Impact of Commitment on Environmental Education Outcomes with Teens

Barata, R., Castro, P., & Martins-Loução, M. A. (2017). How to promote conservation behaviours: the combined role of environmental education and commitment. Environmental Education Research, 23, 1322 - 1334.

Although research has long indicated that knowledge gained from environmental education (EE) does not produce lasting pro-environmental action on its own, combining knowledge with other interventions may spark and sustain behavior changes among EE participants. In this study, the authors examined how combining commitment interventions with EE could influence water and energy conservation among teenagers in Portugal. They assessed whether students who received EE instruction and publicly committed to saving resources would ultimately conserve more water and energy at home than students who did not receive the instruction or make the commitment.

To test this, the authors first used previous research to establish criteria for creating effective commitments. The elements that the researchers studied included ensuring that commitments were public, voluntary, and adequately challenging, as well as designed to activate students' preexisting personal norms, which the authors treated as an offshoot of identity. The researchers also designed the EE initiative used in the study, which included a visit to the Lisbon Botanic Garden (an experiential element) and two classes on energy and water conservation at students' schools (a knowledge delivery component). The study's 418 participants ranged from 11 to 15 years old and attended four schools across 21 classes.

Researchers split the students into two groups. Group 1 consisted of 248 students, all of whom received EE instruction and committed to water and energy conservation publicly, privately, or not at all. Group 2 (170 students) served as the control, receiving no EE programming but still signing a conservation commitment publicly, privately, or not at all.

To measure energy and water savings for each student, the researchers collected electricity and water meter readings at home from an average month and from the 8 month when students participated in the conservation challenge. They also administered pre and post surveys that gathered information on self-reported conservation attitudes, conservation intentions, conservation behavior, ecological self-identity, and personal norms around water and energy use.

Analysis of the direct data from meter readings indicated that water savings did not vary between the group with EE and the group without EE (control group), and that students in the EE group saved more energy than those in the control group. This analysis also revealed that students who signed public commitments saved more water than those who signed private or no commitments, but only among students already in the EE group. This indicates that commitment alone may not influence behavior.

In analyzing the questionnaires, researchers found that EE had a measurable effect on students' self-reported ecological identity as well as on their water saving attitudes and behavior. With respect to energy, researchers saw among those in the EE group an increase in feelings of guilt, which was part of the personal norms category. Commitment did not impact either group.

These findings indicate that ecological self-identity and personal norms related to guilt about not conserving more energy may be important predictors of conservation behavior. Making commitments may activate aspects of self-identity and personal norms, which can ultimately lead to behavior change. Researchers, therefore, suggest that making conservation commitments should occur in conjunction with experiential delivery of EE programs, such as that done in the Lisbon Botanic Garden.

The Bottom Line

<p>In isolation, neither EE initiatives nor resulting, purported conservation commitments are enough to ensure sustained positive changes in conservation behavior among teenagers. Combining public commitments with EE initiatives, however, may encourage more significant effects on students' energy and water savings. Ensuring that EE programs conclude with a public commitment to a specific conservation behavior/action may enhance teenagers' self-reported ecological identity and personal norms related to conservation. If practitioners and educators aim to provide EE programming related to topics such as energy and water to help enhance students' ecological self-identities and activate their personal norms, more successful outcomes of public conservation commitments may follow.</p>