ Problem Based Learning for Language Learning Materials Development. Freda Mishan, English Language Teaching/Linguistics School of Languages, Literature, Culture and Communication, AHSS. PBL  CONSTRUCTIVISM ‘And the best thing is, we get to work in a team!’.

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‘Whose learning is it anyway?’ Problem Based Learning for Language Learning Materials Development

Freda Mishan, English Language Teaching/Linguistics

School of Languages, Literature, Culture and Communication, AHSS


‘And the best thing is, we get to work in a team!’

Learning is … a process ofconstructing knowledge in social environments

… a collaborativeconstructionof knowledge

Knowledge evolves through social negotiation

? problem ?



 Teacher Education: Professional Development

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Constructivism problem based learning philosophy in action
Constructivism Problem-Based LearningPhilosophy in action

PBL principles:

  • Learners are active builders of knowledge

  • Knowledge is acquired in meaningful contexts

  • Learners have opportunities for elaboration and organization of knowledge

  • Prior knowledge is activated and new knowledge is built upon it

  • The core of the learning is on the process and skills rather than on the contents

    Drawn on Charlin et al., 1998 Helela and Fagerholm, 2008

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Developing the problem cf trigger
Developing the problem (cf trigger)


? The Problem ?


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Materials development module learning outcomes

MA ELT University of Limerick



On successful completion of this module students should be able to demonstrate the ability to

  • Apply theoretical knowledge (of second language learning theory) to practice

  • Identify and specify the needs and wants of learner groups with whom they are familiar

  • Develop criteria for the evaluation of language teaching materials

  • Apply these criteria to critically evaluate language teaching materials, in particular coursebooks

  • Design materials for supplementation and adaptation of coursebooks

  • Design learning activities on a continuum from single self-contained activity to free-standing unit

  • Creatively engage with language teaching materials

  • Pilot, reflect on and revise designed materials


    On successful completion of this module students should be able to demonstrate

  • An appreciation of the needs and wants of learner groups with whom they are familiar

  • A capacity for self-reflection and self-criticism

  • An ability to appreciate feedback constructively

  • An ability to creatively engage with the language teaching materials design process


    On successful completion of this module students should be able to

  • Produce and present original, engaging and attractive language teaching materials

  • Pilot designed materials using appropriate resources and tools

  • Integrate original materials into the language learning syllabus

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Elements of the approach
Elements of the approach

  • Tutor inputs

  • Self- and Peer Assessments (mid/end semester)

    • Forms adapted from Matti Helela, Haaga-Helia University of Applied Sciences, Finland

  • Assessment of the materials created (end semester)

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The solution to the problem
The Solution to the Problem


‘Our solution’

Rationale for coursebook approach

Tutorial (how to use)


Username: teacher

Password: maelt

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Pbl what the students thought
PBL: What the students thought

Recurring issues (students)

  • Teamwork esp. leadership, structuring discussions, team players, shared workload

  • Feedback - giving, receiving, compromise

    Tutor issue

  • Assessment - weighting

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Teamwork group dynamics
Teamwork: Group dynamics

It can be difficult to communicate and progress within a group

One of the group’s key problems is that meetings have tended to finish without any agreement on work to be done

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Teamwork group dynamics1
Teamwork: Group dynamics

Our group became more comfortable with each other as the project progressed and we were more open with our opinions and feelings … this was a valuable learning experience

[PBL approach] has been a great learning experience … provided invaluable insight to working with peers towards a group goal… I’ve learned a lot about group dynamics

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Teamwork l eadership
Teamwork: Leadership

…Solidified the need to have a clearly defined leader within a group of this size

…without having anyone step up as the leader was beginning to stunt our creativity*

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Teamwork team players
Teamwork: Team players?

X did not share her new-found knowledge of website design with the group … we could have shared the workload … when X realised others were not contributing sufficiently, X took it upon him/herself to do more, which in my opinion is not the correct approach

Y sometimes decides and implements things without consulting others, s/he could become more of a team player

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Feedback compromise
Feedback: compromise

I’ve learned that there is never only one way of doing things and how to combine various approaches

It is complicated working in a group because some people’s ideas will always clash with somebody else’s. it is a continual effort to ensure your lesson turns out as envisioned without too many amendments

I think there is an underlying lack of confidence both collectively and individually that stops [us] from being critical and attempting to give feedback

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Feedback compromise1
Feedback: compromise

It is never easy to give critical feedback without making the other person defensive

I try to always give constructive feedback but sometimes will reserve my true feelings and judgement if I am concerned about hurting their feelings… this is an area where I need improvement

as a result of the general reluctance to give feedback, I didn’t learn from it as much as I’d hoped

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Peer assessment the good the bad and the ugly
Peer assessmentthe good, the bad and the ugly

E has carried the weight of some of the weaker members and done a good job keeping the group on task

I would commend E on his/her ability to stay focused and guide others to do the same

F is very effective at generating ideas

G is very creative and has an artistic flair

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Peer assessment the good the bad and the ugly1
Peer assessmentthe good, the bad and the ugly

C finds it difficult to stay focused and …this can cause frustration for other group members

At times H could implement his/her ideas sooner … s/he could make decisions more promptly

At times D seems to fall into his/her own tried and tested comfort zone

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Peer assessment the good the bad and the ugly2
Peer assessmentthe good, the bad andthe ugly

B lacks in creativity and finds it difficult to think outside the box

Y [had] a somewhat lackadaisical approach… Y remained somewhat anonymous in the project, without truly putting his/her individual stamp on it

X lacked … charisma, enthusiasm and initiative that others displayed readily

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Learning skills
Learning skills

Teamwork is a crucial tool for personal development (B2)

I liked the fact that we hadthe opportunity to work on aproject and develop ourteamwork skills

I can say now that I have improved my collaborative skills … I learned how to share my findings

I learned to think in a more critical manner and eliminate unsuitable suggestions, something I found difficult at the outset

It’s probably a good idea to work with someone else as skills can compliment each other e.g. creativity and logical approaches

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I learned how to share my findings with the goal of improving our unit

I hope that our unit will be different from existing coursebooks and appeal to students

Original Irish photographs and authentic text … make (the site) unique

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Student perceptions of the tutor s role
Student perceptions of the tutor’s role

The approach of the lecturer is encouraging, motivating and challenging (SM evaluation)



Subject knowledge

Encourages interaction

Actively helpful

(CTL evaluation)

= leading from behind

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Effect of pbl approach on materials designed
EFFECT of PBL approach on materials designed


The fact that the materials designed by different people … gives the material a level of variety …. (central to good lessons)

Our different styles and approaches should be able to create an innovative, unique course unit

… & CONS

Inconsistencies, in creativity, variety of materials and [teacher’s notes] … as a result of many different co-creators

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Use of pbl in the learning materials
Use of PBL in the learning materials?

I did contribute ideas to incorporate PBL

I have drawn on my research of constructivism and the practical application of this theory to PBL throughout the task

We have tried … and generally succeeded in producing materials that allow students to discover for themselves

We also implemented experiential learning (‘learning by doing’)

We adopted a TBL approach to allow students to discover for themselves 

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Pbl and tbl

Task based learning* - ‘language pedagogy version of PBL’

*Prabhu 1987, Willis 1996, Ellis 2003


Has an objective obtainable only by the interaction among participants, focuses on meaning exchange, requires learners to comprehend, manipulate and/or produce the TL as they perform some set of workplans

Based on Lee 2000

A goal-oriented, meaning-focused activity requiring learner interaction and use of language to attain an objective

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Pbl and tbl1

Task relies on ‘sleight of hand’ Ellis 2003

We convince learners what matters is the outcome of task whereas it is the means by which this is achieved (the language use) that helps promote learning

The core of the learning in PBL is more on the process and skills rather than on the contents... the contents serve the learning process skills

Helela & Fagerholm 2008



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Conclusion pbl for md
Conclusion: PBL for MD?

Over the course of 15 weeks my enthusiasm for PBL has not waned

I found the course enjoyable and beneficial

I have greatly enjoyed the project and module. I have maintained a high level of interest and motivation throughout

I think the nature of the course lends itself well to this approach*

I think the approach was perfect

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Conclusion pbl for md1
Conclusion: PBL for MD?

Through this collaborative process we could identify our individual strengths and weaknesses and mould our coursebook accordingly

This project has been a great learning experience as it has not only taught me a lot about Materials Development but also provided a valuable insight to working with peers towards a group goal

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Conclusion pbl for md2
Conclusion: PBL for MD?


It seemed like the lecturer was looking for us to go through some process of reflection, particularly for the self-assessment. It wasn't made all that clear what the process was, and what the lecturer wanted to see evidence of

‘teachers should model reflective thinking throughout the learning process and support the learners in reflecting on the strategies for learning as well as what was learned’ Savery & Duffy 2001 p6

 need for more training & direction in self-reflection

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Pbl hybrid for materials development
PBL ‘hybrid’ for Materials Development

Staggered inputs esp rubric writing

 Group roles

 Tutor role - leading from behind

 Reflect on reflection

 Assessment weightings

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Barrett, T, in T Mac Labhrainn, I. and Fallon, H (eds). (2005) Handbook of Enquiry and Problem-based Learning Irish Case Studies and International Perspectives, All Ireland Society for Higher Education. http://www.aishe.org/readings/2005-2/contents.html

Centre for Excellence in Enquiry-Based Learning, University of Manchesterhttp://www.campus.manchester.ac.uk/ceebl/resources/languages/

Charlin, B, Mann, K. and Hansen, P. (1998) ‘The many faces of problem-based learning: a framework for understanding and comparison’, Medical Teacher., 20(4), 323-330.

Helelä, M and Fagerholm, H. (2007), Tracing the Roles of the PBL Tutor. A Journey of Learning, HAAGA-HELIA University of Applied Sciences.

Larsson, J. (2001) Problem-Based Learning: A possible approach to language education? Polonia Institute, Jagiellonian University.

Mathews-Aydinli, J. (2007) ‘Problem-Based Learning and adult English language learners’, Center for Adult English Language Acquisition (CAELA), Washington. http://www.cal.org/caela/esl_resources/briefs/problembased.html

  • Mishan, F. Withstanding washback: Thinking outside the box in materials development (2010 forthcoming) in Tomlinson, B and Masuhara, H. Research in Materials Development for Language Teaching, Continuum

    Savery, J. and Duffy T. M. (2001) ‘Problem Based Learning: An instructional model and its constructivist framework’, CRLT Technical Report No. 16-01,http://crlt.indiana.edu/publications/journals/TR16-01.pdf

    THE MATERIALS:http://maelt.yolasite.com/

TEACHERS SITE: Username: teacher Password: maelt

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