Research Summary

Fostering changes in attitude, knowledge and behavior: demographic variation in environmental education effects

Context shapes environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors

Environmental Education Research

Early experiences in nature can promote cognitive and emotional development, foster nature connectedness, and positively influence the ways that children view and interact with the natural world. Outdoor environmental education (OEE) programs offer children opportunities to spend time outdoors in structured learning contexts. Many OEE programs assume that they build environmental knowledge and foster pro-environmental attitudes and values, which, in turn, lead to sustainable behaviors. However, the evidence supporting this assumption is mixed. Environmental knowledge and pro-environmental attitudes are likely prerequisites for environmentally responsible behaviors. However, improvements in environmental knowledge and attitude do not necessarily translate into behavior change. Previous studies have explored how the impacts of OEE programs differ across demographically diverse populations. Some studies have found mixed results with regards to differential impacts by gender and urban/rural locations. This study explored two related questions: (1) What are the baseline differences in environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors among study participants? (2) How do the impacts of an OEE program on environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors vary across demographically different students (by age, gender, rural/urban location, nationality, country of residence, and program year)?

For this study, the authors examined the impacts of an OEE program designed to give students immersive and explorative experiences in nature, expose them to various ecological concepts, and encourage them to think critically about global conservation issues. The researchers recruited program participants by mailing requests to 70 schools in Bangladesh, Malaysia, Singapore, and Germany. A total of 606 students participated in the program: 43 from Bangladesh, 100 from Malaysia, 121 from Singapore, and 154 from Germany. Participants ranged in age from 7 to 18 and were equally distributed across age groups. The OEE programming was consistent across the four countries (i.e., similar activities, similar timeframes, similar focus on forest ecology, similar programmatic structure). However, the content of the program was tailored to each of the four different forest contexts to make it relevant to the students. During the one-day program, students engaged in forest hikes, plant/animal identification, educational activities to learn about forest ecosystems, and discussions about human impacts on the environment.

To measure the impacts of the program on students’ environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, the researchers asked students to complete a series of questionnaires. Students who participated in the program completed questionnaires before the program, immediately after, and six weeks later. For comparison purposes, the same questionnaires were given to 323 students in Germany and Singapore, all of whom engaged in classroom discussions about forest ecology but did not participate in a field trip. The authors noted that including students from Malaysia and Bangladesh to the comparison group would have been logistically impossible. The authors used statistics to analyze the data.

The authors found that country of residence and rural/urban residence were the two factors that best explained baseline environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Rural participants demonstrated higher baseline knowledge, had higher pro-environmental attitudes, and engaged in more pro-environmental behaviors than did urban participants. The authors attributed this difference to rural participants having greater access to and more familiarity with nature, spending more time in natural environments, and enduring greater impacts from extreme weather events. Baseline knowledge was also higher for participants from Singapore, Malaysia, and Germany than for participants from Bangladesh. The authors hypothesized that this difference was likely a reflection of greater government commitment to environmental education in the former three countries, as well as other cultural and political factors.

Country of residence was the factor that best explained OEE program effectiveness in terms of knowledge gains, attitude improvements, and positive behavioral shifts. The authors attributed variability in OEE program effectiveness to contextual factors, such as political environment, economy, social norms, culture, and opportunities. Interestingly, the results indicated that these contextual factors were more likely to drive environmental behaviors than were environmental knowledge or attitudes. knowledge.

This study has several limitations. Given the international scope of this study and the necessity for different teachers to implement the OEE program in different contexts, comparison across groups was challenging. The teachers used their own unique teaching styles and had unique interactions with students, both of which could have impacted the student experience. Additionally, different forest environments could have impacted students differently. While care was taken to ensure as much consistency as possible across the programs, this study was somewhat limited by unavoidable programmatic variations. Another study undertaken in a different location—even with the same OEE program—may produce different results. This study relied on self-reported data, and participants may have reported inflated increases in pro-environmental attitudes or behaviors.

The authors recommend that OEE programs be tailored to the national/regional context so that the experiences are relevant and meaningful to students. In addition, the authors also recommend that practitioners account for the differing environmental problems experienced in rural and urban settings to speak more directly to urban and rural students. Incorporating place-based environmental education may help programs achieve their objectives, such as increasing environmental knowledge and promoting pro-environmental behaviors.

The Bottom Line

This study investigated the impacts of an outdoor environmental education (OEE) program on 606 students (aged 7-18) from Malaysia, Singapore, Germany, and Bangladesh. The programming was similar across the countries, but tailored to each context increase relevance. The authors found that country of residence and urban/rural residence were the two factors that best explained changes in knowledge, attitude, and behavior. The authors recommend incorporating place-based EE and tailoring OEE programs to the local context to increase program effectiveness.