Measuring environmental behaviors and attitudes in higher education students from Portugal

Sousa, S. ., Correia, E. ., Leite, J. ., & Viseu, C. . (2021). Environmental knowledge, attitudes and behavior of higher education students: a case study in Portugal. International Research in Geographical and Environmental Education, 30(4), 348-365.

Environmental issues have become an increasing concern over the last few decades. Specifically, in Portugal, education on environmental problems has lacked compared with other European countries. In 2016, Portugal resolved to reduce its overall carbon emissions. As a part of that resolution, the country pledged to invest more in environmental education and awareness of the pressing issues of climate change in order to effectively promote environmentally-friendly behaviors in students. Higher education institutions (HEIs) are key in providing education to the next generation of leaders. Because of this, it's important to assess the state of undergraduate students' environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors, as to determine institutional strategies to promote environmental protection. This study examined the environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors of undergraduate students and whether their demographics or socioeconomic status played a role in their behaviors.

This study took place between March and May 2020 at the Coimbra Business School - ISCAC, a public HEI in Portugal with 2,857 students. A voluntary questionnaire was administered to undergraduate students. In total, 371 questionnaires were collected for analysis. Respondents were mostly 18-23 years old. The majority of responses were from female students and those in shared housing with other students. The average student household income was between 700 and 1,700 euros per month. The questionnaire measured student's environmental knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and included some demographic questions. Knowledge was measured with seven statements of environmental facts in which students rated their agreeance of each one on a five-point scale of "totally disagree” (1) to "totally agree” (5). A higher score indicated students found the facts accurate and had higher environmental knowledge. Students also rated eight information sources for environmental knowledge on a five-point scale of "not at all important” (1) to "extremely important” (5). Attitudes were measured with five positive environmental attitude statements that students rated on a five-point scale of "totally disagree (1) to "totally agree” (5). Behaviors were measured by eight statements, each listed a different environmental behavior, to which respondents rated on a five-point scale how often they exercise that behavior from "never” (1) to "always” (5).

Overall, the results indicated the students felt it was important to protect the environment. Results showed most students had a high amount of environmental knowledge, which was similar to other studies done on secondary school and higher education students across the world. For example, almost half of respondents agreed that temperature is rising in the atmosphere, which likely was learned from seeing news about climate change in the media. Students' main sources of environmental information were from television, social networks, and HEIs. Regarding environmental attitudes, 80% of students agreed that natural resources are limited and should be used more wisely. The majority of respondents also agreed nature can be easily affected by human activity, global warming should be a top priority across the globe, and animals and plants should be protected. These results showed most students had positive environmental attitudes. Lastly, the researchers found the most likely student pro-environmental behaviors related to paper and energy use. However, there were 19 students that said they never recycled and 34 who mentioned they never used a more environmentally friendly means of transportation such as biking. Overall, this portion of the survey findings generally aligned with other studies.

Students' socioeconomic and demographic traits were assessed and compared with their environmental behaviors, attitudes, and knowledge. Results showed there was not a significant difference in environmental knowledge and student gender, living arrangements, income, nor area of study. The results between knowledge and gender differed from other studies that often show women score lower than men in tests of environmental knowledge. For environmental attitudes, there was also no significant difference among student age, area of study, living situation, nor income. This also contrasted previous literature, which stated females with lower income status and students in their first year usually score higher on surveys of environmental attitudes. For environmental behavior, again the results showed no significant differences between behaviors and student age, area of study, living situation, nor income. There was a difference between genders, it was shown that women had more environmentally friendly behaviors than men, a common trend found in other research.

There were limitations in this study, and the results are not generalizable. One of the most important was the knowledge, attitudes, and behavior of each student was self-reported, which could create biases in the responses. Further, many HEIs explain the theoretical premises for complex environmental issues and do not typically explain specific environmental issues, contexts, and case studies can influence the attitudes and behaviors students hold.

Overall, this study showed the students had a strong belief in and understanding of protecting the environment. Further, the students believed they were knowledgeable on how to protect the environment. HEIs serve as one of the best information sources for students, which is critical for teaching students to be future leaders in environmental issues and solutions. However, despite positive behavior results, many students responded that they did not practice pro-environmental behaviors, such as using public transportation. The researchers suggested educators in HEIs promote environmental protection, and instill environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors in students, through meetings, conferences, and other actions. Further, there should be an incorporation of environmental topics into the curriculum of all study areas. The researchers hoped the baseline data captured in this survey could inform future HEI education strategies.

The Bottom Line

The researchers in this study sought to understand Portuguese undergraduate students' environmental knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors as well as assess how their demographics and socioeconomic status affected those dimensions. To measure this, 371 students completed a short questionnaire. The results showed most students felt knowledgeable about the environment and held strong attitudes toward protecting it. In addition, most of the students acted in environmentally friendly ways. The researchers recommended there should be greater encouragement to adopt environmentally friendly behaviors targeted at those who do not do such. There should also be further implementation of environmental topics in the curriculum across majors in higher education institutions.

Research Partner