’I want students to struggle with this course, only then will they grow’

Dirk Fahland teaches the course Data Challenge 3. Photo: still from video
Dirk Fahland teaches the course Data Challenge 3. Photo: still from video
[VIDEO] ’The Faces of Challenge-Based Learning’ series: Dirk Fahland, associate professor in the Department of Mathematics & Computer Science. He has been running the Data Challenge CBL course for years and has watched his students grow as professionals.

With the innovative educational concept of Challenge-Based Learning (CBL), we train the engineers of the future at TU/e. As of this academic year, CBL plays a more significant role in the curricula of all’of our bachelor’s programs. Through a series of stories, we will be giving a face to the form of education that sometimes takes students - and teachers - out of their comfort zone but, above all, prepares them for the challenges that they will tackle as engineers. In this edition: CBL courses give teacher Dirk Fahland great satisfaction and food for thought.

Even teachers never stop learning. When associate professor Dirk Fahland devised the Data Challenge course about seven years ago, together with other teachers in the Department of Mathematics & Computer Science, it took quite the effort.

After all, this was not to be a traditional course in which the teacher presents the theory to a group of students in large lecture halls and the students subsequently need to show that they have understood the material via an exam. No, students themselves would need to get down to work in groups with practical assignments. It wasn’t yet called Challenge-Based Learning, but that’s what it was.

Struggle and gentle advice

Fahland had to figure out new methods to let students discover for themselves what they need to solve a problem - no longer taking them by the hand; letting them struggle and not coming up with the solution, but providing a listening ear and gentle advice that they can use to get back on their own track.

Three years in a row, undergraduate Data Science students are given the Data Challenge course and each year the assignment becomes more CBL: more challenging, more open-ended. "They start the first year as a student who knows little about data science and grow into a professional who can work on real problems with real data for real stakeholders," says Fahland.

In the third year, they are presented with an open problem by a company or public authority. With a corresponding dataset, they work on this independently in groups.

What’s the real problem

Fahland: "They not only learn how to look at the data files but, more importantly, they learn to think carefully and search for what the problem really is. Data doesn’t solve everything; they have to use additional knowledge. These are real, difficult and unsolvable problems they are working on. Problems that they will face later on in the workplace. You are given a task, time and budget. You have to make do with that and get something meaningful out of it."

Students are allowed to make mistakes, as long as they learn from them. Dirk Fahland

Mental phases

That’s not always easy, Fahland knows after running this course six times. "By now, I know exactly which mental phases students go through in which week. Uncertainty, not knowing what to do, that’s often where it starts. I want them to struggle with themselves and this course because they grow through this. And they are allowed to make mistakes, as long as they learn from them."

Feedback sessions

Each week, there are feedback sessions in which they can discuss their progress and problems with the teachers. "The students decide what we talk about. We discuss things that should be different. I gradually gain insights into what they’re working on. For me, this is the most fun part."

You cannot supervise such a large group of students on your own; you have to do that as a team.

Associate professor Dirk Fahland


The number of students following this course averages around 150. "That’s a large group and you cannot do that alone; you have to do that in a team. I run the contact moments with the groups alongside five other teachers and eight tutors. The tutors are master’s students who have done this course before. They know exactly what to pay attention to."

More like a manager

"I often feel more like a manager than a teacher, ensuring everything runs smoothly. That doesn’t suit every teacher and it makes CBL education for large groups a challenge. I think that there needs to be more focus on how we prepare our teachers for this."

What is Challenge-Based Learning?

In our innovative educational concept, students work together to experience how their discipline can contribute to the solving of challenges from the world around us. They learn which knowledge and expertise is needed to do so and can immediately apply and deepen the knowledge that they have acquired in practice by studying or doing research.

Together with students from other disciplines, as well as stakeholders from business, government or science, students learn to think at a system level. In the process, they also learn various other competencies, such as collaboration, communication, planning and organization. Student teams are the ideal place for students to acquire these skills.

Fahland has students form their own groups during this final Data Challenge of the series. "I do that because there’s already so much uncertainty in the course itself. I want them to feel socially safe in the group."

There are groups that never come to instructional classes, Fahland notes. "They turn something in but often don’t pass. For instance, they may have worked hard on an idea that doesn’t align with the data. If they don’t show up to discuss their ideas and progress, we can’t guide them."

No re-sit

"I tell students at the beginning what they need to do to pass this course and warn them of the pitfalls. There is no room for a re-sit in this course, so that means they have to redo the entire course the following year. The second time, you see that they get it and even like it. And so, they pass it."

Fahland himself has had to get used to CBL education, but now particularly enjoys the interactive format. "I see students learning skills they can’t get from a textbook. They’re learning how to analyze problems, how to think in terms of structures. It’s nice to see how many ’aha’ moments they have. I feel like I’m helping them to further grow as professionals."

Serving theory

He realizes that not all students are fond of CBL education. "Some love it, others just want to be served the theory slide by slide. I find myself wanting to teach less in the traditional setting. I no longer want to read out definitions at the front of a lecture hall; students can read that for themselves at home. I want to start discussions with students. That provides food for thought, including for me."

From our strategy: about Challenge-Based Learning

At the center of our educational vision is Challenge-Based Learning (CBL). In this innovative educational concept, students work together in interdisciplinary teams to experience how their discipline can contribute to solving challenges from the world around us.

In September 2023, we will launch the Bachelor College 2.0, in which CBL plays an important role. This will prepare our engineers of the future to find solutions in a rapidly changing world and take on a responsible role in society. Challenge-Based Learning falls within Strategy 2030 under the theme of Talent. Read more about it in our educational vision.