Research Summary

Writing to learn ecology: a study of three populations of college students

Writing-to-Learn Activity Helps Build Ecological Literacy

Environmental Education Research

Many college students have a solid understanding of ecological, social, and economic facets of environmental issues, but are not given the opportunity to process the interconnectedness and relevance of these topics. This study examined whether writing-to-learn exercises, which encourage expressive writing and connection of concepts, improved students’ ecological literacy. The researchers defined an ecologically literate person as “involved in making decisions that are based on ecological knowledge and accepting responsibility for personal actions.” In addition, the researchers used student writing to assess the differences in the ecological worldview between college students with different science education and cultural backgrounds. Specifically, they examined whether these students’ writings reflected ecosystem-centered, community-centered, or individually-centered concerns in response to learning about an environmental issue.

The researchers examined three populations of college students: 42 biology majors and 47 elementary education majors at a four-year college, and eight native studies students at a tribal college in the United States. The study was conducted as part of biology class: introductory biology laboratory (for biology majors), general biology (for elementary education majors), and general biology (for native studies majors). As part of the study, students read articles about hypoxic waters and dead zones. The four-year college students read two Science News articles about hypoxia and dead zones as well as a fact sheet published by the Ecological Society of America. The native studies students read a World Watch Institute article on hypoxia and other issues, which the professor had already chosen for the course. During class, students participated in inquiry activities and engaged in conversation about the topic with peers. Over the period of the study, they wrote three essays on a given prompt, outside of class.

Researchers analyzed the essays, looking for clues in the language to make conclusions about the students’ internalization of the concepts and ability to use ecological information in decision making. They coded the essays as superficial, subjective, objective, or authentic, depending on the students’ ability to make affective (emotional) and conceptual connections to the ecological concepts and support those connections with ecological understanding. Superficial writers did not make any meaningful affective or conceptual connection to the ecological concepts being discussed. Subjective writers were able to make affective connections, but were unable to support their ideas with ecological evidence. Objective writers communicated conceptual understanding and supported these ideas with ecological evidence, but did not make affective connections. Finally, authentic writers were those who made both affective and conceptual connections to the ecological concepts and were able to support their ideas with evidence.

The researchers also coded essays for clues about the students’ ecological worldview. They classified each essay as either ecosystem-centered, human community-centered, or individually-centered. An example of an ecosystem-centered essay was one that described the negative consequences of fertilizer runoff on ecosystems. Human community-centered essays used the plural active voice (we) in reference to the human community being adversely affected by dead zones. Individually-centered essays used the singular active voice (I) in reference to the writer’s personal life being disrupted by dead zones. In addition, the researchers examined whether the essay described a personal dilemma that the writer or someone else (such as a fisherman or farmer) had, and whether the essay included a decision to resolve the dilemma.

Both four-year college groups showed some increase in ecological literacy, with biology students demonstrating a 17 percent increase and education students demonstrating a 23 percent increase. All of these increases came from students who started with objective essays. The tribal college population had a very small sample size of eight students, but findings indicated a 50 percent increase in ecological literacy.

The researchers looked at how individual students moved between these designations throughout the activities, as well as how levels of ecological literacy differ between groups of students. For both biology and education students, most of the first essays were objective. In both groups, no students who started with superficial or subjective essays were classified as authentic by the third essay.

The researchers found that biology students were more human-community centered and self-centered than education students, who were more ecology-centered in their essays. Native studies students were dominantly ecology- and human-community centered, with human-community centered comments often alluding to an understanding of human communities as part of a greater ecological system.

Researchers concluded that, because of the setting of the writing-to-learn activities, it was expected that students would begin with objective essays, written in a style more similar to assignments they are asked to write in science classes. In reflection, they concluded that prompts are valuable in guiding writers toward authentic exploration of environmental issues. In-class discussion also allows students to explore these issues. The authors concluded that the expressive writing activity was effective in developing ecological literacy in the students.

The Bottom Line

Writing assignments that allow personal expression and exploration result in integration of knowledge into a usable decision-making framework. This study found that writing-to-learn activities, which are based in expressive writing in everyday language, improve ecological literacy and create greater potential for environmental stewardship and informed decision making by college students.