Graduate attribute assessment tool reveals positive sustainability learning outcomes and implications for higher education

Holdsworth, S. ., Sandri, O. ., Thomas, I. ., Wong, P. ., Chester, A. ., & McLaughlin, P. . (2020). The use of the theory of planned behaviour to assess graduate attributes for sustainability. Environmental Education Research, 26, 275-295.

As sustainability issues become more mainstream, higher education institutions can provide students with opportunities to learn about sustainability and enhance their capabilities. Sustainability education can help develop graduate attributes, which are skills and capacities like problem-solving, communications, and teamwork that are useful in the real world. Students who successfully gain these skills are often more employable, so higher education institutions work to facilitate the development of sustainability attributes. Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) University in Australia has the Environmentally Aware and Responsible Graduate Attribute (EAR GA). The EAR GAs are sustainability-related goals set for graduate students by the school, they state students be able to recognize environmental and social impacts and be a leader in solving those complex issues.. This study sought to test a tool, the graduate attribute assessment tool (GAAT), to measure EAR GAs and determine the effectiveness of RMIT programs.

The study took place in 2016 at RMIT University, located in Melbourne, Australia. The researchers used the Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) to inform the development of the GAAT. The TPB says a person's decision to partake in a behavior is based on favorable attitudes and perceptions towards consequences of the behavior, perceptions of social norms around the behavior, and perceptions of behavioral controls that support the behavior. They first narrowed the behavior of interest to sustainable decision-making informed by the EAR GA and split this behavior into five sub-behaviors: 1) minimize negative impacts to the environment; 2) minimize negative social or community impacts; 3) recognize environmental, social, and economic relationships; 4) balance environmental, community, and economic outcomes; and 5) assess alternatives, and solutions. The researchers developed a survey designed to measure each variable for each sub-behavior, the GAAT. The survey also included demographic questions to provide contextual information. The survey was emailed to 296 students who graduated from RMIT from 2013 to 2015. In addition, 19 alumni received the survey while participating in another research project. In total, 88 students completed the survey (28% response rate). The responses were analyzed for correlation between behaviors and EAR GA requirements.

The researchers found participants indicated they would make decisions applying the sub-behaviors in a workplace environment if there were no restrictions on their choices. They indicated that in terms of subjective norms, government/regulators were most supportive of decisions in line with the sub-behaviors, while the market user was the least supportive. Similarly, for behavioral controls, legislation most enabled behavior, and the desire for cheaper products was the least likely to enable all sub-behaviors. The participants' influence within their workplace also affected their behavioral control. When comparing participants' actual actions to the responses from the decision-making scenario with no restraints, the researchers found that participants only applied the EAR GA behaviors to their decision-making about half of the time. Therefore, the researchers concluded that the participants developed the EAR GA sub-behaviors, and the GAAT was helpful in measuring those.

There were some limitations to this study. Only graduate alumni from one specific program at RMIT University participated in the study, limiting the generalizability of results. Also, the study only covered students in Australia, where sustainability may be more or less prevalent that in the higher education curricula of other countries.

The GAAT survey results showed the effectiveness of RMIT programming. The researchers noted the role of higher education to encourage creative thinking so alumni may be better equipped to problem-solve for an evolving workplace and world. Additionally, workplaces need to encourage similar out-of-the-box approaches and not constrain graduates or limit their leadership potential. The researchers recommended institutions provide students with the skills necessary to overcome external factors in the workplace that could hinder their sustainability efforts. The GAAT can be used by other programs to evaluate learning outcomes and use the results to influence curriculum.

The Bottom Line

<p>Sustainability education and the development of related marketable skills like problem-solving and teamwork have become key components in higher education specifically for graduate students. This 2016 test a tool, the graduate attribute assessment tool (GAAT), to measure Environmentally Aware and Responsible Graduate Attributes (EAR GA) and determine the effectiveness of Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) university programs. The researchers developed GAAT using the Theory of Planned Behavior as a framework and identified five sustainability-oriented sub-behaviors, which were analyzed through a survey completed by 88 recent graduates of RMIT. The researchers found the participants developed the EAR GA sub-behaviors and were influenced by them to some degree depending on social norms, behavioral influences, and other factors. The researchers recommended making curricular changes to provide students with the support to overcome external workplace factors and make sustainably-minded decisions.</p>

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