Challenge-Based Learning

Challenge-Based Learning in more Detail

Challenges start with a big idea

Challenge-based learning offers many possible benefits from establishing new teaching and learning practices which are aligned with work-life environments and increasing employability for students. Authentic learning experiences allow students to explore, discuss, and meaningfully construct concepts and relationships in contexts that involve real-life challenges and projects that are relevant to the learner.

The Challenge-based learning approach follows a specific structure, which consists of three main steps: engage, investigate and act.


The engagement phase begins with a Big Idea. This is a broad theme or concept that can be explored in multiple ways and is important to the learner and a larger community, for example health or public transportation. Next, all the participants, teachers, students and external partners make sure that they agree on the final question to work on. The challenge turns the final question into a call to action to learn deeply about the subject.


Investigation phase makes sure all participants of the challenge contribute with their knowledge and skills concerning and conduct activities to create a foundation for actionable and sustainable solutions. Activities could include: simulations, experiments, projects, problem sets, research, and games. The Investigation phase concludes with reports and presentations that demonstrate the learners 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. Here partners can use gained and shared knowledge to actually design and prototype new solutions. The implementation of the prototype and the evaluation is desired. A final presentation in public makes sure a difference is made.

Teams OF LEARNERs are the core of CBL

The challenge-based learning approach enables the creation of a co-learning environment, where the learner is the students, the teacher and the partners. Building partnerships with industries, companies, the public sector and NGOs is the core of designing challenge-based learning. 
In planning phase the structure of the student project teams has to be considered so that it serves the purpose of the learning experience in the best possible way. Student teams can be formed in different ways:

  • student teams are predetermined based on project needs and individual competencies

  • student teams are organized based on students’ preferences

  • student teams are self-organized

Whichever path is taken at the beginning, it is absolutely crucial to allow students to take ownership of the challenge – and take over responsibility for team composition, too.

Challenge-Based Learning has many faces and formats

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:

  1. duration and workload (which is indicated by the clock in figure below)
  2. level of engagement, that is the starting when student teams enter challenge (which is indicated by the eye in figure below)
  3. level of investigation, that is level of research and variety of activities to find a solution (which is indicated by the loupe in figure below)
  4. level of action, that is way to open the findings for society (which is indicated by the target in figure below)
By overcoming challenges, students learn and demonstrate what they are capable of, plus they can imagine themselves in careers that they never considered before.

Find some examples here:

Stanford Student Space Initiative (2017)

In the past, only governments and large corporations could afford the high cost of earth observation and atmospheric data collection. A high-altitude balloon system called ValBal flies for days at a time at a cost under $1,000, putting it within reach of start-ups and even hobbyists. More information

ECIU university: Challenge Plattform

InGenious is one of the ‘Challenge-Based Innovation & Learning’ initiatives of ECIU University. It frames real life challenges into practical forms for students and other ‘learners’ to work on and to come up with practical solutions for (parts of) the challenge. More information

CBL based Study program @ U Twente

The Bachelor’s program in Technology, Liberal Arts and Sciences (ATLAS) is a three-year educational program taught entirely in English at University Twente. The study program follows a self-designed, self-regulated learning concept in the ideas of challenges besed learning. It means no fixed courses, no conventional exams, no grades. More informations


Learning and working in teams

Many teachers work with groups. Questions always arise, some of which are interrelated. Therefore we have only collected the most frequently asked questions and our answers here. In an individual consultation we recommend to work out the details together.

The aim is for a group of students to become a team that pulls together and supports each other. In order to get to know each other, it is usually sufficient to put students together, let them solve a mini-task together and talk about rules and procedures.
Since it is very important, especially in intercultural and interdisciplinary contexts, to clarify what expectations exist.

  • Who brings what prior knowledge with them?

  • How do we want to shape the cooperation?

  • What should the desired form of communication look like?

  • What do the different stakeholders offer and want?

Unfortunately, usually no time for reflection is scheduled. It is only in reflection that the decisive further development takes place. Here the teacher should allow time for feedback. Only in this way is it possible to perceive positive experiences and successes and to address difficulties in order to offer solutions.

The appropriate group size is determined, on the one hand, by the framework conditions (supervision must be adequately guaranteed; the less experience the closer the supervision) and, on the other hand, by the task itself (the level of the learning objectives, the competences addressed, etc.).

The group size should not be less than five people and the problem should be appropriately complex so that it feels useful for the students to manage the effort of a division of labour.

An uneven number is helpful if the group is to make many decisions.

It makes sense (especially in the Bachelor’s degree) to always think about what you can do when individual team members leave during the semester. The smaller the group size, the more serious the effect on group performance. Nevertheless, an ideal group size should be observed, where every team member bears responsibility.

Possibilities to cope with are:

  • Team redefines guiding questions and task as well as expectations.

  • The remaining participants are distributed to other groups.

  • Teacher offers additional support for the group.

  • The teamleader tries to organize additional support to compensate for the lack of individual team member.

Attention: What effect will this have on the achievement of the learning objectives and the assessment? A fair balance must be struck here.

Students should be given the opportunity to experience themselves in a team from different perspectives during their studies. In this way, they can determine whether they are suited to a particular role. They receive valuable feedback that helps them to realistically assess and improve their competence.

It also promotes the learning process to have to record a lively session in writing or, as a moderator, to ensure a productive working atmosphere.

In groups of eight people or more, we recommend using at least the roles of team leader and a secretary. It is advisable to fill both roles as “dual leadership”. This prevents disorientation in case of illness, departure and both persons can support each other.

Students who take on the role of a tutor must be prepared for this task by the TUHH. An exemplary network of training courses and offers has already been created here to prepare tutors for their demanding tasks.

It is also important to maintain contact and exchange with students during the course. The quality of supervision can be increased in this way and any conflicts that may arise can be better identified and resolved.

Tools and working space supporting CBL teams

Every use of a method or tool means additional work and should therefore be targeted and coordinated with the learning objective. If you want to try out a new method or tool, the effort and benefit should be in a reasonable ratio. Whether offline or online we will find the right one.

Benefit from our many years of experience with a wide variety of projects, problem-based learning formats and group sizes. Take advantage of the benefits when booking the K1520 or the rooms in Channel 4 (ideal for teaching with short inputs in combination with classroom group work). We are very familiar with all rooms and their advantages and disadvantages.

We are happy to support you. Please contact us!

Preparing student teacher assistants (tutors) for Challenge-Based Learning

We offer to support you in the preparation of your student teacher assistants (tutors). Often it is possible to integrate your tutors into an existing PBL tutor training course. Or we prepare a short interactive input especially for your project and your tutors, which we then design together.

In any case, our goal is to prepare tutors for their task in the best possible way. Especially for larger classes, the success of CBL depends crucially on the tutors.


Don`T STand alone - Be part of a network


The ZLL offers you a setting in which you can spend a semester working with other lecturers on your ideas for developing your teaching. More information (in German only)


Am 16.09. von 9-16 Uhr bietet das ZLL den online Workshop Challenge-Based Learning: Lehren und Lernen anhand einer realen Herausforderung mit externen Partnern an. Zu diesem Workshop laden wir alle Lehrende der TUHH ein das Format und dessen Besonderheiten anhand von Beispielen aus der ECIU University kennenzulernen sowie eine Übertragung auf die eigene Lehre zu diskutieren. Während der Vormittag (9-12 Uhr) sich den grundlegenden Prinzipien dieses Formates widmet, wird am Nachmittag (13-16 Uhr) das Arbeiten im Team und der Einbezug von Livelong Learner im Fokus stehen. Der Workshop wird in Deutsch und Englisch durchgeführt und steht allen Lehrenden aus dem ECIU-Netzwerk offen. Anmeldung

Round Table CBL

Join our one-hour round table to adress questions, aks for feedback exchange ideas and network:
November 5th, 2 pm (CET) and
December 3rd, 2 pm (CET) on zoom.
Is is open for all partner of ECIU network.

ECIU Teamcher Channel

Teamcher of spring/summer term 2021 decided to stay in contact using an own channel in MS Teams. If you like to join please contact Dorothea Ellinger or Siska Simon.

LINKS And Addional ressources

Litrature Recommendations

Useful Links

Challenge Based Learning, A White Paper. published by Cator, K. & Nichols, M. (2008) . Cupertino, CA: Apple, Inc.

Challenge-Based Learning Guide published by Tecnologico de Monterrey (2015)

Challenge-Based Learner User Guide published by Nichols, M., Cator, K., Torres, M. and Henderson, D. (2016) .

Introduction to CBL published by Aalto univserity

Kohn Rådberg, Kamilla; Lundqvist, Ulrika; Malmqvist, Johan; Hagvall Svensson, Oskar (2020): From CDIO to challenge-based learning experiences – expanding student learning as well as societal impact? In: European Journal of Engineering Education 45 (1), S. 22–37.

Stanford Student Space Initiative (2017): Low-Cost High-Altitude Ballooning. In: Computer 50 (7), S. 26–28.

Challenge-Based Learning @ ECIU university published in ECIU magazin 03/2020

Get more informations on webpages: informative videos about challenge-based leanring on youtube and vimeo: Challenge Based Learning Explained and Challenge Based Learning

Your Challenge-Based Learning experts @ TUHH

Siska Simon – About me

As an urban planner who graduated from the TUHH, I am very interested in interdisciplinary cooperation.
So it’s no wonder that I was involved in the creation of the Interdisciplinary Bachelor Project, starting 2012.
As a trained photographer, I look closely and illuminate your project from different perspectives. Many years of self-employment in the trade parallel to department management in an engineering office also taught me what project management means in practice.
During my work as an expert for real estate valuation I enjoyed writing court-proof facts. I gained my first teaching experience at a dual university and, among other things, I accompanied the development of a new course of studies.

Your contact:
Siska Simon

040 42878 4628

Send e-mail
Your contact:
Dr. Dorothea Ellinger

040 42878 4819

Send e-mail
Dr. Dorothea Ellinger – About me

Hello, I am a specialist for Research-based Learning at the Centre for Teaching and Learning at the TUHH. Together with Siska Simon I will support you in any form of Challenge-Based Learning and teaching innovation projects.
I studied biochemistry and at the Martin-Luther University of Halle, then did my doctorate at the Ruhr University of Bochum, and most recently worked as a post-doc at the Biozentrum Klein-Flottbek at the University of Hamburg. In my projects concerning energy production from and with plants and algae I enjoyed working with bio- and process engineers. Parallel to my post-doc time I completed my Master of Higher Education at the University of Hamburg. Since the end of 2014 I am now out of the laboratory and working as an expert in teaching and learning in higher education, first at the Leuphana in Lüneburg and since January 2016 here at the TUHH.

This informational webpage about Challenge-Based Learning is part of an Innovation of Ecucation lab of ECIU university and a product of workpackage 3.

The European Commission’s support for the production of the ECIU University content does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.