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ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice Number 33 (January 2019)

Birte Horn: Project-based learning in the Business English Classroom

ETAS Journal, Volume 36, Number 1, (Winter 2018), pp. 40-41

I have chosen Birte Horn’s article because of the manner in which she creatively utilises project-based learning in a Business English context.  It is evident that this project, which focusses on developing a start-up company, is a means of encouraging student engagement and collaboration through participation in numerous authentic business activities. 

The diverse steps in the project provide an opportunity for students to develop their language skills and to acquire skills and content knowledge relating to various phases of the project. The project covers topics such as learning about company structures, developing business plans, creating advertisements and designing marketing strategies. Discussions, presentations, role-play and peer-review tasks are interwoven throughout the project to promote student engagement and the development of teamwork skills. I personally like the way creativity and teamwork are encouraged. 

In Birte’s teaching context, she explains that diverse components of the students’ work are documented and saved to a portfolio and then assessed. Summative assessment considerations may not be relevant in your context; nevertheless, it is worth reflecting on the value of creating student portfolios, as they provide an opportunity for students to revise and reflect on their work in their own time. 

Whether you teach Business English or not, this article is a useful reminder of how project-based learning can be implemented to motivate students and to enhance student engagement. 

Enjoy the read!

Patricia Daniels 

Online Content Coordinator Publication Team

Project-based learning in the Business English classroom

Birte Horn

Abstract

Project-based learning in the Business English classroom can be a successful and enjoyable experience for students and teachers. Guiding students through typical situations in the development of a start-up company allows them to be creative and experience the trials and tribulations – but also accomplishments – inherent in this process. 

English has become the lingua franca of multinational businesses across the globe. As such, it has also become a staple subject in tertiary education. English as a Foreign Language and content-based classes for Business English or English for Specific Purposes (ESP) are part of university courses in numerous countries. However, students are often reluctant to engage with the language, especially when discussing complex issues. To overcome this aversion, I have employed different variations of content and language integrated learning (CLIL) as well as project-based learning (PBL) in my seminars. Students enjoy working on projects that are related to their respective degree programmes, while at the same time acquiring both language skills as well as professional knowledge almost as an afterthought. Language is acknowledged as the tool to create something valuable and unique. Additionally, project-based learning challenges students to take on responsibilities for their learning strategies and outcomes (Barron, Schwartz, Vye, Moore, Petrosino, Zech, & Bransford, 1998, p. 273). These are crucial skills for any student and any degree programme. 

In this paper, I would like to introduce a project-based learning approach, which I implemented in a Business English seminar for bachelor students studying Business Administration at the Hamm-Lippstadt University of Applied Sciences in Germany. The course is elective and designed to deepen students’ knowledge of Business English issues. 

Learner profile and background

Students taking the course are usually in their third or fourth semester of Business Administration studies and between 20-23 years old. The course is taught every winter term with two time slots being offered on different days of the week. Since Business Administration is a relatively recent addition to our institution, I have taught the course twice so far. In the first year, 45 students signed up for the course as opposed to 25 in the second. Considering that each year approximately 170 new students take up Business Administration, this is a rather low number. This may well reflect students’ anxieties of working in a different language. It also suggests that students often do not see the practical relevance of English courses for their studies or their later careers. 

To motivate students, I always endeavor to create a good working atmosphere from the very beginning of the course. Throughout the seminar, I have found that PBL is uniquely capable of increasing students’ motivation because they have to cooperate and work toward a common goal (Dörnyei, 2001, p. 44). They do not only take responsibility for their own work but for the success of the entire group as well. As the students also receive “frequent opportunities for formative self-assessment and revision” (Barron et al., 1998. p. 273), they can better recognise their own progress in language and content-related abilities. 

The project

The idea behind the project is to guide students through a number of typical business situations for start-up companies. Throughout the project, students hold several short presentations and role-play, submit written tasks, and create a business plan. All of these tasks eventually come together in a portfolio that doubles as a final assignment. Language and content input are timed to provide students with the relevant knowledge they need for their assignments. 

Start-ups and structures

In groups of three to four people, the students’ first task is to create a fictional organisation. These organisations may be profit-oriented companies, research institutes, charities, or non-governmental organisations. What is common to them all is that they are at the very beginning of their journey.  Creativity is strongly encouraged, i.e. companies may well engage in research of teleportation technology or other (science-) fictional concepts, as long as the students make it seem feasible. 

Once students have decided on an organisation, we talk about different types of company structures and the English ‘titles’ of executive personnel. In the next session, each group shortly presents their organisation by answering two questions: 

a) What is your mission/purpose?, and 

b) What is your business structure? 

Students receive feedback and suggestions from their peers and the teacher should they encounter any problems. 

The next step is the introduction of business plans. I noticed that although students are majoring in Business Administration, only few of them have actually worked with business plans up to this point. Therefore, explaining the structure and the language of a business plan is a crucial activity. Students need to write an executive summary, a product or service description, and a marketing strategy for their organisation. These texts will become part of their portfolio, which is due at the end of the semester. 

Writing job ads and simulating interviews

Following the first introductory sessions, the students now go through a series of interconnected tasks centered on hiring a new colleague/employee. Consequently, they have to decide in which capacity their organisation would profit from new colleagues/employees most, write a suitable job advertisement, assess applications, invite potential candidates, interview them, and finally choose a candidate. 

The process begins by considering what a good job ad should look like. In class, we examine current job ads from the internet (e.g. Monster.com or Indeed.com), study patterns, and establish guidelines on how to describe the applicants’ desired competencies and benefits offered by the company. After that, each group writes a job ad that is uploaded to a Moodle server. Essentially, we create a job database using the students’ advertisements. After a short review on how to write CVs and cover letters, each student has to apply to one of the positions offered.

One problem we observed at this point was that contact email addresses in the ads were designed to match the fictional organisation but could not be used to get in touch with a real person. Therefore, we had to spend some time in class to make sure every application actually went to the person in-charge. Another challenging issue that we encountered was that some positions were more popular than others. Some received a high number of applications whereas others received none at all. During the first year, my solution was to ask those groups that did not receive any applications to consider possible reasons for the lack of applications, e.g. perhaps the job title or the compensation was not attractive enough. I asked those students to develop a new strategy, complete with a new job ad, and present their ideas to receive feedback. In the second year, I matched adverts and applicants in class to make sure that every job ad received at least two applications. This was more successful than the first solution. 

As soon as the groups receive applications, they need to assess candidates and invite them to a job interview. Prior to the interviews, we discuss answering strategies for typical questions and consider appropriate body language. After the interviews, the organisations have to decide if they want to hire any of the candidates, give reasons for their assessment, and send emails both to the successful and unsuccessful candidates. 

Products and marketing

The next phase of the project is to create a marketing strategy or to organise a fundraiser, putting the focus back on the product or service of each organisation. Each group provides a handout for their idea. The strategies are presented in class and are incorporated into the business plan. 

As a last step, we discuss the respective journeys and consider future possibilities of the organisations. These thoughts are collected in the portfolios that the students create at the end of the seminar. The portfolio includes the business plan with a future outlook, the job ad, the marketing/fundraiser handout and three to five pages of text in which the students reflect on the project, e.g. challenges, what went well or not so well and how they would evaluate their work as a group. 

Student response

The students were exceptionally engaged while working on their projects. Although the workload was relatively high, they enjoyed simulating the business start-up process. Students appreciated the opportunity to be creative, present their ideas, and receive regular feedback. In a subsequent survey, a large number of students commented that they felt the project was a good preparation for their later careers. They also mentioned frequently that, though initially shy about speaking and using English, it became much easier as it was soon regarded as the ‘normal’ way to communicate. Most of the students also improved their teamwork skills. This became especially apparent in groups consisting of members with varying English language proficiencies. In such cases, the stronger students actively supported and helped weaker members to manage presentations and written reports successfully.

Conclusion

This particular project-based approach for Business English has proven to be very successful. Both the students and the teacher enjoyed the creative process and the variety of results. Most importantly, however, the students were able to retain language used during the project better than in previous classes. This became evident in evaluations and subsequent conversations with the students. 

References

Barron, B.J.S., Schwartz, D.L., Vye, N.J., Moore, A., Petrosino, A. Zech, L., Bransford, J.D. (1998).  Doing with understanding: Lessons from research on problem- and project-based learning. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 7(3 & 4), 271 –311.

Dörnyei, Z. (2001). Motivational strategies in the language classroom. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. 

About the Author

Birte Horn has been teaching English as a Foreign Language for over 10 years. Working predominantly in tertiary education at science-focused universities of applied sciences, she tirelessly tries to find new and creative ways to engage and motivate her students. Her main areas of teaching are Business English, Technical English, and Intercultural Communication. 

birte.horn@hshl.de