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The Psychology of Challenge-Based Learning

Thursday, May 30, 2019
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By 2030, as many as 375 million workers’ jobs—approximately 14 percent of the global workforce—will change because of digital transformation, automation, and advancements in artificial intelligence. That’s according to the 2018 McKinsey Global Institute report, Jobs lost, jobs gained: Workforce transitions in a time of automation, which also stated that 66 percent of the global organizations surveyed said “addressing potential skills gaps related to automation/digitization … is a top 10 priority,” while almost 30 percent ranked it in the top five (learn more here). Some have characterized this change to be on the level of the Industrial Revolution.

As talent development professionals, what instructional design strategies can we use to address this massive gap in skills for the 21st century?

Because of the scope and complexity, we need to define strategies that enable employees to learn as quickly and effectively as possible. We need to re-examine the traditional lecture/lab/test approach and adopt instruction design models like Challenge-Based Learning, also known as “learning by doing.”

At its core, Challenge-Based Learning is a type of performance-based assessment. A challenge incorporates near real-time feedback with limited guidance to encourage applied learning by experimenting. Challenge-Based Learning facilitates the development of deep learning and problem-solving skills while reinforcing prior skills.

According to The Challenge Institute, “Challenge-Based Learning provides an efficient and effective vehicle for developing successful learning skills and habits.” It “elicits, supports the acquisition of, and … reinforces habits of mind,” which are defined as “key attributes exhibited by successful and intelligent problem-solvers.”

Source: Habits of Mind Institute

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What Is the Psychology Behind Challenge-Based Learning?


A challenge creates a stimulus in your brain that forces you to use prior knowledge, problem-solving skills, strategic reasoning, creativity, insight, and perseverance to solve the challenge. In the process of solving the challenge, you use and develop several of the 16 Habits of Mind. According to Dr. Authur Costa, a professor at California State University, “When we draw upon these intellectual resources, the results that are produced are more powerful, of higher quality, and of greater significance than if we fail to employ those intellectual behaviors.”

Recently, the University of Washington’s Learning in Informal and Formal Environments (LIFE) Center and the Boeing Company, which each year offers over six million hours of instruction (face-to-face, online, and blended courses) to over 150,000 employees in 45 countries, conducted a study comparing Challenge-Based Learning to traditional lecture. According to the group’s published findings, “Of special interest was the Adaptive Knowledge content area, because prior research with novice engineers has shown the benefits of Challenge-Based Learning over traditional lecture on more cognitively complex knowledge in formal education settings and because the kinds of interactions supported by Challenge-Based Learning should support greater connectivity of learning.” Results showed that the “Challenge-Based Learning group significantly outperformed the traditional lecture group on the Adaptive Knowledge content area.” Adaptive Knowledge is linked to Habits of Mind 4, 7, 8, 10, 15, and 16.

Challenge-Based Learning is used by many organizations, such as Apple and Boeing, as well as universities, schools, and institutions worldwide. It has been shown to be more effective than traditional lecture-based learning for acquiring and leveraging adaptive knowledge. When faced with a challenge, a learner will use and develop several Habits of Mind; they question, think flexibly and interdependently, leverage prior experience, research to gather more information or data, and remain open for continuous learning. Challenge-Based Learning is an effective framework for training and development professionals to use to help address the skills needed for the 21st century.

Learn more about how you can incorporate Challenge-Based Learning into the content you are developing by utilizing Learn on Demand Systems.

Additional Reading

  • Martin, T. (2005, April). Measuring preparation for future learning in children’s mathematics: Instructional implications. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, Montreal, Canada.
  • Martin, T., Petrosino, A. J., Rivale, S., Rayne, K., Pierson, J., Svihla, V., & Diller, K. (2006, April). The Legacy cycle as a resource for curriculum development. Paper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Francisco, CA.
  • Roselli, R. J., & Brophy, S. P. (2006). Effectiveness of challenge-based instruction in biomechanics. Journal of Engineering Education, 95(4), 311–324.
About the Author

Dr. Carol Gravel is the executive director and principal consultant at Binnacle Consulting where she helps organizations navigate 21 century talent and learning to address the needs of their current and future workforce.

As organizations transform their business models and functions, they are challenged with defining what changes are needed from a talent and learning perspective. Carol has helped numerous organizations achieve measurable business impact through effective talent and learning strategies and solutions. With over 15 years of experience working with global organizations Carol knows what it takes to analyze, define, measure and implement effective solutions that are aligned to organizational needs.

During her career, Carol has held senior leadership roles in HR, OD, talent management and learning. She has been invited to present at numerous international conferences such as the Oxford University Global HR conference and the International Online Learning Consortium conference. She has been published in several peer reviewed journals as well as several international talent and learning professional publications.

Dr. Gravel holds a bachelors in IT, master’s in education, a doctorate in education; with a focus on instructional technology and distance education and a graduate certification in project management from George Washington University. In addition, she earned her SHRM-CP certification from the Society of Human Resource Management and is active in the ATD Research Triangle Park chater where she is President Elect as well as a leader of the Learning Trends and Innovations SIG.

3 Comments
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My worst Fear is that if all training is digitalized, we will be depersonalizing or eliminating the In-Person Classroom Based training...plus the fact not everyone learns the same way!!!1 I've even witnessed Co-Workers helping those with Cheating with online programs...how Successful can that be. Also, to note that just because someone scores a High Score in a CBL does not guarantee that will be their actual practice on-the-job will be Superb in Performance!
Rick,
Thanks for the response. I think we all agree that learning morality (eg online. Digital, face to face etc) needs to be aligned to the audience and leaning objectives.
Great thing about Challenge based learning it is can be applied to any morality.
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Rick,
Thanks for the response. I think we all agree that learning morality (eg online. Digital, face to face etc) needs to be aligned to the audience and leaning objectives.
Great thing about Challenge based learning it is can be applied to any morality.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.