Problem-Centered Learning


“Adults are problem-centered, not subject-centered and desire immediate, not postponed application of the knowledge learned.”


Upon reflecting on this quote, I realized that the “problem” adult language learners have is related to managing course demands and achieving results, so this idea can easily be applied to the English for Specific Purposes (ESP) and English for Academic Purposes (EAP) classrooms. Conducting diagnostic tests (formal or informal) at the beginning of each class, as an ongoing process, learners can be given choice in the skills/language/themes covered each day. This is vital knowledge for instructors, as they can directly connect their learning outcomes to the learner’s needs and goals. Students desire immediate application of the strategies and content learned in class. They often cannot connect the dots themselves and see the teacher as being solely responsible for their learning.

This quote has highlighted an important question that I will ask myself when facing difficult situation with student stress stemming from not being able to meet course demands: Will the learners be able to apply this input/knowledge to their own ‘problems’?


In EAP classes, learners often view the test, and/or the coursework components and the language proficiency score as the ‘problem’ to be overcome, rather than a reflection of their genuine English proficiency level. A common question I hear from students is, “why do I need to write a research paper and write a mock TOEFL test?” This question is revealing. Prior to enrolling in an EAP class, students often know nothing about the requirements or demands of the program. It is the teacher’s first priority to familiarize students with the components of the program in order to prepare them for success. The coursework component becomes a main focus of lessons and, although students expect to gain knowledge of the test through the use of exam-oriented materials, practice tests and exam-like items need not dominate EAP classes. Indeed, this can quickly become boring and/or demoralizing. Students also need to understand that the assessment tasks and methods found on proficiency tests such as TOEFL are reflected in all coursework components. This way they can be encouraged to view the course as both preparation for the exam (problem to solve) and an opportunity to learn academic strategies that will help them in the future (immediate and delayed application of what is learned in class).


This quote has inspired me to rethink my approach to teaching ESP and EAP in the future. In these types of classes, instructor performance and assessment are often connected to the ability of the students in the class to achieve their desired results. Since academic classes, like a Pathway class, are based on partnerships with universities and colleges who review both coursework and most standardized test results, individual students may have vastly differing aims/needs, learning styles, and study plans. Teachers must, therefore, maintain one-on-one communication with students in order to monitor their progress, and may choose to assign individualized homework. Teachers must also be an expert resource; knowledge and understanding of the requirements of the program and the test is crucial. This knowledge often leads teachers to adapt their teaching methodology and course content to reflect the demands of the course requirements, such as essay writing and test strategies, known as washback (Bailey, 1999). This can be done in part by incorporating educational goals in the classroom, focusing on content, enabling learners to take responsibility for their own assessment, and providing full feedback on tests. Therefore, in order to motivate students (tie the ‘problem’ of achieving a test score with the goals of increased knowledge of academic strategies, I will incorporate the following into future course design:
  • Needs assessment must be conducted to determine the background knowledge of students
  • Student input must be used in determining goals and assessing progress
  • Learning strategies must be explicitly taught and connected to outcomes
  • Learner autonomy must be fostered
  • Course objectives should reflect what/how skills are tested 
  • Approach to the course must be learner centered 
  • The syllabus must be multi-dimensional (both functional and topic-based)
  • Materials must be tailored to the needs of the students

Through the addition of these items, I hope to help learners see the immediate application of their learning, rather than the postponed (future) test score they are working towards achieving and build stronger connections between lesson content and outcomes.


Bailey, K. M. (1999, June). Washback in Language Testing. TOEFL Monograph Series. Education Testing Service.

Merriam, S. B. (2014). Adult Learning Linking Theory and Practice. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.


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