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Challenge-based education as a core for teaching and research


May 12, 2020

Challenge-based education as a core for teaching and research


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We are living in times, where the term challenge has become our everyday reality. The challenges the world is facing today cross national borders and penetrate diverse fields of societal development. However, the challenges also provide the opportunity for higher education to develop an appropriate educational approach that is constructed to address problems emerging from real-life situations. Adapting its long-standing experience and successful implementation of problem-based learning, ECIU University takes this concept one step further and places the challenge-based approach as a core for its pedagogics, research and innovation. Andrea Brose, Head of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Hamburg University of Technology, talks about the added value of this form of education.

Andrea Brose, Head of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Hamburg University ofTechnology

What is challenge-based education?

‘Challenge-based education (CBE) puts relevant challenges from real life in the centre of student learning. Using teaching methods similar to the project-based and problem-based learning, this approach motivates students by letting them work in teams on a relevant topic.
‘CBE profits from internal motivation and creates opportunities for finding new solutions to real-life problems. Students are in charge of their learning process and it allows teachers and other stakeholders to contribute to lifelong learning. The approach makes a difference and proposes a deep, engaging, meaningful and purposeful way of acquiring and developing the knowledge and skills needed for the future.’

What are the main strengths of this teaching method?

‘Students, teachers and the whole community can profit from the work at the university and new collaborations can be developed. The learning process is now seen from both the students’ and the facilitators’ point of view. That can be a motivating factor for both sides. The framework of teaching is flexible enough to be optimised for different circumstances, so it can be adapted to individual needs.’  

What countries have already applied challenge-based education?

‘Our affiliated partner, Tec de Monterrey in Mexico, has already introduced this concept to its campus in 2008. Also, challenge-based learning has emerged in Australia, Spain, The Netherlands, Denmark and Germany. At Hamburg University of Technology there are several projects and learning settings close to the idea of CBL, for example our Interdisciplinary Bachelor Project: Open Topic.’

How does this form of education work in practice?

‘The approach follows a specific structure, which consists of three main steps: engage, investigate and act. The challenge has to motivate students, here begins the engagement part. When working on the ‘Big Idea’, for example health or public transportation, engagement is the basis for a satisfying process. All the participants, teachers, students and external partners make sure that they agree on the final question to work on. Investigation makes sure they all are ‘on the same page’ and contribute with their knowledge and skills concerning the ‘Big Idea’. Depending on the circumstances, it could be possible to realise own research during this phase.’

‘Action is important because partners can use gained and shared knowledge to actually design and prototype new solutions. The implementation of the prototype and the evaluation is crucial. A final presentation in public makes sure a difference is made. The learning process is transparent for all members of the community.’

How do the Innovation of Education Labs help challenge-based education?

‘These are the places where qualified instructors of any level can receive support in how to implement CBE in their classroom. Support begins with creating the learning environment and ends with the assessment phase. ECIU University will set up Innovation of Education Labs at each partner university. The Labs will be physical and virtual spaces where teachers can innovate and implement their teaching ideas, meet peers and share best practices.’

Who can participate in challenge-based education at ECIU University?

‘At first, the focus will be on Master-level challenges. Students need to have at least 90 ECTS, if not, a completed bachelor’s degree is required. Lifelong learners can also participate in solving the challenge either to obtain a promotion in their work field, to further educate themselves, or because it is needed for the ever increasing pace of change in the work and life.’

Can a challenge-based university become a reality?

‘Yes, it can! It just needs a lot of change in the mindset of traditional education. 200 years ago Wilhelm von Humboldt created a university as we have it today. I am not saying that we are the next Humboldtians, but one has to have courage, ideas, energy and persistence.’


This interview previously appeared in ECIU University Magazine, March 2020.


ECIU is the leading international consortium of research intensive universities, with collective emphasis on innovation, creativity and societal impact, driving the development of a knowledge-based economy.