Challenge-based Education: What, Why and How?

What is it?

Challenge-based education (CBE) is a teaching and learning strategy in which students identify a  complex, social challenge, for which they develop and implement an innovative and interdisciplinary solution. To reach this solution, students work together with peers, teachers, and external experts and delve into different disciplines. The process of finding solutions to challenges  helps students to develop deeper content-related  expertise as well as essential generic skills such as creativity, collaboration and communication. The term challenge-based education is often used interchangeably with challenge-based learning (CBL).

Some aspects set CBE apart from other teaching and learning approaches:

  • students work on a complex, real-world challenge on a topic of global importance (e.g. energy and circular economy, health and well-being, climate change…). Even lecturers or experts do not have a ready-made solution for the challenges students define during the process;
  • multidisciplinarity: different perspectives and ways of thinking are introduced to the learning process, e.g. by involving students of various disciplines or by approaching a problem from multiple perspectives;
  • CBE calls for collaboration as it rallies together students, lecturers and external stakeholders like regional actors, NGOs and businesses. These stakeholders contribute to student learning by posing real-life challenges to them;
  • CBE requires flexibility from all parties involved since the ‘solutions’ to the proposed challenges are not predetermined;
  • innovative and creative: students are encouraged to think out of the box;
  • lecturers often act as coaches, facilitating the process.

Why CBE?

Our world and society are constantly changing and evolving, which requires professionals who not only possess in-depth content-related knowledge, but also generic competences. The latter include critical thinking, intercultural awareness, societal engagement, entrepreneurship and communication. Therefore, CBE is often credited with helping create a “T-shaped professional”. CBE serves as an excellent tool to enhance competencies that are of importance in our current  - and future - society.

Additionally, students gain opportunities to build networks and apply skills in an authentic environment along with showing higher engagement and motivation in this form of education. Lecturers also benefit from using CBE as they develop their teaching & coaching skills along with creating broader professional networks for themselves.

The focus of CBE goes beyond generating an 'optimal' solution for a real-life challenge. The heart of CBE remains the process leading to the solution, where students work collaboratively, and gain a host of new skills and knowledge. 

How to Use CBE?

CBE consists of three phases that students and lecturers go through, according to the framework proposed by Nichols, Cator and Torres (2016).

1. Engage

In this first phase, students explore a broad concept (“big idea”) and pose related essential questions. On the basis of this, they arrive at a concrete challenge (“challenge”) for which they try and formulate a “solution” in the following phases. For example, the broad concept of Health could lead to the essential question: What does it take to be healthy? This could lead up to a possible challenge: How can we encourage physical activity to improve health in the 18-25 age group?

2. Investigate

In this phase, students conduct research to gather information that can help them come up with innovative solutions to the challenge. Their sources can range from academic-scientific literature and popular media to thematic lectures taken by experts along with interviews with stakeholders. Students can get started themselves, but lecturers can also support them by providing certain resources.

3. Act

In the last phase, the students design and develop solutions, and in ideal scenarios also implement them in an authentic environment. In longer CBE course units, there may be multiple cycles where students design, test and adjust a prototype. Finally, the process and effectiveness of the solution is evaluated together with stakeholders.


It is important to note that these three phases are not strictly separated, but overlap in most cases. Throughout the process, the students reflect, document and share their activities.

Customisable CBE

Educators can utilise the CBE framework in several ways, ranging from embedding a few aspects in existing courses to designing complete courses founded on the CBE framework. 

Each teaching context has different needs and goals. That is why there are degrees of freedom within each of the phases that provide the space to ask certain questions and design the learning experience accordingly. For example:

  • is there multidisciplinary collaboration within the faculty, across faculty  boundaries or even internationally?
  • how long does the CBE part take? This can range from one session to a full term or even longer;
  • will external stakeholders be given a prominent role in the process?
  • is the challenge defined by the students or by the lecturer? In the latter case, the first phase is essentially skipped;
  • are guiding resources provided by the lecturers or by external stakeholders?
  • are there redesign cycles for the students' solution?
  • how are the students assessed? 

Important considerations

  • expect a high level of uncertainty for both students and lecturers as the process is significantly student-driven;
  • in CBE, groups of students are often guided by coaches, which requires a different approach than traditional teaching;
  • align the goals of external stakeholders well with the goals of the course;
  • to make international collaborations possible, extra logistical support is often required. Think of an online platform for collaboration, administrative matters, travel and accommodation, etc;
  • multidisciplinary groups often make it more difficult to provide subject-specific feedback;
  • CBE requires a significantly greater time investment than traditional teaching methods.

Want to Know More?

Ghent University also offers a training on CBE as part of the central offer for educators: see here.

ENLIGHT is a network of nine European universities with the mission to educate students to become globally engaged citizens with 21st-century skills, and to ensure free exchange between universities. CBE is an important part of this project. Take a look at this page and the ENLIGHT website to learn more about ENLIGHT and what the network can mean for you.

Here you will find a short manual for CBE.

Here you will find an toolbox for coaching in CBE, which includes both (online) teambuilding activities and activities to strengthen psychological safety, as well as activities that fit the engage-investigate-act phases.

Last modified July 14, 2023, 1:54 p.m.