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Challenge-based learning

About this trend

Challenge-based learning can be individual or collective. The idea is that it encourages learners to engage with complex topics, leading to powerful learning experiences. In an educational context, that challenge could be participating in a competition or problem-solving project. In the workplace, it could be special project work or a stretch assignment –exploring the opportunities created by digital technologies, for example.

With challenge based learning, the learner needs to ask questions and explore what’s at stake in order to understand and define the challenge. Then they need to take action to solve the challenge or contribute to solving it as part of a team. Typically, it involves skills around critical thinking, problem solving, reflection and so on. Engaging with challenge-based learning can stimulate creativity, innovation, teamwork and communication skills. It also can act as a great motivator, enabling ambitious and creative employees to learn new skills and really stretch their thinking and experiences.

Challenge-based learning has a framework with three stages:

  • Engage, when learners specify the actionable challenges they want to address
  • Investigate, when learners explore solutions, guided by activities and resources
  • Act, when learners implement evidence-based solutions and assess their impact

As a trend, it builds on experiential and constructivist learning because it’s about learning through experience and active participation in order to produce a certain outcome. Core to challenge-based learning is the idea that challenges ‘provoke’, stimulating action and creating a sense of urgency.

However, it can be hard to manage as an approach. The nature of challenge-based learning means that organisations and individuals need to invest a significant amount of time and for an uncertain outcome. Employers may think there is too much risk, uncertainty and time involved for them to pursue it. And there could be barriers for learners as well – they have to define the challenge, which can be hard if there is insufficient support in place. If it’s a collective challenge, there can be issues around expectation and the equitable distribution of tasks. Plus they need to be given and to take sufficient time to really explore the challenge, adjust behaviours and focus as necessary and reflect on their learnings.

The expert view

Stella Collins, Chief Learning Officer and Co-Founder at learning consultancy Stellar Labs

Stella Collins

Challenge-based learning is a bit like self-directed learning and business is sometimes using it for collaborating with academic institutions. Apart from that, I don’t come across it in organisations very often – it’s more used in academia.

What L&D needs to realise is that it’s hard to do. It’s no good saying ‘Do some challenge based learning, off you go and solve your own challenges’. If this happens, people can spend a long time looking for a challenge, trying to understand if it has a good set of criteria, etc.

With challenge-based learning, you need to start people off well and have a strong framework and strategy and skills in place. Scaffolding is really important. You need to support people with their learning and have a final purpose to it.

I think it’s hard for individuals to set up challenge-based learning. Organisations are better at it because they have real projects they want people to work on and they like to give people challenges. But, they don’t necessarily want people to explore and find things out because they want fast results. They want people to complete challenges in the fastest, easiest and most effective way. That’s not what challenge-based learning is about, which is why it’s more used in academia than in business.

With challenge-based learning you need lots of reflection. It’s about having an experience and reflecting on the experience – how would you do things better next time? How could you do it differently? Challenge-based learning can be a good way to help people learn critical thinking skills etc, as long as they have sufficient time to and guidance to do the meta learning. Also, how do you integrate the challenge learning into the workplace? The context of the challenge needs to be sufficiently similar and people need the support to integrate their learning into the workplace. You need to enable them to implement their learning – transfer has to be part of the design.

When you have really well structured, skills-based, contextually relevant programmes,  committed people, and a process for measuring and seeing business results, it can be successful.

Top tips:

  • Start off with thinking about the business objectives. What is the business need? What are the desired outcomes?
  • How will you ensure that people can use what they learn in the workplace? How will you support them and enable this to happen?
  • How practical and relevant is the challenge to the work context?
  • What are your measures of success? What do you want people to do after they have completed this learning journey and under what circumstances? It’s not just ‘did people enjoy it?’ but ‘Did they change something in the business? Become more productive or better able to do their role?’, for example
  • Think about the scaffolding and framework. How will you support and structure it so that people aren’t left floundering?

People always need to have an element of struggle and challenge to learn. It can be inspiring to have big challenges to work towards – sustainability goals and societal challenges are big challenges, for example.

Professor Agnes Kukulska-Hulme
Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University


Read the original report behind Trends in Learning

The Innovating Pedagogy report is an annual report co-authored by academics at the OU's Institute of Educational Technology, and this year, together with researchers from the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching at the University of Cape Town.

Read Innovating Pedagogy

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