About CBL

Challenge Based Learning is an engaging multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning that encourages students to leverage the technology they use in their daily lives to solve real-world problems through efforts in their homes, schools and communities.

  • Overview
  • Key Elements
  • Process
  • Research

Traditional teaching and learning models are becoming increasingly ineffective with a generation of students who have instant access to vast amounts of information, embrace the roles of content producer and publisher and have access to extensive online social networks.

Today, students are often faced with assignments and assessments that lack a real-world context. Many of these students either learn to do just enough to get by or they lose interest altogether and drop out. In this interconnected world, with ubiquitous access to powerful technologies, new models of teaching and learning are possible, and engagement is paramount to meeting the needs of more students.

Outside of school, students encounter very different models of teaching and learning. Online learning communities revolving around the passions and skills of the participants appear, evolve and expand as needed without the constraints of time or physical location. Students embrace media where participants are presented with a challenge requiring them to draw on prior learning, acquire new knowledge, and tap their creativity to develop and implement solutions. Cable and network television have capitalized on this formula with shows focused on topics ranging from cooking, to designing clothes, to participants working to solve real-world business challenges. To address the need to create new ways of engaging students to achieve, Apple worked with educators across the country to develop the concept of Challenge Based Learning.

Challenge Based Learning is collaborative and hands-on, asking students to work with other students, their teachers, and experts in their communities and around the world to develop deeper knowledge of the subjects students are studying, accept and solve challenges, take action, share their experience, and enter into a global discussion about important issues.

Key Elements

The Challenge Based Learning process begins with a big idea and cascades to the following: an essential question, a challenge, guiding questions, activities, resources, determining and articulating the solution, taking action by implementing the solution, and evaluating the results. The process also integrates important ongoing activities such as reflection, assessment, and documentation.

  1. Big Idea
  2. Essential Question
  3. The Challenge
  4. Guiding Questions, Activities and Resources
  5. Solutions
  6. Implementation
  7. Evaluation
  8. Documentation
  9. Reflection
  10. Informative Assessment

The big idea is a broad concept that can be explored in multiple ways, is engaging, and has importance to students, and the larger society. Examples of big ideas are Resilience, Separation, Creativity, Health, Sustainability, and Democracy.


Challenge Based Learning follows a workflow that mirrors the 21st century workplace. Students are given enough space to be creative and self-directed and at the same time are provided with support, boundaries, and checkpoints to avoid frustration. The workflow can be structured and modified in a variety of ways. The following process is provided as a starting point but is not meant to be prescriptive.

  1. Collaborative Space
  2. Introduction
  3. Team Formation
  4. Assessment
  5. Guiding Questions
  6. Guiding Activities
  7. Solution Development
  8. Implement and Assess
  9. Document/Reflect
  10. Publish
  • How will the teams communicate?
  • Where will resources be shared?

A shared working space is helpful for a successful challenge. The workspace should be available to students 24/7, include needed resources, access to activities, a calendar, and serve as a communication channel with the teacher and between team members.


2011 Implementation Study

The purposes of the Challenge Based Learning Implementation Study (CBLi) were two-fold, and blended in some ways the long-standing boundaries between outcomes- and process-focused evaluation and more traditional educational research. The first purpose was to determine if the outcomes and findings of the pilot could be replicated and extended beyond the purely high school focus of the pilot to other educational levels and settings, especially as they fall into four areas: the overall student experience; the overall teacher experience; the match of CBL learning outcomes (particularly informal learning outcomes) with key skills described in "Framework for 21st Century Learning"; and the learning goals for the time devoted to the work.

The second was to add additional understanding of several aspects of the school ecosystem that may influence the success of challenge based learning. Among these are the importance of training and support in the implementation of CBL; the impact of student groups on outcomes; a greater understanding of the skills and resources needed for a teacher to successfully implement CBL; and a sense of if (and how) a CBL approach might extend learning to times and places outside the traditional classroom.

With these goals in mind, the CBLi project was launched in January 2011, with a meeting of the 56 teachers participating in the effort. The primary goal of the two-day workshop was to ensure the participants understood CBL well enough to implement it to a baseline standard, with the secondary goal of giving them dedicated time to identify a big idea for their school, tease out essential questions, and frame their challenges. The 19 schools and universities involved then worked to implement those challenges through late May 2011.

For a full description of the CBLi Project download the New Media Consortium research report.

2008 Pilot Study

In the fall of 2008, Apple, Inc worked with the New Media Consortium to conduct a pilot study with six schools from across the country with one-to-one laptop initiatives in place. Both teachers and students found challenge based learning effective and engaging. Fully 97% of the 321 students involved found the experience worthwhile. More so, when the data are disaggregated by teacher, 73% of the faculty were able to engage every single student in their classes; the data for those classes shows student satisfaction rates of a remarkable 100%. Teachers unequivocally also rated the experience as positive, with every one of the 29 pilot faculty reporting that work of the students exceeded their expectations. All but one faculty member reported that the kids embraced the topic eagerly and worked well together and almost three-quarters noted positive changes in student attitude and behaviors. Students self-reported that they were learning and refining skills that closely matched those identified by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills.

For a full description of the pilot and results download the New Media Consortium research report.