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June 2021 - Year 23 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Problem-based English Language Teaching and Learning in Korea

Insuk Han is a teacher of English, a part-time lecturer, and a staff member of the National Achievement Test Supporting Centre (BMOE) in Korea. She studied curriculum internationalisation in higher education at Monash University (M.Ed.), Australia, and English teachers’ professional identity at Leeds Metropolitan University (Ph.D.), UK, to draw out implications for successful curriculum reform through teacher education. She is interested in comprehending teachers’ pedagogical problem-solving processes in relation to their professional identity and metacognition, as well as developing context-sensitive pedagogies. Email:



With the increase of social uncertainty and complexity, the need for people who can address various social issues has increased (Kim, 2015; Park, 2019). Thus, Korean domestic education pursues the transition from teacher-centred knowledge transmission to learner-centred constructivist learning. This is also observed in their English education (Im, 2015; Kim, 2015). Korea’s latest national English curriculum aims to grow people who can effectively communicate with global citizens, perform self-directed English language learning, have interpersonal competency, and are skilled in knowledge and information processing, based on the principles of communicative language teaching (CLT) and constructivism (MOE, 2015). As specific objectives, it pursues the improvement of learners’ listening, speaking, reading, writing, and communication skills; interest, motivation, and confidence in English learning; comprehension of different cultures and inclusive attitude towards them; and interpretation of English information and value judgement on it (MOE, 2015). For the realisation of these aims and objectives, several teaching methods and materials are suggested, among which problem-based learning (PBL) is considered with its potential for facilitating interactive and interesting language learning (MOE, 2015). With the same rationales, improvement of the six key competencies of undergraduate students — communicative competency; interpersonal competency; synthetic thinking; competency in using resources, information, and technology; global competency; and self-management competency — is nationally pursued (Kim, 2015). However, the application of PBL in English education seems inactive and limited (Kim & Lee, 2019) in teaching different levels of students. In the current study, the researcher (a) describes the concept of PBL and its several benefits for English language teaching and learning as well as developing problem-solving skills, (b) reviews recent research on PBL application in Korean secondary and higher education English classrooms, and (c) suggests several considerations for the improved and active application of PBL for the extension of its benefits.


The concept and benefits of problem-based learning

Based on experiential learning and constructivism (Im, 2015; Kim, 2015; Kim & Oh, 2019), PBL was actively designed and practised by Barrows (1982) for educating medical students in order to enhance their professional practice. In PBL, students learn new knowledge through problem-solving processes, in which a problem is the focus and stimulus for learning, students work in small groups, teachers operate as facilitators, and new information is acquired by self-directed learning (Barrows, 1982, 1996). In addition, students address problems close to their real-life situations, are encouraged to actively participate in solving them, and are led to apply a different perspective through cooperation (Park, 2019). From these processes, it is expected that students improve their skills in problem-solving, inference, communication, self-evaluation (Watson, 2001), information search, higher-level thinking, teamwork, self-directed learning (Tan, 2003), creativity (Shin, 2019), everyday problem-solving (Park, 2019), and their career choice (Kim & Oh, 2019). Thus, when PBL is applied in English lessons, students are expected to simultaneously enhance their English language competencies, content knowledge, and several cognitive and metacognitive academic skills in personal and social ways (Im, 2015; Jo, 2014; Kim, 2015; Lee, 2017).

Newman (2005) summarises the process of PBL into 10 steps: exploring the problem, identifying what you know, identifying what you do not know, prioritising the learning needs, setting goals, allocating resources in a group, engaging in a self-directed search, returning to the group and sharing new knowledge, integrating and applying the knowledge, and reflecting on what has been learned and the learning process. Then, teachers or lecturers are generally expected to help group organisation, let the students know about the solving process, provide ill-structured problems, support students’ communication, and give feedback on their outcomes and presentations (Im, 2015; Kim, 2015). Similarly, Mathews-Aydinli (2007) suggests four stages: meeting the problem, exploring knowns and unknowns, generating possible solutions, and considering consequences and choosing the most viable solution. In Hmelo-Silver’s (2004) PBL learning cycle, suggesting a problem scenario, identifying facts, generating hypotheses, identifying knowledge deficiencies, applying new knowledge, and abstraction are suggested. Considering the attributes of language teaching, English language teachers in Korean secondary and higher education institutes can adapt those stages for better contextualisation; see the next section for examples.


Problem-based English language teaching and learning in Korean secondary and higher education

Despite several benefits of PBL suggested, application of PBL and related research in secondary English education do not seem active. Park’s (2019) meta-analysis of the effect of PBL in Korea analyses 41 studies on PBL application, in which the cases of English language teaching are not included. In addition, a search of the studies on PBL application in secondary English education through the domestic search engine ( reveals few related cases (excluding unpublished theses).

Jo (2014) researched middle school students’ formation of a positive attitude towards English language learning and improvement of problem-solving skills by PBL. In this study, the researcher applied 47 questions of a five-point Likert-type survey, and 113 student participants expressed their increased interest, confidence, satisfaction, motivation, and participation in English lessons, as well as improved ability in controlling their cognition and emotion in problem-solving.

In a study of the effect of PBL on the English language competency of middle school students, Kim and Lee (2019) researched the effect of 12 weeks of PBL on the improvement of the achievement of 25 students in their English language test. From their findings, they recognised that PBL generally positively influenced the improvement of the students’ language competency and particularly led the significant improvement of the mid- and low achievers.

Kim and Uhm (2016) explored the effects of PBL on high school students’ self-efficacy and academic achievement in English reading. In this study, PBL was applied in teaching English texts related to the KSAT (Korean Scholastic Aptitude Test) preparation based on the needs of the learners and teachers. The programme was conducted through three steps. In the problem introduction step, students defined their problems; in the performance step, they were required to individually and cooperatively search necessary information for problem-solving; and in the step of presentation and evaluation, they presented their outcomes and reflection notes and gained feedback from their teacher. Through the analysis of the students’ responses on the self-efficacy questionnaire, it was revealed that their preference of task performance, self-control competency, and confidence in English learning improved. Their academic achievement in English language also increased.

Given the outcomes of exploration of research of PBL through the domestic search engine, application of PBL in the English education in Korean universities also seems very limited. Lee (2017) applied PBL for college learners’ English vocabulary learning and investigated its effect. She programmed the course by combining an explicit/intentional approach and an implicit/incidental approach, trying to balance the role of the lecturer and the students in PBL. She specified the learning in six steps: lecturer’s demonstrating the problem; lecturer’s introducing target vocabulary with sentences; lecturer’s leading students’ discussion; students’ reading materials and discussion for identifying solutions; students’ presentation of their solution; and lecturer’s synthesising students’ reports. Based on the results of the students’ vocabulary pre- and post-tests, comparison of the results of the PBL group of 26 students and non-PBL group of 26 students, and semi-conductive interviews after the treatment, Lee found that her approach tended to improve her students’ use of vocabulary, and PBL participants enjoyed their learning, particularly group work, and were motivated to actively learn learning content.

In his study of teaching English conversation through PBL for 93 undergraduate students, Im (2015) explored the effect of PBL on the students’ improvement of interest, motivation, and effectiveness of learning in English language learning. Over the 16 weeks of his PBL course, he applied the six stages of PBL proposed by Hmelo-Silver (2004) by adapting their specifics to be suitable for conversation classes. By applying a survey of six questions and pre- and post-tests of English competency, he found his students’ increase of interest in and motivation of English learning and language competency. He also recognised that the students gradually improved in solution development and mistake correction through comparisons between different ideas provided by their peers and lecturer.

Kim’s (2015) study of applying PBL in business English classes measures 47 university students’ (a) enhancement of six core competencies proposed by K-CESA (Korea collegiate essential skills assessment) (see — communicative competency; interpersonal competency; synthetic thinking; competency in using resources, information, and technology; global competency; and self-management competency — (b) learning achievement, and (c) satisfaction with the PBL, through their experiences of a PBL programme. By adapting Barrow’s (1994) model, she formed her PBL process of six stages: introducing the PBL; posing a problem; seeking to solve the problem; working out a solution to the problem; presenting learning outcomes and the solution; and mini-lecture and assessment. Then, Kim applied a five-point Likert-type survey of 42 questions. From her findings, she concluded that PBL positively influenced her students’ learning of business content and English language as well as enhanced various core competencies.

PBL was also applied for teaching English pronunciation to undergraduate students majoring in English education. Kim and Oh (2019) implemented PBL by letting their students figure out their learning difficulties related to pronunciation, consider how to teach them to their future secondary students, and devise related pedagogic strategies. The problem-solving processes of the seven groups of four to six students and their responses on lecture evaluation were analysed by the researchers. From the analysis, it was revealed that the students were generally satisfied with the PBL and the lecturers’ practice, and PBL positively influenced the students’ job choice and creativity development, while they felt the PBL lessons challenging. However, with the insufficient pedagogic knowledge in their freshman year, the students could not create specific pedagogic strategies.

While the reviewed studies revealed that PBL is generally effective for improving students’ knowledge and use in English language and related attributes such as interest, confidence, and cooperation, they also showed several challenges that limit the prevalent application of PBL in current Korean secondary and higher education English classes. The next section suggests several implications to be considered for more active application of PBL.


Suggestions for the improved application of problem-based learning in Korean English classrooms

In order to help teachers to implement PBL in contextually appropriate ways, the concept of PBL needs to be clarified and specified. In several studies, PBL and project-based learning are confusingly used. Thus, some studies reviewed above also contain insufficient specification of the PBL concept and activities, and even some studies do not define the meaning of PBL applied in their studies. The clarification of its concept in relation to project-based learning and task-based learning that is prevalently applied in Korean English classrooms and addressed in many related studies will lead the teachers, in particular, who are tired of teacher-centred methods and trying to pursue innovative methods, to appropriately apply PBL for their improved lessons.

The transformation of the test for university entrance may increase the application of PBL in secondary schools in Korea. As Park’s (2019) study indicates, application of PBL in high schools is limited by the stakeholders’ needs for (reading- and listening-based) test-preparation lessons that are mostly conducted in teacher-centred ways. Thus, when a process-focused performance test is broadly practised and students’ burden of test preparation is reduced, teachers will more flexibly apply PBL in high schools (Park, 2019).

Problems are the stimulus for initiating learning (Barrows, 1982, 1996). Thus, teachers’ selection or design of appropriate problems seems significant. While the problem in PBL is supposed to be ill-structured and involve a specific context and situation related to the issue, some reviewed studies revealed structured and non-contextualised forms. In addition, problems need to be formulated with consideration to learners’ knowledge levels and/or thinking skills, which are essential for problem-solving (Kim & Oh, 2019; Lee, 2017; Park, 2019).

Finally, in order to facilitate more active English use during the problem-solving processes and to maximise the improvement of students’ language competency as well as related problem-solving skills, frequent monitoring and encouragement of teachers seem required (Helman, 2009; Im, 2015; Lee, 2017). With these considerations, the researcher expects that PBL could be more actively and differently applied by teachers and lecturers in Korea.



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