GuidesTeaching guidesChallenge-based learning

Challenge-based learning (CBL) is a pedagogical approach that actively engages students in a situation that is real, relevant and related to their environment, which involves defining a challenge and implementing a solution.

Challenge-based learning offers several possible benefits for new ways of teaching and learning which are aligned with professional environments and can increase the employability for a student. Challenge-based learning offers authentic learning to students as well as possibilities to explore, discuss, and construct new concepts and relationships through real-life challenges and projects that are relevant to the learner.

In the presentation below Adam Watkins explains some of the features of challenge-based learning and connects it to developments at the TU/e.

Key ingredients of challenge-based learning

Phases in CBL

The Challenge-based learning framework is divided into three phases:


The engagement phase begins with a broad theme or concept that can be explored in multiple ways and is often important to the learner and a larger community, for example health, public transportation, sustainable development, green energy, privacy, safety, etc. Within this theme, all the participants, teachers, students and external partners work together to define Challenges. Based on discussions, learners decide on the question they want to investigate further, and translate this into a concrete and actionable challenge. This actionable challenge turns the question into a call to action to learn deeply about the subject and to find a solution.


During the investigation phase all participants of the challenge contribute with their knowledge and skills and conduct activities to create a foundation for actionable and sustainable solutions. It starts with guiding questions, to find out what (additional) knowledge is needed to analyze and solve the challenge. Then the group finds supporting resources and activities to find the additional knowledge. Activities could include: simulations, experiments, projects, problem sets, research, and games. The investigation phase concludes with a synthesis, an analysis of all the information found. At the end, the group demonstrates that they have successfully addressed all of the questions and developed clear conclusions that will set the foundation for the solution.


Solutions are developed and implemented with an authentic audience and the results evaluated in Action phase. The teams use gained and shared knowledge to actually design and prototype new solutions, in two steps: Solution Concepts (3.1), in which the learners make a first draft of their solution; and the Solution Development (3.2), in which the team actually designs a prototype and tests it. In this design cycle often new guiding questions arise, which can well lead to further investigation (Phase 2). In the final step, Implementation and Evaluation (3.3), the design is tested in real life and evaluated on the impact it has on the challenge and society. Important in this step is that the learners also reflect on the whole process. CBL cycle

Some aspects of challenge-based learning

Why CBL?

Many of today’s engineering problems require a multidisciplinary approach, involving not only technical but also social perspectives and understanding. This implies that engineers need, besides domain specific knowledge, also social skills and are capable of making connections to other disciplines. In addition, within a rapidily changing world and the introduction of new technologies, engineers need to update their knowledge and skills continuously, which requires the development of learning skills.

The CBL approach prepares students for a dynamic, complex work environment. In CBL, students can work in multidisciplinary teams when working on the challenge, thus improving their team working skills. The students have to define themselves which knowledge they need to acquire to solve the problem, and to actually apply this new knowledge when designing their solution. As a result, they develop their self-steering and learning skills. As the solution needs to be environmentally, socially and economically sustainable, students learn to combine different (disciplinary) perspectives.

Unique aspects of CBL

As students define their own challenge to work on, this automatically means that the outcome is not predictable, the process determines the direction. Students enter the real world, involving all stakeholders and community members necessary in the process. Furthermore, the students must publish the outcomes of each step to receive feedback and learn from mistakes (Observatory of Educational Innovation, 2015). Failures are therefore part of the learning experience, not only for the student but also for the stakeholders involved because failures urge reflection and thought – which in turn stimulates the learning of the students.

Another unique aspect of challenge-based learning is that it does not assume that there is always a problem to be solved; it is about recognizing challenges and finding opportunities which are environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable. This even could mean the students come up with a solution to a problem the stakeholder did not realize he had.

CBL in existing courses or extracurricular

CBL can be incorporated in existing courses. The challenge to be worked on by student teams can act as real life application of the topic of the course. When including challenges into existing courses, it is important to keep the learning objectives flexible, as students will make their own choices and thus steering part of their learning themselves. As teacher you will not only by the content expert of the course, but also act as coach when the students will be working on their challenges.

CBL can also be implemented extra-curricular. The Big Idea can be brought in by external organisations, or defined by the students themselves. The students then continue with the other steps of CBL, where good support in taking these steps is very beneficial. A teacher with experience in CBL can be a good coach. Learning objectives and learning strategies will be defined by the students themselves. What helps is when you think about assessment and credits before the start of the challenge.

Role of teachers in CBL

In CBL the role of the teacher changes. The teacher’s role is to be a guide and facilitator for the students, to support them with knowledge and practical advice. The teacher does supply relevant content expertise, but more importantly the teacher is a coach to the student team, supports them in the different steps of CBL and thus facilitate their learning. Teachers still can define learning outcomes at course level or curriculum level, as long as these learning outcomes are flexible to accommodate the choices of the individual students.


Challenges – whether they are called hackathons, competitions or design projects – are activities that challenge students of all levels to solve difficult problems and can serve as a powerful tool for education and engagement. They provide an incentive to advance technical and mathematical skills and enhance teamwork and effective communication, so called 21st century skills. But however they are called most formats differ in four dimensions:

Mini- and Standard Challenges

Some sources also talk about a Nano-challenge, a project of 1 or 2 days. Student teams start with a given challenge, will take all the steps in the Investigate phase, and will design a Solution (step 7 of the CBL model). Although this can work well in situation with limited available time (like hacatons) and will be motivating for students, we prefer to use the term CBL for the mini and standard challenge, as in these two situations students are responsible for the important steps of Essential Questions and Define Actionable Challenge (in phase 1 – Engage) and the step Implementation and Evaluation (in phase 3 – Act) – steps that are very important in CBL.

Challenge-based learning compared to other forms of learning

Various other learning approaches have quite similar characteristics, but also differences. Below we describe some characteristics of project-based learning and problem-based learning and challenge-based learning.

(Based on Membrillo-Hernández, J., J. Ramírez-Cadena, M., Martínez-Acosta, M. et al., Challenge based learning: the importance of world-leading companies as training partners. Int J Interact Des Manuf 13, 1103–1113 (2019).)

Characteristic Project-based learning Problem-based learning Challenge-based learning
Learning Students build their knowledge through a specific task. The knowledge acquired is applied to carry out the assigned project. (Swinden 2013) Students acquire new information through self directed learning using designed problems. The knowledge acquired is applied to solve the problem at hand.(Boud 1985, in Savin-Baden and Howell Major, 2004) Students work with teachers and experts in their communities, on real-world problems, in order to develop a deeper knowledge of the subjects that they are studying. It is the challenge itself that triggers the generation of new knowledge and the necessary tools or resources.
Focus It faces the students with a relevant situation and predefined problem for which a solution is required (Vicerrectoria de Noematividad Academica y Asuntos Estudiantiles, 2014). It faces students with a relevant problematic situation, often fictional for which a real solution is not needed (Larmer, 2015). It faces students with an open, relevant, problematic situation which requires a real solution.
Product It requires the students to generate a product, a presentation, or an implementation of solution (Larmer, 2015). It focuses more on the learning processes than the products of the solutions (Vicerrectoria de Noematividad Academica y Asuntos Estudiantiles, 2014). It requires students to create a solution resulting a concrete action.
Process Students work with the assigned projects so their engagement generates products for their learning (Moursund, 1999). Students work with the problem in a way that tests their ability to reason and apply their knowledge to be evaluated according to their learning level (Barrows and Tamblyn 1980) Students analyse, design, develop and execute the best solution in order to tackle the challenge in a way they and other people see and measure.
Teachers role Facilitator and project manager (Jackson, 2012) Facilitate, guide, tutor or professional adviser (Barrows, 2001 cited in Riberio and Mizukami, 2005) Coach, co-researcher and designer (Baloian, Hoeksema, Hoppe and Milrad, 2006)

Reference: Extract from a presentation by Jorge Membrillio-Hernández (Technologico De Monterrey) at ECIU CBL working group meeting November 2019. (Literature references embedded in the table to follow).

Further information on challenge-based learning