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CBL’s contribution to learning of theoretical concepts

Thursday, 28 October 2021

CBL is a vital renewal of TU/e’s education. It can raise students’ interest and motivation and connect their learning to social activities, work-practice and societally essential themes. It is yielding satisfaction and enthusiasm. Meanwhile, much of TU/e education is about mastering theoretical concepts and theories. These should be understood as practical tools for future engineers AND as building blocks of theoretical and formally structured domains. What can we expect from CBL concerning acquiring such theoretical knowledge? How can we employ CBL to build theoretical understanding? The study ‘Challenge Based Tasks For Fundamental Knowledge’ provides various practical ideas to optimize CBL for deep and theoretical learning, says Ruurd Taconis, Associate Professor and Director of Education at Eindhoven School of Education at TU/e.

Unravelling theoretical learning

A review of literature has been performed to unravel the various aspects of CBL and theoretical learning. It starts with recognizing CBL as defined by TU/e as a unique new educational concept within the family of modern STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) education concepts that typically includes students-groups learning by doing open, meaningful assignments. Examples being: designing something, solving issues by exploring and applying STEM theory, and in-depth studies to write convincing and underpinned reports for companies or stakeholders. Taconis: “a broad collection of more than  300 studies on such different forms of CBL were analysed to identify the elements of these different designs that appeared to be critical to establishing theoretical learning.”


A first key observation was that the problems (or challenges) used, typically connect to the (engineering) domain involved. In short: challenges mimic key professional practices of that domain. “For example: putting a diagnose in medical education, designing in engineering design, and reverse engineering in computer science”, explains Taconis.

Second, there appeared to be a wide variety in the meaning of the word knowledge. Hence, a working definition of theoretical knowledge was constructed by elaboration on literature as a gauge to evaluate the various studies. It distinguishes knowledge into factual knowledge, practical knowledge, theoretically rooted operational knowledge and theoretical knowledge. Operational knowledge typically concerns applying particular (theoretical) concepts, models or theories to a situation. It is key in, for example, putting a medical diagnose. It is different from theoretical knowledge, which is recognized as ‘an abstract and structured building of concepts defined by formal, e.g. logical and mathematical, relations’. Theoretical concepts or models can be used practically, for example, to explain, predict or solve a problem. Such use of theory is essential for engineering, but the definition of theoretical knowledge is formal and depends on usability only indirectly.

Theory and practical use

“Adequately structured, such theoretical knowledge underpins both understanding and practical use, and it will allow for both creative use in practical situations and for theoretical elaborations – activities typical for university engineers”, says Taconis. Learning theories provide tools for educators to actively aim for theoretical learning. General learning theory states that the acquisition of well-structured theoretical knowledge requires students to deploy a particular set of cognitive and meta-cognitive (cognitive-steering) activities while learning. On a more specific level of the so-called ‘schema theory’, it requires the active construction of adequate cognitive schemata, involving varied repetition and building overarching connections. “This is why the study focussed on evaluating how CBL invokes such cognitive, metacognitive and schema-building activities in the students. Are they adequate and sufficient for building theoretical knowledge? What is provided by CBL, what needs to be supplemented?”

According to Taconis the study’s conclusion – in very general terms – was that CBL-type education is particularly good at motivating students and yielding learning outcomes on the level of ‘underpinned operational knowledge’. But that stand-alone CBL  – without supplementing measures – may not be the best way to acquire theoretical knowledge. Two main results leading to this conclusion are the reported learning outcomes and the learning activities CBL-type tasks generally invoke.

Risks of open CBL tasks

“Only a hand full of the studies reported students acquiring 'theoretical' knowledge”, says Taconis. These mainly fell in two areas. First, in, e.g. secondary education, where the practical character of CBL-type projects helps students overcome their apparent difficulties to grasp the abstract concepts taught. And secondly, with the top tier of university students – who have the personal ambition, focus and mental resources to learn deeply conceptually within the frenzy and fuzz of the complex processes while working on open CBL-type projects. In general, the complexity of open CBL-tasks poses a risk to students being overwhelmed, which would easily go at the cost of ‘deep learning’. Also, the attractiveness of 'completing the task' may draw their attention away from deep and theoretical learning. Especially if it is unclear how theoretical depth would contribute to one's grade.

Reflective practitioners and reflective learners
A second outcome pointing in this direction is that CBL-type learning tasks (without supplementing learning tasks) may fall short in invoking some of the learning activities critical to theoretical learning. In particular, metacognitive activities focussing on one's current knowledge/understanding, schema automation, and building overarching conceptual relationships. “It is clear that  CBL-type tasks typically evoke meta-cognitive activities. But these may be primarily focused on 'completing the project'. For example: How are we doing? How is our progress? What aspect do we still have to look at? But they may not automatically call forth such activities focussing on one's understanding and learning, such as have I adequately understood this so far? Am I taking the proper learning steps? Where am I as a learner? And, where do I want to go next?” So: CBL helps students to become reflective practitioners but does that automatically mean that they become reflective learners? Also, from a schema theoretical perspective, one would want students to make 'conceptual comparisons' and test the 'theoretical coherency of their ideas' while CBL may primarily focus on building and sharing a practical solution. 

The way forward

In conclusion, it may be wise to combine CBL to theoretical-oriented learning episodes and/or supplement it with theory-oriented tasks. “In this, it would be essential to provide ample guidance and help students to define clear points where they switch back and forth between ‘task completion activities’ and ‘theoretical deepening episodes’, thus ‘closing their (individual) learning loops’. And, of course, aiming at students to become increasingly self-aware and self-steering” stresses Taconis

Apart from the above, the study has brought up various other concrete ideas for enhancing deep and theoretical learning in (and in connection to) CBL. For example, the use of challenges that ‘force’ students to go in-depth and minimize ‘task completion costs’ (e.g. large reports). Or using CBL-formats that actively induce mutual comparison on the level of ideas/concepts.

More information about this project can be found on the Innovation Map.