Laura Kitinoja, Aalto University

Key question: What is challenge-based learning? 

Learning through real-world challenges
Challenge-based learning is a flexible teaching and learning approach that focuses on real-world challenges and stakeholder collaboration. While standardized challenge-based learning frameworks exist, challenge-based learning is typically used as an umbrella term for different approaches where learning occurs in student-led projects and is organized collaboratively. Challenges can be predetermined by the instructor or identified by the students themselves. Topics are often influenced by global issues like sustainability, but they can also be related to issues of a smaller and more local scale.   
According to learning science, applying new knowledge in realistic situations that are meaningful to students and engaging in activities similar to those of professionals are highly beneficial for learning. Challenge-based learning and projects typically require students to draw on previous knowledge and combine new and existing skills to reach a solution to the problem at hand. The process of collaborative problem-solving leads to better learning outcomes than traditional classroom education.  
Instead of only focusing on subject-specific knowledge and meeting discipline-based learning objectives, challenge-based learning also requires transferable skills like teamwork, communication, project management, and innovation. These are valuable skills that are in demand in all industries. Consequently, challenge-based approaches increase the relevance of working life to learning, helping students gain applicable experience and increasing their employability.   
Learning in challenge-based courses is usually not evaluated by exams. Instead, student performance is typically assessed by their output throughout the project: project plans, pitches, reports, and presentations. Reflection assignments and peer evaluations are also an important part of the learning process and assessment of the extent to which learning objectives have been met. Learning and project outcomes are supported during the course with feedback from the teachers, other students, and company partners or other external stakeholders, which helps students reflect on their work and revise it along the way. 

Different challenges require different approaches
Challenge-based learning can be implemented either as part of a regular university course or through specific challenge-based courses. Project courses such as the Product Development Project, IDBM Industry Project, and Information Technology Programhave been running at Aalto University for over 25 years. These project courses focus on creating solutions to real-world challenges from company partners. Students from different disciplines across the university work in multidisciplinary teams for several months, going through a process of understanding the challenge, planning their project, researching, generating ideas, prototyping, testing, and pitching their solutions. The final products of these courses can take many shapes. In the Product Development Project, students create physical product prototypes, whereas in the Information Technology Programand Advanced Energy Project, students present partner organizations with concept-level solutions to their challenges.   
The learning process can also be built around challenges identified by students. In the Startup Experience course, student teams create and test business concepts based on the customer needs they have identified. Students develop an entrepreneurial skillset while engaging in the actual practices required of professionals, including problem solving and ideation, creating financially viable business concepts, and building their teamwork and pitching skills.  
Different course formats pose different challenges to students. Short courses requiring intensive teamwork involve more time pressure, decrease the amount of time available for each phase of the project, and require extremely efficient working methods. However, the challenges are also designed to accommodate the quick tempo. Long courses spanning several months or even the whole semester or academic year require careful planning and time management between the project and students’ workload from other courses. Meeting and communication practices should be agreed on and adhered to, both internally within the team and with the possible organizational partner.   
Challenge-based learning requires a different skillset and process than traditional lectures and exam-based learning approaches. While one of the goals of challenge-based approaches is to train students in multidisciplinary teamwork, participants accustomed to individual studying might find the emphasis on teamwork demanding. Most project courses at Aalto University support student collaboration through sessions dedicated to group dynamics and project planning. Coaching is available also in other transversal skills: presentation or pitching workshops and feedback on drafts and prototypes are typically provided during the courses.   
Collaborating with companies and organizations
Collaboration between universities and other organizations supports students’ motivation and improves their industry-specific knowledge and innovation ability. Company projects provide students with networking opportunities, allowing them to forge valuable industry connections that could lead to a thesis position, internship, or job. Academics and industry also benefit from such collaboration. A part of universities’ mission is to act as a source of critical inquiry, entrepreneurship, and technology as well as to foster economic and social development through interactions with industry and government. Benefits from collaboration in challenge-based teaching and learning include improved research and innovation partnerships and even commercial products. Collaboration with educational institutions offers companies a chance to gain new perspectives on their products, operations, and challenges and to build their employer image.   
Multi-stakeholder involvement requires added diligence from all parties. There might be contractual aspects to consider, such as who owns the intellectual property rights to innovations or products created on the course. In some situations, solving a challenge requires access to sensitive data, in which case non-disclosure agreements might be in order. In all projects, it is important to consider data privacy and protection. At Aalto University, students are encouraged to use university licensed software to ensure data ownership and security.   
One of the challenges of working with external stakeholders is balancing the learning objectives and workload of the course and the expectations of the partner organization. In pre-defined challenges, the teacher and partner organization agree on the scope before students set out to solve the problem. However, especially in long projects, more objectives and avenues of research tend to be added on, either due to the students’ own interests or additional requests from the client. Scope management is thus also one of the key skills that students must develop during challenge-based projects. Overall, students should remember that although there are expectations for the outcome of their project, learning remains the most important goal.
 References and further reading:
Compagnucci, L., & Spigarelli, F. (2020). The Third Mission of the university: A systematic literature review on potentials and constraints. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 161, 120284.   
Gallagher, S.E., & Savage, T. (2020). Challenge-based learning in higher education: an exploratory literature review, Teaching in Higher Education, DOI: 
Sawyer, K. (Ed.) (2014). The Cambridge Handbook of the Learning Sciences. 2nd ed. DOI: (Chapters 1 and 14)  

Last modified: Tuesday, 12 September 2023, 11:04 AM