Theoretical Background

Challenge-based Education, by the book

The concepts of Challenge-based Education can be implemented in design of courses varying in intensity and time requirement. It is especially helpful to familiarize oneself with the Engage-Investigate and Act framework (Nichols, Cator & Torres, 2016) to implement CBE principles while designing a course. 

This theoretical framework can be utilized to adapt to a variety of teaching and learning contexts and consists of three main phases: Engage, Investigate and Act.

Before we delve deeper into what each of these phases imply, it is important to note that they are not strict silos. The phases often overlap with one another, making this framework more a guiding “recipe”. Challenge-based Education offers flexibility, as well as room for creative inputs of academics and designers of educational experiences. You can read about concrete examples of how the framework of CBE has been adapted to diverse types of courses and learning environments here

However, even while this framework offers high degree of creative freedom, basic design principles of constructive alignment need to be kept in view throughout the course design and implementation process.Throughout the entire CBE cycle of engage-investigate-act, students must reflect, share and document their activities.

Phase 1 - Engage

In the ‘Engage’ phase of CBE, students start from a ‘Big idea’, a broad concept that can be explored in multiple ways and disciplines. This is followed by the student teams asking ‘essential questions’ relevant to their chosen ‘big idea’. For example, under the umbrella of the ‘Big idea’ of Health, students may draw out an essential question like “what is required in order to be healthy?”. Basing themselves on the foundation laid out by the ‘Big idea’ and ‘Essential Questions’, students carve out a ‘Challenge’, a call to action which they use for seeking a solution in subsequent phases. A concrete challenge in the case of our example of Health would be – “how could we encourage an increase in the level of physical activity to help improve the health of our peer group?”.

Phase 2 - Investigate

The next phase or the ‘investigate’ phase is about gathering information to enable the students arrive at informed, realistic and inspired solutions for their respective challenges. These could be primary sources such as lectures by thematic experts and interviews directly from end users/affected parties or secondary research from resources available in literature or on the internet. Students can then document and summarize relevant parts of this information as a video or paper presentation to team members evaluating their projects.

Phase 3 - Act

The third phase or the ‘Act’ phase is the final culminating phase of Challenge-based Education. After gathering their information from different sources, students come up with a solution, constructively aligning themselves to the selected challenge and their research. In longer CBE courses, students repeat the cycle of prototyping, testing and refining their solution by using design cycle principles.

Therefore, while the aim of the 'Act' phase is to come up with a working solution, when time permits, students can optimize their solutions by testing them with an authentic audience in a ‘real’ world setting. As final steps, the students, along with their stakeholders assess the effectiveness of their final solution and see how they've performed throughout the process.

Adapted from the Challenge Based Learner User Guide [Nichols, M., Cator, K., and Torres, M. (2016) Challenge Based Learner User Guide. Redwood City, CA: Digital Promise.]

A brief overview of topics that are covered in this open course