Using autobiographical memory functions can enhance environmental education evaluation

Wu, M., Zhu, Z., Chen, J., Niu, L., & Liu, C. -C. (2020). Autobiographical memory functions: an emancipatory approach to construct environmental education outcomes. Environmental Education Research, 26, 632 - 649.

Environmental education (EE) is a powerful tool for improving human-environment relationships by cultivating environmentally responsible citizens. Environmental education programs often follow one of two methodologies to accomplish these goals: the instrumental perspective, which aims to change irresponsible environmental behaviors, and the emancipatory perspective, which provides participants with opportunities for positive development and encourages autonomous thinking. Participating in EE activities can become an autobiographical memory (AM), a contribution to a memory system consisting of personal experiences and general knowledge collected over a lifetime, for some participants, and having participants share these memories can be an effective method of evaluation for emancipatory programs. This study focused on three autobiographical memory functions (AMFs) that result from EE program participation: 1) directing attitude and behavior (directive function), 2) encouraging relevant social interactions (social function), and 3) helping individuals understand themselves (self function). The study was designed to determine how the AMs of EE program participants perform these three functions, how directive AMFs reflect typical EE outcomes, and how social and self AMFs influence environmental behaviors.

The study focused on the No Shark Fin (NSF) program based in Beijing, China, in 2015. No Shark Fin is an environmental action program for college students. They volunteer in a one-year project raising public awareness about protecting sharks and collect pledges from individuals to abstain from the consuming shark fins. Researchers recruited 65 individuals who completed the NSF program from 2011-2014 to participate in structured interviews lasting 30-90 minutes. The interviews were designed with leading questions on general thoughts and feelings about the NSF program, then transitioned to questions focused on each of the three AMFs. Interviews were recorded and transcribed, then analyzed for common themes and connections.

The researchers found that the AMs developed following participation in the NSF program performed directive, social, and self functions. Six themes of directive functions, corresponding to the NSF's EE objectives, emerged in the analysis: environmental awareness, knowledge, attitudes, behaviors, and skills, along with social skills. Throughout the program, participants were able to gain awareness around the issue of shark conservation. This prepared them to gain additional knowledge, form positive attitudes about protecting sharks, and ultimately perform environmental behaviors such as taking personal action or persuading others not to eat shark fins. This process also facilitated the development of social skills, and built participants' self-efficacy, allowing them to see how they could make a difference. The alignment between five of the directive function themes and EE objectives indicates that using AMFs is an appropriate method of program evaluation for EE outcomes.

Participants also indicated two themes of social AMFs: reminiscing with teammates and sharing with nonparticipants. Post-program discussions with former teammates may have sustained or deepened participants' acquired knowledge and skills, thereby enhancing positive environmental attitudes. Sharing this knowledge with non-participants could lead to positive attitude or behavior changes in participants' social circles, expanding the positive impact of the NSF program. Finally, the program promoted self functions such as building self-efficacy, boosting self-esteem, changing traits (becoming more outgoing or energetic), expanding hobbies, and renewing goals for future participation in pro-environmental activities or careers. These self functions are a critical component of developing individuals interested in environmental protection—the impacts participants experience during EE programs can help to formulate career goals and shape post-program environmental actions.

There were some limitations to this study. The study focused on the NSF program, which only included college-aged participants based in Beijing, limiting the applicability of results to other age groups and countries. Additionally, the program was a year in length, so the results cannot be compared with shorter EE program outcomes. The researchers also noted that their results differed slightly from other prior studies, which they attributed to their interview design and/or the timing of when interviews occurred.

The researchers recommend using AMFs to evaluate EE programming in order to provide practitioners with a more comprehensive interpretation of EE outcomes and effects, such as personal development and self-efficacy. If AMFs are used to evaluate multiple programs, one could draw comparisons between the programs and develop even more effective EE programming.

The Bottom Line

<p>Participation in environmental education (EE) programs is often impactful and can contribute to one's autobiographical memory (AM), a memory system of personal experiences and general knowledge collected over a lifetime. This study examined how the AMs of EE program participants performed three functions (directive, social, and self); how directive AMFs reflected typical EE outcomes; and how social and self AMFs influenced environmental behaviors. This 2015 study focused on a No Shark Fin (NSF) program, where college students participated in a one-year project to raise public awareness about protecting sharks, based in Beijing, China. Sixty-five alumni were recruited for structured interviews. The researchers found that the AMs formed after participating in the NSF program performed directive, social, and self functions. The directive functions aligned with EE outcomes, enhancing environmental behavior, attitudes, knowledge, skills, and awareness. Social AMFs were critical for establishing lasting effects, and self AMFs led to increased self-efficacy. The researchers recommend using AMFs to evaluate EE programs.</p>

Research Partner