There are different flavours of societal engagement, like Community Engaged Learning (CEL) & Challenge Based Learning (CBL). Perhaps you’ve heard about educational concepts such as Community Engaged Learning and Challenge Based Learning but are not sure about their meanings or how they are connected. Alternatively, you may be interested in collaborating with societal partners in your own education but are unsure how to start. This article aims to assist you and provide some answers to these queries.

Why is working with societal partners a great idea?

As a university teacher you may have a sense that connecting your students and their education to the real world is crucial. But why is that important? There is an increasing demand for future professionals to be able to tackle complex societal challenges (Tijsma et al., 2021). Higher education can play a crucial role in preparing them to do so, by fostering the development of skills such as critical thinking, problem solving and adaptability (Bellanca, 2010). As a result, there is a growing need for societal engagement to be integrated more extensively into university education. Utrecht University promotes education that involves collaboration with societal partners to contribute to societal issues in its strategic agenda;

“The University offers students an environment in which they are able to develop their talents to the greatest possible extent so that, upon graduation, they are able to contribute to resolving the challenges facing society.”

This development is part of the broader shift to Open Science, which aims at making science more open and reliable with more relevance to society. This calls for an open outlook and open attitude in research and education. Engaging with societal partners is an important part of reaching these goals. It offers students the opportunity to already interact with society, and even make an impact, during their studies.

Which educational concepts can help you set up education with societal partners, and how are they related?

This article will explore the commonalities, differences and relation between Community Engaged Learning (CEL) and Challenge Based Learning (CBL), as UU promotes and supports these initiatives[1]. Moreover, we have observed that there are numerous queries about the relationship between these two concepts.

Commonalities between CEL and CBL
CEL and CBL are both educational concepts in which students and teachers work together with societal partners. Therefore, there are multiple commonalities between them:

  1. Both CEL and CBL seek to produce civically engaged students, augment the connection between universities and the community, and contribute to the social good. Therefore, both approaches include societal partners as important actors in the learning process of students.
  2. The role of the teacher is different from classical (classroom based) university teaching. Teachers often serve as facilitators of student learning, instead of having a strong focus on knowledge transfer.
  3. Focus on learning complex competencies like problem-solving, critical thinking and creativity. Through acquiring these skills students are better prepared to fulfill a productive role in society and in their future jobs.
  4. Both CEL and CBL strive to integrate knowledge between science and society. Therefore, both concepts are transdisciplinary Furthermore, often there are students and teachers from multiple academic disciplines involved, so the collaboration between students is mostly interdisciplinary.

So, why are there different concepts? To clarify this, we will start by explaining CEL in more depth.

Besides the common characteristics mentioned above, CEL is characterised by additional objectives that help shape the experiential learning process and collaboration with societal partners (Butin, 2010; Farnell, 2020):

  • When collaborating with societal partners there is a focus on societal issues of shared concern, including attention to the systemic aspects of those issues.
  • Students are encouraged to reflect on their own and other’s perspectives. Preferably they reflect together with the societal partner(s) and teachers.
  • The collaboration with societal partners is on a reciprocal basis. This means that all parties (students, teachers, societal partners) contribute knowledge, experiences and perspectives and that each contribution is valued.
  • Striving for long-term ties with societal partners, so that trust can grow and shared activities can deepen. This can mean sustainable outcomes of the collaboration and/or building sustainable relationships.

UU has the ambition to embed CEL more structurally in the curriculum, to strengthen the societal engagement of the university and our students. However, there is no set format for the learning activities in CEL; these can vary a lot between courses, programmes and faculties.

Therefore, CBL can offer an interesting educational approach for doing CEL. We’ll explain you more about this approach.

In CBL students work on real-world and authentic challenges, in which they develop genuine solutions and measurable impact.  Students work together in interdisciplinary groups on brainstorming, defining their own problem, recognizing what they know (and don’t know) about an issue, and identifying solutions. These solutions are co-developed with societal partners. During the challenge there is also a focus on the students’ individual learning process, by setting their own learning objectives and reflection on their learning with support from their coaches.

In CBL problems are realistic, complex and open-ended. The participatory learning in CBL empowers students to move from a hypothetical and tentative stage about “making change” to taking action (Cruger, 2018). This occurs within a trans-/interdiscipinary environment, for which certain soft skills are needed (e.g. collaboration, communication, conflict resolution). Furthermore, there is a strong element of personal development and reflection throughout the duration of the course.

To summarize, it’s very much possible to design education which integrates the central elements of CEL with the format of the authentic challenges offered in CBL. Of course, you can also choose to only put the focus on one of these concepts. Let’s take a look at what the main difference in focus is.

Although there are a lot of commonalities, you might have also noticed some small differences while reading about these concepts. Like we mentioned before, the collaboration in CEL can take many different forms, from engaged research projects to buddy-projects with patients or refugees. In CBL the topic of the challenge can also vary a lot, but you do always work with this challenge-framework. In CBL there is a stronger focus on co-creating solutions for these challenges, while building long term relations with the stakeholder is not seen as an explicit goal. In CEL there is usually also a ‘product’ being worked on, but the collaboration process and building reciprocal relations are more emphasized.

However, these differences are small. And like we explained before, you can also integrate these concepts. To make these commonalities, differences and integration clearer we’d like to highlight a few good practices.

Examples of CBL and CEL

CEL example: Stolpersteine, making victims of National Socialism visible

Bachelor students in German Language and Culture contribute to research into the victims of National Socialism in Utrecht. This research is used by the Stolpersteine foundation to place memorial stones. Furthermore, student work together with the foundation on creating educational material, which is implemented in schools by bachelor- and master students as part of their graduation project. Read more about this project in the interview.

CBL example: Da Vinci Programme

In this programme, students work together with private and public partners on real societal challenges in an interdisciplinary team. In this course they are supported by the external organizations and by mentors within the university to help them with the team process and personal development. This is a 30 ECTS fulltime course.

More information

CEL and CBL integrated example: Social Change Approaches

In this course students from the Master programme ‘Social Challenges, Interventions and Policies’ are trained to design approaches to address societal issues like climate change, inequalities and well-being. Students work in a reciprocal way on challenges submitted by societal partners like the Red Cross. The students gain insights into the complexity of these issues and the partners benefit from new insights.

More information

What does this mean for me?

We hope this article has given you insights regarding these educational concepts, CEL and CBL, and how they relate to each other. You can use elements from both concepts give substance to the learning goals you want to achieve with your courses. It is important to remember that there are available resources and support options available to help you set up this kind of education. You don’t have to navigate this process alone; by leveraging these resources and working collaboratively with colleagues and community partners, you can create meaningful learning experiences that benefit your students and society as a whole.

More information and support


[1] The UU also offers support for Entrepreneurial Education, in which working with societal stakeholders is also emphasized. Please take a look at the website of the Centre for Entrepreneurship if you want more information on this type of education.