Embracing Challenge-Based Learning: A New Way to Engage Students in Schools

Embracing Challenge-Based Learning: A New Way to Engage Students in Schools

The traditional teaching and learning approaches in schools have been constantly questioned and challenged, particularly with technological advancements and the growing need to prepare students for a rapidly changing world. Challenge-Based Learning (CBL) is an alternative approach that has gained increasing attention in recent years. In this article, we will discuss the concept of CBL, its benefits, and best practices for its implementation in schools. We will also explore some studies that support the effectiveness of CBL in improving student learning outcomes.

What is Challenge-Based Learning?

In 2008, Apple, Inc collaborated with teachers and leading educators to develop a new approach to teaching students of all ages (1), named challenge-based learning. CBL is a learner-centred approach that emphasises collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. It involves engaging students in real-world challenges or problems, allowing them to apply their knowledge and skills to come up with solutions. In CBL, students work in teams and are guided by a structured process that includes six stages:

  • Identify the challenge.
  • Research the problem.
  • Develop solutions.
  • Create an action plan.
  • Implement the plan.
  • Finally, evaluate and reflect on the process.

Benefits of Challenge-Based Learning

Based on an extensive literature review (2), we can conclude that CBL has several benefits for students, including the development of critical thinking, problem-solving, and collaboration skills. By engaging in real-world challenges, students are exposed to authentic problems that require them to think critically and creatively to develop solutions. CBL also promotes collaboration and teamwork, as students work together to develop solutions and implement them.

Additionally, CBL can enhance students' motivation and engagement in learning. When students are engaged in a challenge relevant to their lives and interests, they are more likely to be motivated to learn and apply their knowledge to come up with solutions. CBL also provides opportunities for students to develop their communication skills, as they must effectively communicate their ideas and solutions to their peers and teachers. 

Now, there are other approaches that help students develop these skills. Most likely, you've heard of project-based learning - an approach designed to allow students to develop knowledge and skills through engaging projects set around challenges and problems they may face in the real world.

Key Differences Between Challenge-Based Learning and Project-Based Learning

Challenge-based learning (CBL) and project-based learning (PBL) are two educational approaches that involve students working on real-world problems. While both approaches share some similarities, there are some key differences between them.

Table 1. Differences between PBL and CBL (3)

Technique/characteristic Project-based learning Challenge-based learning
Students build their knowledge
through a specific task. The knowledge acquired is applied to
carry out the assigned project
Students work with teachers and
experts in their communities on
real-world problems in order to
develop a deeper knowledge of the
subjects they are studying. It is the
challenge itself that triggers the
generation of new knowledge and
the necessary tools or resources
Confronts the students with a relevant situation and redefined problematic for which a solution is required
Confronts students with an open,
relevant, problematic situation, which requires a real solution
Requires the students to generate a product, a presentation or an
implementation of the solution
Focuses more on the learning processes than the products of the solutions
Students work on the assigned project so that their engagement
generates products, and they learn as a result
Students analyse, design, develop
and execute the best solution in
order to tackle the challenge in a
way they and other people see and
Teacher’s role
Facilitator and project ManagerCoach, co-researcher and designer

CBL addresses a particular challenge or problem and encourages students to work collaboratively to find solutions. It places a greater emphasis on technology and the use of interdisciplinary teams to find and share information. Additionally, CBL often places more emphasis on formative assessment, which provides students with feedback throughout the process of working on a challenge.

PBL, on the other hand, often centres around creating a specific product or outcome, such as a robot or a documentary. It also emphasises collaboration and the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills but tends to be more structured and may have a clearer endpoint or deliverable. In addition, PBL often emphasises summative assessment, which evaluates students based on the final product or outcome they have created.

In summary, both CBL and PBL are valuable educational approaches that can help students develop essential skills and knowledge. The main difference is that CBL focuses more on addressing a challenge or problem and places a greater emphasis on collaboration, technology, and formative assessment, while PBL is often more focused on creating a specific product or outcome and may have a clearer endpoint or deliverable.

Recommendations for Implementing Challenge-Based Learning

Several studies have investigated the effectiveness of CBL in improving student learning outcomes. 

A research report (4) titled "Challenge-Based Learning: An Approach for Our Time" provides a detailed explanation of the principles and practices of CBL. The authors argue that CBL can help students develop the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world. In addition, they describe how CBL can be used to promote creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurship in students.

As a former educator whose passion is learning about learning and teaching, I find the following recommendations worth trying out to support learners in achieving their learning goals through CBL:

  • Select the challenge carefully, and make it a real one. It is crucial for the challenge to relate to the real world and for it to impact the students' families, local communities or schools.
  • Schedule the project at a time when it does not conflict with other demands on student time. If the challenge-based learning project is shoehorned in among other activities like mid-term exams, students cannot give it the focus required for deep learning. Instead, plan a time when the challenge can take centre stage, reinforcing its importance.
  • Allow dedicated work time during the school day. Teachers reported that once the project got going, students were very engaged in their work. Some teachers reported increased attendance during the project; one teacher even remarked that a homesick student arranged to be present via videoconference to avoid missing out. Students worked on their projects outside school hours, as well.
  • Give students access to technology, and provide adequate technical support. Students and teachers noted that access to computers and the Internet 24/7 was critical to the project.
  • Allow students to act on their solutions. The learning in challenge-based projects is reinforced by action, and students will learn much from implementing their ideas. Part of the attraction of the projects to the students was the opportunity to persuade their peers and adults to participate in the activities they designed.
  • Practice, iterate, and improve the process. At the outset, teachers were very concerned with how the process would unfold. They were apprehensive about giving up control and worried that students would not pick up the reins and do the work. However, by the end of the project, those concerns had virtually evaporated. 


Challenge-Based Learning is a learner-centred approach emphasising collaboration, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. CBL provides students with opportunities to engage inauthentic, real-world challenges, which can enhance their motivation and engagement in learning, as well as their ability to apply their knowledge and skills to solve problems. To implement CBL effectively, educators need to select meaningful and relevant challenges, establish a supportive learning environment, use a structured process, incorporate technology, and use appropriate assessment methods.

Studies have shown that CBL can improve student learning outcomes, including their critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, and collaboration skills, as well as their motivation and engagement in learning. Therefore, CBL has the potential to transform teaching and learning in schools, providing students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

Suggested reading on the topic:

(1) Nichols, M. H., Cator, K. (2008). Challenge Based Learning White Paper. Cupertino, California: Apple, Inc

(2) Gallagher, S. & Savage, T. (2020). Challenge-based learning in higher education: an exploratory literature review, Teaching in Higher Education. DOI: 10.1080/13562517.2020.1863354

(3) Table adapted from: Membrillo-Hernández, J., Ramirez, M, Martínez-Acosta, M., Cruz-Gómez, E., Muñoz-Díaz, E., Elizalde, H (2019). Challenge based learning: the importance of world-leading companies as training partners. International Journal on Interactive Design and Manufacturing (IJIDeM). 13. 10.1007/s12008-019-00569-4. 

(4) Johnson, L. F., Smith, R. S., Smythe, J. T., Varon, R. K. (2009). Challenge-Based Learning: An Approach for Our Time. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.