The English Language Centre (ELC) at the University of Macau (UM) is responsible for promoting students’ language proficiencies and for equipping students with skills they need in order to excel in their academic studies at the university and as life-long learners. The curriculum at the ELC is based on the principle of active learning. Students collaborate with each other and engage with the materials on a regular basis in active classrooms. Group work consisting of jigsaw readings, information gaps, presentations, and discussions are what spectators would normally see on any given day if they were to visit an ELC class. An additional way of promoting active learning, as well as meeting our intended learning outcomes, is through the use of projects.
Project-based Learning (PBL) is an approach to learning that shifts traditional teacher-fronted instruction to student-centred learning with students being involved in various projects throughout the semester; some projects are short while others are longer. This is an interdisciplinary approach that leads students to develop lifelong skills that will help them as they seek employment, such as the ability to work with others, handle interpersonal conflicts, manage time, make thoughtful decisions, be creative, show initiative, use higher cognitive skills, and to solve complex problems by thinking outside the box. All projects have tangible outcomes which can be measured and evaluated, although they need not all be counted as part of a student’s final course grade.
PBL can best be conducted in eight simple steps that any discipline can easily manage:
Step 1: The teacher assigns groups.
Step 2: Group members agree on a theme.
Step 3: The teacher allows each group some autonomy in determining the final product.
Step 4: Group members structure the project and assign roles.
Step 5: Group members gather information.
Step 6: Group members compile the information they found.
Step 7: Groups submit their final products.
Step 8: The teacher, individuals and group members evaluate the project.
Now that we have seen how a project can be set up, let’s take a look at some examples of projects that are frequently carried out at the ELC.
Projects inside the Classroom
The ELC incorporates a variety of projects into each level of our courses, both at the pre-GE (general education) level as well as at the GE-level.
In pre-GE courses, common projects that students work on include interviewing teachers at the centre, producing posters about their favorite books, and participating in graded group discussions. A real crowd-pleaser is the annual poster presentation that Level-0 students produce of their favorite books. During the presentation, students not only present the details of the books, but they also respond to questions that visitors – both students and teachers from the ELC - ask them about the books. This forces students to really think on their feet rather than to produce memorised chunks of language. As an individual project, the poster project promotes student autonomy by allowing them to choose their own books, decide how to describe the books, and encouraging them to present in a creative and entertaining manner.
Group presentations are another favorite of students. At Levels 1, 2, and 3, students work with group members to make presentations about art. Analysing art is a great way to develop students’ observational skills. As students learn to describe art, they sharpen their critical thinking skills by focusing on detail and elaboration. They also learn to communicate what they see and to evaluate the findings. These are lifelong skills that students can take with them far after graduation from UM and well into their careers.
In GE courses, the nature and types of projects might be slightly more challenging for students. One of the most popular projects is the group discussion. Group discussions allow students the opportunity to research an approved topic and then to present – often debate – the topic with their group members. As other groups listen to the discussion, they are actively involved in peer assessment – which is another feature of active learning which the ELC embraces.
At Level 3 of the ELC curriculum, students are involved in a persuasive commercial project known as a Public Service Announcement (PSA). After identifying a problem in Macao or on campus, students are encouraged to make an informational video about ways to solve the problem. The main goal is that they must persuade their audience to do something – for example, to clean up the beach at Hac Sa, to recycle on campus, or to clean up after themselves when they use the laundry room in the residential colleges. By investigating real-world issues, this PSA projects motivates students to think deeply about issues surrounding them and to come up with creative ways to tackle the problems with their team members.
Debate is a key component of many sections of GE courses. The skill of developing an argument and persuading others of your argument is high among the learning outcomes in many courses. Therefore, students often work in teams to take a stance on a controversial topic, to do research to support their stance, and then debate other teams in an attempt to win with the most logical arguments.
Collaborative writing through Google Docs is another technique that ELC teachers utilise to get students to complete projects. Groups of students, either working in a language lab beside each other or working independently from home, can all access the same document and contribute different sections of the paper. They can revise and edit each other’s work as they go along. One class session is usually devoted to having groups peer review each other’s work; that is, groups offer feedback through a set of established guidelines provided by the teacher or through undirected feedback by reading the online essays and providing feedback on the content, organisation, or mechanics.
In our most advanced course at the ELC, some students spend the entire semester participating in a Pay-it-Forward project. The Pay-it-Forward project aims to increase students’ sense of personal and social awareness, one of the goals of the GE programme. In a Pay-it-Forward project, students work in teams to identify a social issue in the local community, allowing them to hone their critical thinking skills by evaluating the pertinent needs surrounding them. The students then compete with other groups to get funding for their proposal for solving the social problem. The steps involved in this project include: 1) identify a problem in Macao; 2) conduct research related to that problem; 3) draft a proposal outlining the problem, suggest a solution, and create a budget for financing that solution; and 4) present proposals to a live audience to see which proposal can be funded. Groups with sufficient votes then get to carry out their proposed solutions. In the autumn of 2013, five groups received project funding thanks to a GE grant received by two of the senior instructors at the ELC.
Students at Level 4 also engage in extensive research projects. Adapting a multi-genre approach, the research projects allow students to engage in academic research and to include various forms of written genres into their final portfolios, which help students to learn to write for a larger audience rather than just for the teacher.
Projects outside the Classroom
The ELC offers numerous opportunities to engage in projects outside the classroom as well. One way of doing this is through the weekly activities that we offer through our centre. Some examples of ongoing projects that are available include: singing and dancing competitions, drama workshops, photography exhibitions, and workshops on public speaking. Many short projects are done at the English Festival which the ELC hosts every semester. At the Fall 2014 English Festival held from 15 to 17 October 2014, students had the opportunity to interact with ELC staff while doing pumpkin carving, telling ghost stories, listening to cultural presentations, drinking afternoon tea, playing games like Jeopardy and Scrabble, engaging in creative writing, and learning funny tongue twisters, just to name a few of the numerous activities that the ELC organised.
Additionally, the ELC has produced an extensive Independent Learning (IL) site on UM Moodle, which is available to all UM undergraduate students. The language learning sites which are linked to Moodle allow students to pick and choose which types of activities, level of activities, and amount of time to spend on each activity. This is a great way for students to improve their English.
Challenges of PBL
Although PBL is a sound pedagogical method which encourages active learning and student engagement, it is not without its potential pitfalls. Some of the challenges that teachers can face when implementing PBL into their curriculum include the low language proficiencies of the learners, the difficulty in finding level-appropriate material, the quality of the final products that are submitted, group dynamics, and time constraints for carrying out a longitudinal assignment.
PBL requires that teachers plan well in advance and give students a proper amount of time to complete projects. Many projects are best submitted in the final week of class. A sufficient amount of class time should be devoted to ensuring that students understand what is expected of them, understand how they will be graded (as a group and individually), have opportunities to arrange outside-the-class meeting times with their groups, and are allowed ample time to ask questions. Showing examples of previous students’ projects greatly helps as well, as these examples facilitate students in knowing what the final product might resemble.
Project-based Learning provides students with opportunities to apply classroom learning to real-life situations. The ELC isthat it has a diverse group of teachers who are devoted to PBL. Since our teachers come from a variety of educational professional backgrounds, they are all dedicated to searching for creative and innovative teaching techniques that can be integratedour English classrooms. As PBL is an interdisciplinary approach to learning, we hope that all faculties on the UM campus PBL for their curricula. And we encourage all students – undergraduate and graduate– to attend our weekly ELC activities.
To learn more about the activities which are offered by the ELC, please visit our website at https://elc.umac.mo and click“Events and Activities”. To learn more about the ELC or about how we incorporate PBL into our language courses, to visit us in E7-2016 in the Central Teaching Building.