Relationships between Language Background, Secondary School Scores, Tutorial Group Processes, And Students’ Academic Achievement in PBL: Testing a Causal Model

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Veena S. Singaram
Cees P. M. van der Vleuten
Arno M. M. Muijtjens
Diana H. J. M. Dolmans


Little is known about the influence of language background in
problem-based learning (PBL) tutorial groups on group processes and students’ academic
achievement. This study investigated the relationship between language background, secondary
school score, tutorial group processes, and students’ academic achievement in PBL. A validated
tutorial group effectiveness questionnaire was administered to undergraduate medical students
in a PBL curriculum at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine (NRMSM) in South
Africa.Although 58 percent of the students did not speak English as their first language, the
tutorials were in English. Furthermore, secondary school scores differed strongly due to
inadequate resources between secondary schools. A path analysis was conducted to test a causal
model in which the two independent variables were English as the First Language (EFL) and
secondary school scores. These variables were assumed to influence the process variables
(cognitive, motivational, and demotivational group processes). Input and process variables
were assumed to influence the two output variables, being overall group productivity and
students’ academic achievement. All data were analyzed at the individual student level (N =
387). A very good model fit was found (CMIN/DF = 0.68, GFI = 1.00, TLI = 1.02, CFI = 1.00,
RMSEA = 0.00). EFL and secondary school scores positively affected students’ academic
achievement (respectively beta = 0.24 and beta = 0.16). EFL negatively affected motivational
group processes (beta = -0.22). Cognitive group processes positively influenced overall group
productivity (beta = 0.31) and so did motivational group processes (beta = 0.27).
Demotivational group processes negatively predicted academic achievement and overall group
productivity (beta = -0.15, and beta = -0.25). The model resulted in an R-square of 0.15 and
0.45 for academic achievement and overall group productivity, respectively. EFL and secondary
school scores had a positive effect on academic achievement. Cognitive and motivational group
processes had a positive effect on overall group productivity, while EFL negatively impacted
motivational group processes. We recommend English language development courses to be formally
included into curricula to enhance student learning.

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