Research Summary

The place of content and pedagogy in shaping sustainability learning outcomes in higher education

How various pedagogies impact students’ sustainability learning outcomes in higher education

Environmental Education Research

Higher education (HE) can provide the next generation of environmental stewards with the knowledge and skills to make effective and accurate decisions in sustainable development (SD). Research shows that while HE is working to integrate education for sustainable development (ESD) into curriculum, there has been difficulty in effecting meaningful changes in students' attitudes, knowledge, and behaviors towards SD. Research has shown for students to receive the most impactful education, HE must focus on integrating SD more effectively by combining content with pedagogy. The purpose of this study was to investigate how various environmental courses teach about sustainability and how they impact students’ sustainability learning outcomes. The researchers sought to answer three questions:
Do courses that teach about the environment address SD and, if so, how?
How are active and participatory pedagogies being used in the courses?
What are the relationships between the content and pedagogies of the courses and students’ cognitive and affective ESD learning outcomes?

The researchers previously created a framework called Sustainability Learning Outcomes (SLOs) to analyze students’ learning outcomes related to sustainability. Sustainability learning outcomes are define in two ways: psycho-social outcomes (affective, skills, knowledge), and the sphere of life (private, civic, professional). The researchers identified four main parameters that should be included in HE courses that teach SD to have the greatest impact on SLOs. Those are: information on sustainability issues, addressing the three pillars of SD (society, economics, and environment), discussing global and local issues, and clarification of values and ethics of SD. The researchers relied on this framework to analyze the courses selected for this study.

This study was conducted at a certified ‘Green Campus’ university in Israel. This certification is given to universities that meet specific criteria, such as providing courses that deal with environmental content. The researchers selected undergraduate courses from eight programs. All programs did not directly address ESD issues, but taught environmental issue related to ESD. The researchers selected 13 course instructors within the programs to participate based on three pieces of information: the course syllabi, instructors of courses that volunteered to participate, and recommendations from students and instructors of courses that fit the purpose of the study. The researchers collected data about the courses via semi-structured interviews with instructors, course observation (4-8 visits per course), and the course website. The researchers collected data on students self-reported SLOs via a post-course questionnaire that 360 students completed. To compare the courses, the researchers conducted a cross-case examination by analyzing the interviews and questionnaires for common themes.

The researchers found that the courses could be separated into two categories, courses that focused just on the environment and did not mention SD (four courses) and courses that did address SD (nine courses). Additionally, the researchers found that courses that included participatory pedagogies and explicitly discussed SD resulted in the most SLOs, as well as the most variety in SLOs, among students. Further results were found for the three research questions.

Question 1: Do courses that teach about the environment address SD and, if so, how?
Results showed that courses that teach about the environment do not always teach about SD. A total of nine courses addressed all four parameters of SD, while the remaining four briefly mentioned SD and focused primarily on how to solve environmental issues through technology or the biological science behind those issues. Of the nine courses that focused on SD, only six of them directly used the term sustainable development, which shows that SD does not need to be used explicitly when discussing the four parameters.

Question 2: In what ways are active and participatory pedagogies being used in the courses?
The researchers found various pedagogies used in the courses. Six courses were taught solely via lecture and the final grade was based off a final exam. The other seven offered students active and collaborative learning opportunities, such as service-learning projects or weekly online discussions on environmental issues. These courses also included field trips, ranging from one to seven trips per course. Each course utilized different teaching methods during the field trips; for example, some relied on the instructor for interpretation while others allowed students to investigate or explore. The seven active and collaborative learning courses graded their students based on assignments worked on throughout the course, and six of the seven provided students with feedback that allowed students to edit their work before the final grade was submitted.

Question 3: What are the relationships between the content and pedagogies of the courses and students’ cognitive and affective ESD learning outcomes?
The courses used active and collaborative learning experiences and dealt explicitly with SD resulted in the most diverse learning outcomes among students. For example, students identified learning outcomes such as motivation to promote SD, professional motivation (acting within a professional field), or awareness of SD. Additionally, students mentioned professional skills more frequently. Further, students who were in courses that integrated active and collaborative learning, as well as those that explicitly taught about SD ideas and issues, resulted in attitudes promoting SD. Lastly, the study found that simply taking students on field trips was not enough to impact overall learning outcomes. To see the greatest impact on learning outcomes, instructors must include participatory activities for the students, rather than solely lecture in the field. The researchers conclude that pedagogy is an important part of enhancing learning outcomes, and values should also be addressed explicitly.

There were some limitations to this study. Due to the broad scope of the study, the researchers recommend future studies focus on individual undergraduate courses and how those courses are taught. Grouping the courses limits the ability to fully understand the various characteristics and pedagogies each course had. Further research will allow practitioners and HE institutions to understand the specific characteristics of courses that lead to greatest SLOs. Lastly, this study’s location and sample size could limit the generalizability of the results.

The results of this study point to the importance of content and pedagogy in course design. The researchers recommend that undergraduate courses with a sustainability or environmental focus explicitly discuss sustainability issues and values, as well as incorporate active and participative learning. Following these pedagogies can greatly motivate students to engage in SD and improves their knowledge, skills, and attitudes related to SD. Additionally, the researchers recommend course instructors use these theoretical models to design curriculum for other courses related to sustainability.

The Bottom Line

The purpose of this study was to investigate how different environmental courses teach about sustainable development (SD) and how they impact student’s sustainability learning outcomes (SLOs), such as knowledge, attitudes, awareness, and motivation. This study included undergraduate courses from a university in Israel that either directly or indirectly taught about SD. The researchers analyzed each course’s content and pedagogy to determine their overall impact on students SLOs. The researchers found the courses that included participatory pedagogies and explicitly discussed SD and values resulted in the greatest number and variety of SLOs. The researchers recommend that higher education SD curriculum provides students with active and collaborative learning opportunities.