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Sukackė, V.;  Guerra, A.O.P.D.C.;  Ellinger, D.;  Carlos, V.;  Petronienė, S.;  Gaižiūnienė, L.;  Blanch, S.;  Marbà-Tallada, A.;  Brose, A. Active Evidence-Based Learning in Engineering Education. Encyclopedia. Available online: (accessed on 10 December 2023).
Sukackė V,  Guerra AOPDC,  Ellinger D,  Carlos V,  Petronienė S,  Gaižiūnienė L, et al. Active Evidence-Based Learning in Engineering Education. Encyclopedia. Available at: Accessed December 10, 2023.
Sukackė, Vilma, Aida Olivia Pereira De Carvalho Guerra, Dorothea Ellinger, Vânia Carlos, Saulė Petronienė, Lina Gaižiūnienė, Silvia Blanch, Anna Marbà-Tallada, Andrea Brose. "Active Evidence-Based Learning in Engineering Education" Encyclopedia, (accessed December 10, 2023).
Sukackė, V.,  Guerra, A.O.P.D.C.,  Ellinger, D.,  Carlos, V.,  Petronienė, S.,  Gaižiūnienė, L.,  Blanch, S.,  Marbà-Tallada, A., & Brose, A.(2022, November 08). Active Evidence-Based Learning in Engineering Education. In Encyclopedia.
Sukackė, Vilma, et al. "Active Evidence-Based Learning in Engineering Education." Encyclopedia. Web. 08 November, 2022.
Active Evidence-Based Learning in Engineering Education

Implementing active learning methods in engineering education is becoming the new norm and is seen as a prerequisite to prepare future engineers not only for their professional life, but also to tackle global issues. Teachers at higher education institutions are expected and encouraged to introduce their students to active learning experiences, such as problem-, project-, and more recently, challenge-based learning. 

problem-based learning project-based learning challenge-based learning engineering education instructional design

1. Introduction

The present day and foreseeable future context require universities to organize engineering education in such a way that graduates are able to develop high technologies (high-tech) competencies, which are necessary for the extremely fast development of societal needs. Future engineers are expected to be able to handle complexity and ongoing changes in the workplace while at same time addressing sustainability problems [1]. Hence, the university student must not only be able to create advanced and sustainable technologies, but also anticipate the future needs of humanity and feel the future changes and challenges of societal development; therefore, transversal skills and social competences become crucially important [2][3][4][5][6][7].
The urgency to address sustainability problems, such as sustainable economic development [8], climate change, environmental degradation, and poverty, among others, call for a new type of engineer, equipped with knowledge and competences, which traditional teacher-centered curricula are no longer able to provide. Adaptability, flexibility, critical thinking, interdisciplinary collaboration, communication, complex problem solving, and systems thinking are examples of competences required to develop for the future [9]. To address such needs and educate for sustainability, engineering education has been changing in order to adapt to such changes and make education more aligned with what is the most relevant and needed. Such changes require that institutions revise their vision and mission, and their management operations and educational approaches, aiming towards a comprehensive integration of sustainability at system level. At an educational level, curriculum change and innovation, with sustainability integration combined with the use of active learning methodologies, is one of the most common approaches to educate engineers for sustainability [10][11]. Additionally, education for sustainability calls for a contextual, problem-oriented, reflective, interdisciplinary, collaborative, participatory, ethical, and empowered learning environment in order to educate for a sustainable future [12]. Problem-based learning (PBL), project-based learning (PjBL) and, more recently, challenge-based learning (CBL) are examples of such pedagogical approaches [13][14][15]. In the past years, PBL, PjBL, and CBL have been gaining popularity with the aim to address engineering megatrends, such as education for sustainability. Previous studies report on different drivers for their implementation. For example, students gaining experience in integrating technology with real-world conditions beyond the classroom/lab [16][17] as well as for improving learning retention and encouraging pursuit of a career in engineering [18]. CBL, which emerged and connected from PBL, as well as CDIO-approaches [19], is expected and described to be beneficial to the enrichment of students’ knowledge and also employability. PBL, PjBL, and CBL can also be used to improve engineering students’ desirable technical and transversal skills: teamwork, communication, and conflict resolution [5][18][20][21][22][23], collaboration [24][25], management of resources, such as time, money, etc. [18], entrepreneurship [21][26], critical thinking and problem solving [22][27][28][29], and self-directed learning (as an indicator of life-long learning) [17][23][30].
This, in turn, is also fostering the sustainability of learning itself, that is, the undergone teaching–learning process is, through the aforementioned educational; setting a sustainable education in the graduates as they become themselves continuous learners, and hence are enabled to continue adapting the skills and competencies according to the ever faster changing challenges we are facing.

2. Problem-Based Learning (PBL)

Problem-based learning (PBL) emerged in the mid-1960s and early 1970s in medical and engineering education, with McMaster University (Canada), Maastricht University (the Netherlands), and one of the biggest universities in Denmark having been the pioneers [5][17][29][31][32][33]. Since its first implementation by these innovative universities, PBL has been gaining popularity in engineering education around the world, leading to a wide range of models and practices (e.g., PBL as a cycle [23][29], PBL as case or project [7][26][29][34][35] and, even the use of inconsistent terminologies regarding the methodology of PBL (e.g., problems vs. issues vs. challenges vs. situations)) [16][17][29][36][37]. However, the literature shows a set of common features which can be used to define PBL as an approach to learning, in which: (i) ill-open, real, and unstructured problems act as the driver, motivation, and framework for learning; (ii) problem identification and problem-solving serve as the vehicle to acquire knowledge and develop different types of skills, and consequently achieve (learning) goals; (iii) self-directed, team-based, and collaborative learning, where “social organizations [that] promote participation and result in a sense of agency” on students [17], (p. 3); (iv) teachers become facilitators and “scaffolders” of learning processes; (v) learning is exemplary, contextual, and experiential, as well as (vi) reflective, promoting continuous negotiation, a construction of knowledge, and self-assessment [3][17][38][39].
As [40] indicates, the implementation process of PBL might consist of seven stages, from students exploring the problem with its context to research and final overall evaluation of the learning process (Figure 1).
Figure 1. A summary of the problem-based learning process and its core principles, adapted from [40].
As demonstrated in Figure 1, in all the stages, students employ a number of different strategies, such as brainstorming and mind/concept mapping to engage in the learning process and achieve the learning goals, which is done in small teams where every member has an assigned role (e.g., tutor, secretary, board writer, etc.).
In general, PBL seems to benefit students’ learning in terms of engagement and motivation, also encouraging their success and development of new thinking strategies [22][29][41][42][43]. Core subject matter might be taught in a manner that allows the learner to acquire the required material in a systematic and efficient manner, and might also balance subject matter, societal aspects, and the learner (individual) needs [7][28][33].
Even though the literature argues that PBL offers a “solution to several problems and challenges” in engineering education, this learning pedagogy is not free of criticism [44]. Some notable examples are: (i) lack of understanding of processes inherent to active learning and students’ development (e.g., development of teamwork skills, complexity of social interactions, and impact on students’ learning, etc.), and (ii) measuring the effectiveness of active learning, which mainly focuses on students’ performance and products of learning (i.e., which aligns with the behaviorism theory of learning).
In sum, the aforementioned features undoubtedly fall in social constructivism, situated, contextual, and experiential learning theories. They also provide aspects on what and how to plan, design, and implement PBL in engineering higher education environments. For example, the type of problems (more or less open; real or hypothetical, etc.) and who defines them (students, teachers, or in collaboration with industry partners), the level of implementation and duration (e.g., course or program level; one day, one week, or three months), type of learning outcomes and knowledge (e.g., disciplinary or interdisciplinary), and students and teachers’ attitudes and roles.

3. Project-Based Learning (PjBL)

As stressed by [45], design is one of the central functions of engineering practice; thus, it is essential to expose students to ‘real-world’ conditions. Active learning strategies, such as project-based learning (PjBL), emerge as one of the most relevant and studied strategies on the enhancement of learning in engineering schools [46].
Project-based learning dates back over a hundred years and its origin is associated with the educator and philosopher John Dewey [47]. Applied to science teaching practice since the 1970s, PjBL has been in development and has also been extensively implemented in engineering education [48].
Characterized as a constructivist pedagogy, with learners mobilizing theoretical and technical knowledge to find solutions for practical problems, PjBL is learner-centered and involves a dynamic classroom approach [47].
Project-based learning environments are, thus, defined by the main principle of student engagement in solving open problems with an interdisciplinary nature, typically in teams [49]. Teachers also develop communication skills and different teaching strategies from the ones used in a traditional classroom, with the goal of helping students to build their knowledge, by adopting roles such as tutor, mentor, or supervisor [46]. Moreover, the advantage of PjBL over traditional teaching practices related to significant improvements in learning outcomes is observed [50].
One of the main aspects of the PjBL objective, which distinguishes this method from others, is the creation of a final product. The seed of the project is a question and students search for information to develop a solution in multidisciplinary teams [51].
Project-based learning is often overlapped with problem-based learning, since both learning strategies are based on collaboration and self-direction [52]. However, they also stress that PjBL is more directed to the mobilization of knowledge and problem-based learning is more oriented towards the acquisition of knowledge. Moreover, PjBL activities are usually closer to real professional activities [52].
Considering that engineering project courses are particularly helpful in preparing students for real-world jobs in industry [53], PjBL assumes relevance. In fact, several studies reveal that student recruitment and retention are one of the main drivers of PjBL implementation, along with the industrial demand for engineers equipped with a broader set of skills [54]. Furthermore, it is assumed by the literature that engineering projects are more conducive to engaging students in higher-level cognitive skills, and thus helping learners to develop metacognition, critical thinking, and problem-solving competency [52]. Moreover, the development of students’ teamwork abilities, communication skills, decision-making, and mobilization of knowledge to real-life situations have also been extensively reported [55].
Despite all the mentioned benefits, studies reporting PjBL implementation also stress challenges both for students and teachers. For example, studies show that students do not necessarily acquire specific technical content or experience real-world industry by simply conducting projects [53]. Moreover, it is also stated that, in order to learn by doing, students also need time to reflect, making experimentation as important as reflective tasks [52].
When PjBL is implemented in engineering education, students learn mostly how to conceive–design–implement–operate an engineering solution to a specific engineering challenge [56]. The process most often includes five stages (or seven, for some authors), such as:
orientation: the drawn content or topic is usually significant to students;
identifying and defining: students are required to explore possible project topics and identify the group’s own project topic;
planning: defined by a process of thinking and discussing how the project topic is going to be investigated (including project title, purpose, procedure, roles and responsibilities of group members, as well as a time estimation);
implementing: includes classroom/laboratory activities as well as autonomous tasks;
reporting and evaluating: conclusion of groups’ final reports as well as oral presentations [57].

4. Challenge-Based Learning (CBL)

The most prominent starting point of challenge-based learning was the “Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow—Today” (ACOT2), a project initiated in 2008 by Apple, Inc. [58] to identify the essential design principles of the 21st century learning environment [59]. Nowadays, examples of CBL can be found in several phases of education, starting from kindergarten to elementary school, high school up to universities, and continued professional learning.
One of the leading promoters of challenge-based education, the European Consortium of Innovative Universities (ECIU), combined two of the most common definitions, and define such a teaching/learning method as a pedagogical approach that actively engages students in a situation that is real, relevant, and related to their environment. It takes place through the identification, analysis, and design of a solution to a sociotechnical problem. The learning experience is typically multidisciplinary, involves different stakeholder perspectives, and aims to find a collaboratively developed solution, which is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable [19] (p. 22).
Challenge-based learning is a pedagogical approach that actively engages learners by integrating formerly traditional learning courses with real-life challenges. Those challenges require innovative, creative, and at least multidisciplinary interventions to be solved. These interventions may require learners and external stakeholders as well as training partners (industry or public sector based) to work together. This co-work may continue after the academic period is formally over (e.g., [60][61]). Even though CBL shares some key features with PBL and PjBL, it goes beyond in that the challenge is not fully predefined, as learners and the community members participate in its co-creation, but are also expected to be the expert of the subject, and the teacher just facilitates and accompanies the learning [61]. CBL asks learners to formulate a problem and relevant questions, to investigate compelling issues, to reflect on their learning and the impact of their actions, and then to publish their solutions to a worldwide audience. Following this, the learning and teaching activities in CBL are often divided into three interconnected phases (see Figure 2).
Figure 2. Stages of challenge-based learning implementation (adaptation based on the description by [62] and ECIU university project).
As seen in Figure 2, CBL consists of three phases: (1) Engagement phase, in which the learners move from an abstract big idea to a concrete and actionable challenge; (2) Investigation phase, in which learners conduct research to create a foundation for actionable and sustainable solutions; and (3) Acting phase, in which evidence-based solutions are developed and implemented with an authentic audience and the results evaluated [62].
However, studies analyzing changes in competencies, knowledge gain, or learners’ attitudes indicate that results are not automatically guaranteed with CBL as a pedagogical approach, but has a strong interdependency with prior knowledge [63], intrinsic motivation [64][65], support in teamwork [65], as well as learning environment created by teachers and external trainings partner, [61][66][67].

5. A Comparison of PBL, PjBL, and CBL

Prior research indicates a number of similarities and differences between the three methods in focus. One of the core principles in the three is that they require environments suitable for a student-centered constructivist learning organization [29]. In addition, all of the methods have been reported to bring benefits to learning, including increased motivation and ability to meaningfully relate academic knowledge and their professional practice [16].
Some previous studies, for instance, [51] present a comparison of the three active learning methods based on different dimensions. For example, the methods are contrasted in terms of the learning activities, type of solution and its potential implementation, implementation outcome, and teacher’s role [51]. The first dimension, learning, differs from a task given to complete a project (PjBL), to specific content applied to solve problems (PBL), and addressing real problems to complete the challenge (CBL). The second dimension, focus, shifts from solving real (PjBL & PBL) or fictitious problems (PBL) to solving real and open problems (CBL). The third dimension, product, varies from presentation of project executions (PjBL), describing the process and achieving the results (PBL), or producing a solution that translates into a concrete action (CBL). The fourth dimension, process, includes various activities, such as generating products for learning (PjBL), testing learners’ ability to reason and apply their knowledge (PBL), or encouraging students to analyze, design, develop, and execute the best solution to the challenge (CBL). The fifth dimension, teacher, defines teacher’s role in the process—from project manager (PjBL), to professional guide (PBL), or coach and co-researcher (CBL).
These dimensions are a good point of departure to compare the PBL, PjBL, and CBL by providing examples of dimensions to make such comparison; however, it lacks others that are defining and relevant. For example, more details on the teachers’ role as instructional designers, the students’ role, assessment, collaboration, learning goal, and level of implementation (e.g., course, program, or organizational levels) are missing, which makes the comparison narrow and simplistic. For instance, learning is referred to by being driven by tasks (PjBL), applying content to problems (PBL), or real problems (CBL). 


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