Competency Development Through Challenges

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“The challenge must be relevant and demanding for students, and allow them to develop knowledge, attitudes, and values in a given timeframe.”

Training competitive, productive professionals is the main objective of any higher education institution, together with generating new ways of teaching aimed at achieving this purpose. Therefore, it is essential to reflect on the learning that universities provide for their students. Are we genuinely preparing them to face real problems successfully? What is the most suitable teaching strategy to fulfill our main objective? How should educational models evolve to meet this need?

Challenge-based Learning (CBL) is an educational approach that actively involves students in real, relevant, problematic situations related to the environment. CBL consists of the definition of a challenge and the implementation of a solution (Edu Trends, 2016).

This article presents a proposal to generate innovative educational ideas through Challenge-based Learning, as a teaching strategy from a perspective of experiential learning. The aim is that students can practically apply their knowledge in real problems, considering the expected attitudes of their holistic performance.

To achieve this objective, I took into consideration Tec de Monterrey’s prior experience gained in the first implementations of its Tec21 Educational Model (2018), in which I participated. I also used educational models from two Brazilian universities, UNiTOLEDO and UNISAL, as a reference. These two institutions are currently in the process of transforming their academic training into a competency-based educational model, with the incorporation of challenges as a teaching strategy. Derived from this academic transformation and taking into account Tec de Monterrey’s experience, the lessons learned from the redesign process were:

  • Teacher training process. If students are to learn through challenges, the teacher also needs to be trained in active methodologies.

  • Definition of teaching loads. In a competency-based model, different content delivery periods and the new roles of teachers imply a new way of calculating teaching loads according to the time investment that such a method involves.

  • Academic communities. Communication environments between colleagues are needed per educational unit, be it a course or block (with a challenge), to share experiences and learnings, thus enabling agile improvement.

  • The process of review/authorization of new study plans before the regulatory instances of education. In Tec de Monterrey's case, before the Ministry of Public Education (SEP), a process of review of the redesigned academic content was followed up until its authorization.

Activities before the incorporation of challenges

Before considering the implementation of an educational program based on challenges, reflecting on the following aspects is advisable:

  1. What is the general idea of the challenge we want to incorporate?

  2. Can the challenge be divided into steps?

  3. Is it linked to a company, organization, or other institution?

  4. What student profile do we need?

  5. What skills should students develop before and during each step?

  6. What knowledge should students have at each step?

  7. Is it possible for students to acquire knowledge and develop it in the conditions and timeframes of each step?

  8. When would it be most appropriate to carry out the evaluation?

  9. What is the most suitable order for teaching the theoretical content in light of the challenge requirements?

If, in addition to reflecting on the previous questions, we start sketching and integrating them in writing, we will achieve the clarity needed to identify any situations that could arise for both professors and students during the challenge.


Methodology for incorporating the challenges

The following proposal is a general methodology that can be applied at any university that would like to incorporate challenges in its academic practices.

  1. Identify the disciplinary and transversal competencies to be developed in students.

  2. Describe the challenge and determine whether it is linked to a company, organization, institution, etc.

  3. Identify the steps that will comprise the challenge. For each step identify:

    1. Name of the step

    2. Description

    3. Activities to be carried out and their duration in hours

    4. Duration in days and weeks

    5. Expected final product

    6. Theoretical, practical and behavioral content to be acquired

  4. Integrate the assessment plan. For each activity:

    1. Identify whether it is a modular activity (theoretical content) or challenge (practical)

    2. Define the evidence (a product the student hands in at the end of the activity)

    3. Identify the evaluation method (cumulative, formative or both)

    4. Define the evaluation instrument to be used (rubrics, checklists, observational guides, etc.)

    5. Define the person or persons responsible for the evaluation and establish a delivery date for the evaluation

  5. Identify the resources required to complete the challenge:

    1. Technology resources

    2. Physical spaces

    3. Mobility

    4. Other

  6. Make a plan of the commitments for the design and implementation phases, including the activity to be carried out, who is responsible and the delivery or completion date.


Main problems when incorporating challenges

Some of these problems were taken and adapted from the Edu Trends Report (2016), incorporating the experience I gained in the pilot projects implemented at Tec de Monterrey as part of the new Tec21 educational model.

  • Design of effective, challenging learning experiences

Challenges must be relevant and demanding for students, and allow them to develop knowledge, attitudes, and values in a given timeframe. This means that the desired outcome must be achievable in the established time.

  • Innovative and appropriate evaluation methods

When we implement challenges, we must also transform the way we evaluate. When assessing processes, as well as knowledge, we need to make use of appropriate evaluation instruments, such as checklists, rubrics, and observational guides, which enable us to provide timely and guiding feedback.

  • Tolerance to frustration, uncertainty, and resilience development

When implementing a challenge methodology, we commonly face situations that are beyond our control, mainly if the challenges are linked to an organization, company, or university. Some examples are: facing denial or delay on the education partner; experiencing delays in contacting the company; having problems with company visits; and, in extreme cases, finding that the company can no longer contribute to the challenge, among others. These are problems that affect the development of the challenge and, even though they are beyond our control, we must find the best way to resolve them.

  • Interdisciplinary work

It is essential to work collectively, in both the challenge design and implementation, so that students have professors accompanying them in their academic preparation to solve the challenge. Teachers come from different fields and reach a consensus on student evaluation and feedback.

  • Learning spaces and a student-centered environment

Implementing challenges also implies a transformation in the infrastructure of educational spaces. It is important to consider flexible learning environments that allow students to work in teams, communicate effectively, and come up with solutions.

  • Flexibility in learning and educational technology

Flexibility in learning resources is another requirement, as we no longer only use teacher-designed resources, students themselves can generate them, or make use of open education resources freely available on the web. The use of technology is also essential to facilitate student communication, interaction, and assessment.

There is still a lot of work to do if we are to know and understand more about challenge-based learning and how we can integrate it into our teaching practice.

I want to invite the teaching community to delve deeper into the subject and share their educational experiences so that, together, we can improve our teaching activities. I would love to collaborate with you. If you have any questions or comments, please do not hesitate to contact me.

About the author

Deyra Guadalupe Charles Estrada (deyracharles@tec.mx) is a Professor at Tec de Monterrey’s School of Humanities and Education. Her areas of interest include educational innovation, teacher training, curriculum design, and education project evaluation.