The Use of Problem-Based Learning in the Writing Class in Indonesia: A Case Study at English Education Department, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Endro Dwi Hatmanto, English Education Department, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta



Two main characteristics of the traditional way of teaching in the writing class are the central role of teachers and the passive role of students. On the one hand, teachers are considered as a purveyor of knowledge. Hence, on their shoulder lies responsibility to transfer knowledge to students. On the other hand, as passive recipients of knowledge, students’ brain is considered as ‘data bank’ in which all facts are stored. Even teachers in Indonesia have long been using the teacher-centered approach in teaching. With regard to the teaching of writing, for example, a large amount of time is devoted to explain the definitions and rules of paragraph or essay to students. As a result, students’ mind is not activated to construct understanding of the subject matter. Additionally, one way of communication dominates the teaching process in the class signified by a great deal of teachers’ talking time. Such situation cannot, unfortunately, provide fertile soil for the creative and constructive mind to grow. One solution to overcome this problem is employing the Problem-Based Learning (PBL) in the writing class. The purposes of the research are twofold. First, the research attempts to find out the process of applying Problem-Based learning in the writing class at English Department, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta (EDUMY). Second, the research is aimed at investigating the challenges facing lecturers in implementing the PBL in EDUMY. In order to understand the process of implementing the PBL in EDUMY, the document analysis was used to gather the data. In addition to the document analysis, the interview to explore the perception of EDUMY’s lectures on the challenges in implementing EDUMY was conducted. The data from document analysis and interview reveal that the PBL used in EDUMY employs four main steps in which students are; 1) being introduced to the problems, 2) exploring what they do and do not know about the problem, 3) identifying the problems and producing possible solutions to the problem, 4) considering the implications of each solution and selecting the most feasible solution. Based on data revealed through interview, the main challenge in implementing PBL lies in the increasing roles of lecturers. In PBL setting, the lecturers should introduce the problem and the language needed to work on it, group students and provide resources, observe and support and follow up as well as assess progress. Another challenge, concerned with students, is that students who share common first language may use that language rather than English when interacting in groups. The second concern is that when lecturers approach students when they are discussing, there are changes in the nature of interaction and they ask lecturers to help solve the problems. The research suggests that to face the challenges and maximize the benefits of PBL in the writing class, teachers’ and students’ awareness and understanding of PBL should raised through training.


Key words: Problem Based Learning, teacher-centered approach, constructivist learning


In the context of English Language Teaching, Indonesia has long been implementing the teacher-centered approach. In this approach, teachers become the purveyor of knowledge while students are passive participants in the teaching and learning process.

The new teaching and learning paradigm and the new expectation for student-centered learning has emerged due to the implementation of Problem-Based Learning (PBL). Viewed from the holistic perspective, PBL is an effective way in teaching and education. Furthermore, it offers many benefits to students compared to the traditional method of teaching. PBL is based on the principles of adult learning theory in the sense that it motivates students to create their own learning goals. Additionally, PBL provides more opportunities for students to play more active roles in taking decisions which affects their learning process (Mennin & Majoor cited in Mardiwiyoto, 2009).

Evidence from the PBL practice has demonstrated that different from the traditional passive transfer of knowledge, more active participation of students in the learning process is ensured. Moreover, the employment of active learning in PBL improves the students’ retention and recall. Applying the student-centered learning, students are triggered to test, search, investigate, reflect and understand knowledge in the context which is more relevant to their profession. Furthermore, discussion in small group enables students to enhance their collaboration skills (Ibid, 2002).

Since its inception, English Education Department of Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta (EDUMY) has applied PBL, particularly in the writing class. The aim of the research is twofold.  First, the research attempts to find out the process of applying Problem-Based learning in the writing class at EDUMY. Second, the research is aimed at investigating the challenges facing lecturers in implementing the PBL in EDUMY. In order to achieve these aims, the structure of the research is organized as follows. First, the literature review on the PBL will be explored. Second, the methodology of the research will be explained. Third, the finding of the research will be reported and finally the conclusion and suggestions will be offered.

Literature Review

PBL is a learning approach that has been around since the late 1960s (Neufeld & Barrows 1974). Roschelle (1999) argues that PBL is rooted in pedagogical concept put forward by John Dewey in the early 20th the century. In the last 30 years varieties of PBL has been emerging; however, the main elements of PBL have not changed (Schmid HG, 1993. As one of the approaches in learning, PBL has its own distinct characters.

To begin with, PBL is a learning method in which students are challenged with problems followed by the process of searching information. PBL also focuses on both content and learning process. Embedded in the concept of PBL is the conceptual fog embracing the amalgamation of educational method and curriculum philosophy. This uniqueness affects such areas as evaluation, research and comparison of the programs with other learning approaches.

Within the context of second language learning and teaching, instead of presenting students with predetermined language structures, PBL aligns with approaches in which students learn the target language by using it. Several approaches shares similar bases with PBL including the Task Based-Learning (Ellis, 2003; Skehan, 1998; Willis, 1996); Content-Based Learning (Garner & Borg, 2005; Rodgers, 2006), and Project-Based Learning (Alan & Stoller, 2005; Lee, 2002; Moss & Van Duzer, 1998). Compared to these approaches, the uniqueness of PBL lies in its core focus on learning through solving real, open-ended problems to which there are no fixed solution (Ertmer, Lehman, Park, Cramer & Grove, 2003). This necessitates students to work alone or in groups first to understand a particular problem followed by finding possible solutions to the problem.

In the PBL classrooms, the accountability and roles of both teachers and students do differ from the more conventional types of school-based learning. Commonly, in the PBL classrooms, teachers act facilitators and coaches of activities that students carry out. Based on the perspective that teachers are not the purveyor of knowledge, they do not simply transfer facts and information to students. Instead, teachers in PBL create problems and trigger students to work on them, assist them in identifying and accessing the materials and equipment necessary to solve the problems, give necessary feedback and support during the problem solving process, evaluate participation and products of the students as well as helping them develop their problem-solving and their language and literacy skills (Mathews-Aydinli, 2007).

Students in the PBL classrooms are no longer ‘pupils’ passively listening to the teachers’ talk. Instead, they are the active participants of the class. Together with teachers, students become subjects in the learning process. What become objects in the PBL class are the scenarios designed for triggering students to achieve the aims of the study. In the PBL class, the students study in small groups guided by teachers. Additionally, they are expected to have and develop several skills in order to participate in the group discussion such as being able to collaborate in group discussion, leading groups, listening to others’ opinion, being able to critically review the literature, studying independently, respecting others’ perspective, using the learning resources effectively and being able to make a presentation.

PBL leads to the implication in the teaching and learning process, namely the adult learning and self-directed learning. Central to the process of adult learning is the concept of andragogy put forward by Knowles (cited in Kaufman 2003). For Knowles, andragogy is the art and science of helping adult learn and the concept Andragogy is based on the 5 assumptions; 1) adults are the people who are independent and self directing; 2) adults can use their experience and resources for learning; 3) for adults, learning is integrated in their daily life and needs; 4) adults are generally more interested in the problem centered approach than subject centered; 5) adults are more motivated to study through internal motivation rather than the external one (ibid, 2003).  PBL necessitates students who have characteristics as adult learners. Therefore, the process of acquiring the competences of adult learners can be triggered by the groups’ dynamic.

Integrated in the concept of andragogy is the self-directed learning (SDL). SDL can be defined as a method to organize teaching and learning process where learning is controlled and directed by students.  Armed with SDL, students are able to be responsible for their own learning, thus enabling them to be autonomous learners (ibid, 2003). Operationally, SDL involves students’ methodological, logical, analytical and collaborative ability. SDL also triggers students’ curiosity, motivation, responsibility, confidence and reflection (Candy, 1991) To achieve the SDL, students are to develop several skills including asking questions, critiquing the new information, identifying gaps between knowledge and kills and reflecting the learning and outcome critically.

As the name implies, PBL encourages students’ autonomous learning facing students with real life problems. Challenged with problems, students identify the main issues of the problems. The main issues help students develop their understanding of various concepts underlying the principles of knowledge. The discussed issues are in the form of written problems called phenomena that needs explanation. Activities to obtain knowledge and new understanding through problem solving are called problem first learning (Dolmans & Schmidt, 1996).


This research is qualitative, hence naturalist and interpretative. It is called naturalist, in the sense that it studies the participants’ real life setting without the researcher intrusion or manipulation. Thus the data emerge from natural context (Bogdan and Biklen, 2003). It is interpretative since the researcher should interpret the data from the participants’ perspective and experience. Some scholars also argue that qualitative research is constructivist since the researcher should build the understanding and meaning through the participant’s story and experience.

The design of the research is a case study. According to Stake cited in Creswell (2003) in case study, the researcher explores in depth a program, an event, activity and a process. The term case study is also related with ‘some unit or set of units, in relation to which data are collected or analyzed; it is a specific form of inquiry that investigates a few cases, often just one, in considerable depth (Hammersley and Gomn, 2000).

This research setting took place in the English Education Department of Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta (EDUMY), Indonesia. The reason why I chose this site was primarily because the setting is accessible and manageable to collect the data. The data is taken through the interview with four English lecturers of EDUMY. The interview was transcribed and analyzed. In addition to the data taken from interview, the documents concerned with the implementation of PBL at EDUMY will also be analyzed leading to the use of document analysis technique.

The sampling used is purposeful sampling as it is selected by purpose. The sampling used was not intended as the representation of the population rather to be used as the attempt to view different perspective to present wholeness in gaining sound description (Holliday, 2007).

In reporting the finding, this research used descriptive and narrative writing. I observed and explored human behavior in particular context and then weaved a narrative that accurately and honestly reflected the lives and voices of a group of people.



The Learning Process

The first part of this section will report the finding of the research based on the first research question “How is the learning process in the PBL done at EDUMY?” Based on the document analysis, the learning process in the PBL implemented by UMY are 1) being introduced to the problems, 2) exploring what they do and do not know about the problem, 3) Identifying problems and producing possible solutions to the problem, 4) considering the implications of each solution and selecting the most feasible solution. The following figure shows the detail finding of the research:


Figure 1: Teaching and learning process using PBL at EDUMY


Stage 1: Being introduced to the problem

Based on the document in the curriculum applied in EDUMY, to maximize the language learning outcomes, lecturers should prepare students for the language demands of the problem solving activities. For optimizing this process, lecturers should vary activities according to the students’ proficiency level. The activities suggested include pre-teaching vocabularies and structures functional to solve the problems, pre-reading and pre-writing exercises and discussion to solve the problems.

Designing the problems is one of the most difficult parts for teachers to do. The syllabus of EDUMY suggests that lecturers should create problems which; 1) is related to the students’ life to enhance interests and motivation; 2) triggers students to make decision and to offer solutions; 3) creates open ended questions so as to encourage different opinions.

In introducing the problems, lecturers design tools to raise students’ awareness of the problems, namely scenarios and case studies. Scenarios and case studies used by lecturers are taken from real life problem facing students. The example of the scenario used at the writing class at EDUMY can be seen in the following figure:


Anto is a student of a university. One day he wanted to join an essay writing contest. Then he started writing an essay. First, he wrote the introduction of the essay followed by the body of paragraph. He then developed the essay by writing some paragraphs. Finally, he closed his essay by a conclusion. Having finished his essay, Anto sent it to the committee. Unfortunately, Anto failed to be a winner in the contest. The good thing about the contest is that the jury gave feedback to Anto’s essay. According to the jury, there are problems concerned with the thesis statement . The jury also said that there were also problems with the topic sentence and supporting sentences.  Also, there was no coherence and unity of paragraphs. Anto was very happy to get the feedback although he still had to learn some terms and concept of the feedback given by the jury. He was really challenged to write a better essay.












Figure 2: A sample of scenario

Stage 2: Exploring what they do and do not know about the problem

The second step of applying PBL is exploring what students do and do not know about the problem. To explore what students do and do not know about the problems, lecturers group students and students discuss several difficult terms in the scenario. There is no right and wrong answer in determining the meaning of the difficult terms. In attempts to find the meaning of the difficult terms, students are required to use their prior knowledge or knowledge schemata.

From the sample of the scenario above, for instance, students need to discuss the meaning of the terms essay, introduction, thesis statement, controlling ideas, supporting sentences, cohesive, unity and conclusion. Every member of the group discussion should participate in sharing their knowledge and in defining difficult terms. The knowledge sharing will enable some members of the groups to learn knowledge from others. In discussing the difficult terms students attempt to recall their prior knowledge or schemata related to the subject matters discussed.

Stage 3: Identifying Problems and Generating possible solutions to the problem

After students have discussion on defining several terms in the scenarios, they should attempt to identify problems and generate possible solutions to the problems. For instance, from the scenario in figure 2, the students will identify that the problems facing Anto might be concerned with his inability to meet the criteria of a good essay writing. The examples of the formulated problems might be; 1) The introduction does not contain a thesis statement; 2) The paragraphs do not have specific controlling ideas; 3) The sentences do not support the controlling ideas; 4) There is one or two paragraph which does not support the thesis statement, resulting in improper unity of paragraph and 5) The paragraphs lack of sentence connectors and conjunctions, leading to inadequate coherence in the essay.

Stage 4: Considering the consequences of each solution and selecting the most viable solution

Having formulated the problems derived from the scenario, students attempt to give answers leading to some solutions to the problems. As diverse opinions are expressed by students, they are to choose the best possible solutions to the problems. This demands students to use their critical thinking and decision making skills.

Challenges of Using PBL in the Writing Class

The challenge of using PBL in the writing class is twofold. The first challenge is concerned with the one facing lectures and the second challenge is related to the students’ as shown in the following figure:



Figure 3: Challenges using PBL

Challenges for Lecturers

The figure portraits the challenges for lecturers and students at EDUMY in teaching and learning writing in the PBL setting. The first challenge for lecturers is related to introducing problems. All research participants said that creating scenarios is one of the most difficult parts in PBL. For example, participant 1 expressed; “I sometimes find it difficult to prepare a scenario that is related to students’ life, you know. So I just choose common problems in their class like doing assignment”.  Participant 2 pointed out his confusion in writing the text based on the knowledge of the students: “It’s difficult to gauge students’ level of prior knowledge, so I sometimes feel that the text I have written might not suitable for them”. Participant 3 explained that the difficulty in creating the scenario is that she is required to select the actual problem. Participant 4 maintained that the challenge in preparing the text is the English level of the students.

The second challenge for lecturers is related to grouping and provides resources for students. Participant 1 mentioned that the difficulty stemmed from the diverse English level of the students: “In one group some students speak English fluently, but some don’t. So students who are not fluent oftentimes are silent. You know, they do not speak”. It is also expressed by the participant 2, 3 and 4 that the students having higher English proficiency will tend to dominate the discussion. “I find that the students with fluent English usually dominate the discussion” (Participant 2). In addition to grouping students, providing resources are regarded as a problem by participants. For example, participant 1 expressed: “The number of computer for internet access is limited so that it sometimes becomes a problem”. In the same notion participant 2 said: “I think books and other texts are not enough for students. We actually need more access for internet resources so that students can enhance their knowledge”. Participant 4 told that he should keep moving students to the library when he wanted to use PBL as the library provided more computers for internet access.

The third challenge for lecturers in applying the PBL process is observing and supporting students. Concerned with observing and supporting, participants generally considered the number of students as the main problem. As the participants acknowledge, since there are 30 students in the class, the lecturers encounter difficulty when required to observe students individually when they discuss in the groups.

Challenges for Students

According to the participants, students confront two problems in the practice of PBL in the writing class. The first problem mentioned by all participants is that when students discuss in groups, they are tempted to use Indonesian language. The following are the typical comments from the participants: “The students often switch from English to Indonesian when they discuss”; “When I am not observing them nearby, they speak Bahasa Indonesia”; “They switch to Bahasa Indonesia a lot when they are supposed to discuss in English”.

The other challenge faced by students, according to all participants is that the students frequently ask the lecturers to solve the problem in the scenario. The following comments encapsulate this problem: “Students often ask me to help them answer the questions”; “They rely on me in solving certain questions”; “Their questions direct me to solve the problems”.


There exists a perception that teachers in the PBL feel more comfortable as they ‘do not teach’. However, this perception is misnomer. In fact, teachers in PBL or generally called tutor, do not act as ‘experts’ like those naturally used in the teacher-centered who are ready to transfer information to students. The function of teacher in PBL, however, changes to become facilitators.

Roles of the teachers in PBL vary. The fundamental paradigm shift is that teachers in PBL are no longer ‘dictator’ figure in the class. In the nutshell of the teachers’ expertise in the PBL class is their ability to cultivate ‘process expertise’ rather than ‘content expertise’ (Barrows & Tamblyn, 1980). The process expertise refers to teachers’ ability to facilitate and activate groups to ensure that students are able to make meaningful progress through the problems discussed. In other words, in a PBL setting, teachers need to de-center their roles as the source of knowledge by consciously refraining from giving only right-wrong answers and assisting the students to observe how other resources can help them enhance their knowledge.  Being facilitators and cognitive coaches, instead of content-laden questions, teachers need to challenge students by questions such as why?; what do you mean? And how do you know that it is correct (Duffy & Cunningham, 1997). The aim of such questions is to challenge the student’ critical thinking and to help them consider carefully each stage they take in their inquiry. Teachers can also facilitate students through asking specific and general questions, encouraging reflection, giving suggestions and challenges. However, teachers cannot assist their students to solve the problems nor can they interfere in the problem solving process (Mayo, Donelly & Schartz 1995).

The increasing challenges of teachers’ responsibility in the PBL setting is demonstrated in the figure 1. As facilitators, teachers are required to facilitate students to go through at least four stages in the learning process, namely, being introduced to the problems, exploring what they do and do not know about the problem, identifying and producing possible solutions to problems and considering the implications of each solution and selecting most feasible solution. These stages reflect the fundamental changes from conventional teachers into the PBL teachers as seen in the following table:

Conventional teachers

PBL teachers

Teachers act as experts. Teachers act as facilitator, co-learner, mentor, coach and professional consultant.
Teachers work in isolated situation. Teachers work in teams with different discipline.
Teachers transmit the information to the students. Teachers create collaboration with students and encourage students to be responsible for their own learning.
Teachers organize contents based on the knowledge discipline in their teaching A team of teachers design learning process based on the ill-structured problems for students and trigger students to obtain new information and knowledge.
Teachers consider students as ‘data banks’ into which the information and knowledge is stored. Teachers motivate students and encourage them to take initiative.


Figure 4: Comparisons between conventional teachers and PBL teachers

Central to the teaching and learning process in the PBL setting is the changing responsibilities of the students. As depicted in figure 1, students in PBL setting should undergo four stages in the learning process. Instead of being a blank slate where the information is stored, students are considered to be active participants in the class. For instance, triggered by scenarios, students then identify what they know, and more importantly, what they do not know and must learn to solve the problems. In fact, most educators agree that one of the fundamental goals of education is the development of students who are effective problem solvers especially in the knowledge society (Kaminskiene & Januliene, 2006). Marienau (1999) also maintains that a hallmark of an educated person is the capacity, to reflect on and learn from experience in such a way that the learning leads to meaningful interpretations of life occurrences and informs future actions.

Roles of both teachers and students in the PBL setting lead to the corresponding process and roles as suggested by Mathew-Audinli (2007),

Process for Teachers


Figure 5: The corresponding process for students and teachers in PBL setting

(Adapted from Mathew-Audinli, 2007)

It can be seen from figure 5 that there are corresponding processes of the teaching stages experienced by teachers and learning stages experienced by students in the PBL setting. For instance, introducing problems and terminologies is aimed at engaging students with the problems while grouping students and providing resources is directed toward triggering students to explore what is known and what is not known. When students are in the process of identifying problems and seeking the solutions to the problems, teachers act as observers and supporters. Finally, when students have chosen the most viable solutions, teachers are to conduct following up activities such as individual practice of writing an essay. Assessment of progress should be made by evaluating students’ participation in the discussion. In short, each stage in the process done by teachers will implicate the one done by students, thus contributing to the success of learning in the PBL setting.


PBL has much to offer in the ELT particulary in the teaching writing at EDUMY. As one of the student-centered approaches, it has given both linguistic and effective advantages. The former relates to the opportunity of students to interact in English in PBL setting which promotes the students activeness. The latter is concerned with the increase of students’ motivation, and autonomy. As seen from the PBL stages done in the writing class at EDUMY, students engage with steps which require them to construct knowledge, collaborate, share and think critically. All of these skills are highly needed in the knowledge society and in the professional life.

Lectures and students at EDUMY cannot avoid problems and challenges occurring in the PBL classroom setting. In order to maximize the benefits of PBL, it is suggested that lecturers and students should be ensured that they understand both the pedagogical principles underlying the PBL and its actualization in the classroom. Training on PBL for both teachers and students might be a correct option to be done to increase the likelihood that PBL will be successfully employed in the ELT with more positive and productive outcomes.



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