Challenge-Based Learning

What is Challenge-Based Learning (CBL)?

According to DCU, Challenge-Based Learning (CBL) is a process of collaborative engagement with peers, academics, and stakeholders to develop solutions to real-world social, technological, environmental and economic challenges of urgency and significance. CBL is a distinctively learner-driven pedagogy where learners, with the support of academics, define the dimensions of the challenge to be worked on. Throughout the process, learners are given opportunities to acquire the necessary knowledge and skills to propose solutions for the challenge in question. 



The CBL Framework


This is the first phase in the CBL framework. In this phase, students engage in the big question and seek to narrow down their focus for the second Investigate phase. Sometimes students are naturally grouped into teams on the basis of their focus, other times students are already working in pre-defined groups. 


This is the second phase in the CBL framework. In this phase, teams use guiding questions to find out what information they need to solve the challenge and what guiding activities are required to find that information. During the Investigate phase students immerse themselves in researching and investigating problems and potential solutions for the challenge. 


During the Act phase, teams are designing solution concepts offering several possible solutions. The teams design prototypes and/or recommendations for selected solution. This facilitates solution implementation and evaluation. CBL solutions or recommendations should have relevancy within a stakeholder context. 


ECIU: Challenge Based Learning (CBL) to Problem Based Learning (PBL)


Project Based
Problem Based
Challenge Based


Students build their knowledge through a specific task (Swinden 2013). The knowledge acquired is applied to carry out the assigned project.

Students acquire new information through self directed learning using designed problems (Boud 1985, in Savin-Baden and Howell Major, 2004). The knowledge acquired is applied to solve the problem at hand.


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.


It faces the students with a relevant situations and predefined problematic 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.


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.


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).



CBL is embedded as a core pedagogy within the DCU Futures Programmes where it is being implemented in creative ways to enable deep, multidisciplinary learning on subjects that truly matter to students and society today. See a range of examples of CBL in action at DCU below:

The DCU Hack4Change Social Innovation Series was a series of five day-long hackathons hosted for University students from March 9-13th 2020. Each day had a designated theme (Mental Health & Wellbeing, Fast Fashion, Smarter Travel and Climate Action & Sustainability; Inclusivity and Diversity) with students self-selecting to the theme that interested them. Student teams were helped to develop viable ideas that could address a specific challenge within their designated theme.

Students worked on research and ideation, assisted by a set of informative prompts and a
customized HackCanvas created by University staff. Academic and practicing specialists were brought in to provide the students with expert insight and mentorship. Over the course of the week, over 90 experts delivered keynote sessions and ‘lightning’ talks, provided small-group mentoring to help the student teams develop and refine their ideas, and judged pitch presentations held at the end of each day.

Embedding Student-Centred Learning within DCU’s Biomedical Engineering Programme

The project is focused on curriculum development within the Biomedical Engineering Programme in the School of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering and specifically on embedding student-centred challenge-based learning within our programme. The initial focus of this project is on a masters level module 'Biomechanics of Tissue Engineering' which teaches students the principles of tissue engineering and the application of biomechanics theories. Central to this year-long module is a design challenge where students are tasked with designing, fabricating and testing tissue engineered scaffolds with the aim of achieving a new medical device capable of addressing a recognised clinical challenge. The lectures, tutorials and laboratory work delivered during the module are designed to support the project work as it progresses. Students are required to deliver key elements of their projects at various points during the year. Overall, the approach aims to improve student engagement and motivation, reinforce design thinking and problem solving and enhance creativity.

DCU is one of twelve European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU) member institutions, an EU-funded European University that is engaged in creating, testing and evaluating a new pedagogy using the Challenge Based Learning (CBL) framework. 

The first DCU ECIU pilot challenge ran in March - May 2021. Professor Deiric O Bróin from the School of Law and Government led the Challenge, with support from Dr. Fiona O’Riordan from the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU). The Challenge partner was the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly (EMRA), a local government structure with elected representatives that sit on a regional assembly on behalf of the citizens of the regions. As the Midlands region pivots from reliance on fossil fuel energy production to greener renewable energy production using the existing energy infrastructure, students must come up with proposed solutions and recommendations that can help revitalise the area using the connected nature of the region, and existing workforce. 

Case Study for this pilot 

For further information please contact Professor Deiric O Bróin (


DCU is one of twelve European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU) member institutions, an EU-funded European University engaged in creating, testing, and evaluating a new pedagogy using the Challenge Based Learning (CBL) framework. 

The first DCU ECIU pilot challenge ran successfully in March-May 2021 with the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences under the guidance of Professor Deiric O Bróin from the School of Law and Government led the Challenge, with support from Dr. Fiona O’Riordan from the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU). 

Following on from this success, Dr. Monica Ward from the School of Computer Science leads on a challenge running from September - December 2021, again supported by Dr. Fiiona O’Riordan from the Teaching Enhancement Unit (TEU). The Challenge titled - The psychological impact or disruption of innovative technologies on society- is leading edge and exciting, and attracting a lot of international interest. 

For further information please contact Dr. Monica Ward (

In November 2021, DCU Institute of Education held a two-day virtual hackathon event called ‘Hack to Transform’. This weekend event for postgraduate research students invitedparticipants to come together to solve/hack an education challenge for the 21st Century. DCU Institute of Education prides itself on being a forward-thinking, innovative provider ofpostgraduate research education. The IoE Postgraduate Researcher Development Framework identifies skills that students may wish to develop over the course of theirPostgraduate research degree. In ‘Hack to Transform’, the focus was on one (sometimes intangible) quadrant of the framework: Personal Effectiveness Competencies. These competencies include personal agility, teamwork, independence and creativity. This short, fast-paced event enabled research students to practise their creative problem-solving skills, work in a new team and create a pragmatic solution to the education challenge. The students pitched ideas, voted on the five most workable solutions and formed teams within which they could hack. The education challenge was broad in order to cover the range of research interests among the teams.

How can we ensure the most effective education experience for all in the 21st Century?

The research students used the six stages of Design Thinking as a foundation for their approach to the challenge (Razzouk & Shute, 2012 ). These are:



Gaining empathetic understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. Setting aside your own assumptions and gaining insight into users and their needs.



Stating users’ needs and problems. Defining the core needs and creating the problem statement.



Challenging assumptions and creating ideas… thinking outside the box. Looking for alternative ways to solve the problem.



Starting to create a solution via a real world representation.



Trying it out and going back to user base for feedback.



Putting the solution into effect

The teams of research students were supported by mentors outside of the university and academic setting and were encouraged to present their solution to the judging panel in an innovative way, so no slide decks! Some activities included short films and interviews with key stakeholders to show the worth of their solutions. Judging criteria were provided and a scoring rubric was used by the five judges to pick the worthy winner: FUNdamental Education. This Nano CBL event provided an opportunity for realisation of the vision for Doctoral study in the IoE. That vision espouses that postgraduate study does not operate within a vacuum, but rather within a vibrant, dynamic and interactive academic community.

To hear more about the participant experience, particularly as a Hackathon first-timer, read this reflection from one participant: Going The Distance with a Hackathon: Personal Reflections

To hear more about the rationale, format, and outcomes of the hackathon from the perspective of the event lead, read this blog post from Dr Gillian Lake: Hackathons - a creative approach to developing researchers and solving educational challenges


For further information please contact Clare Gormley ( or Dr Gillian Lake (

If you would like to find out more about Challenge Based Learning with the view to potentially introducing it to your programme within DCU please contact the Teaching Enhancement Unit.