An Assessment of Teaching and Learning about Sustainability Across the Higher Education Curriculum

Columbia University

Publication Release Date: March 7, 2019
Date Posted: May 15, 2019
Submitted by: Tessie Devlin
Sustainability Topic: Curriculum
Content Type: Publications
Periodical Name: Academic Commons
Type: Graduate Student Research


Although the majority of scientists agree that we are facing unprecedented climate crises, higher education’s engagement with environmental and sustainability problems is lacking. While the role of human behavior on climate change has been well established by science, these insights have yet to be adequately applied by citizens, thus exacerbating the consequent economic and social problems (like inequity and poverty). In response to the imminent danger of climate change, calls have come for citizens to be mindful of their actions to reverse the deteriorating trajectory of environmental and sustainability decline. In particular, policymakers have deemed higher education classrooms a promising site for equipping future generations of citizens to engage with sustainability. Formal teaching and learning surrounding sustainability-related subject matter, or Education for Sustainability (EfS), is the process of developing students’ knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors toward sustainability. However, EfS is not being incorporated into the higher education curriculum with either the quantity or quality necessary to steer society toward social change. Therefore, the purpose of this dissertation study was to explore the amount of, and the effectiveness of, EfS in an institution of higher education, and to analyze whether EfS was related to students’ sustainability learning outcomes. Data collection took place at Michigan State University, a public, large-size, four-year institution. Students were surveyed at both the beginning and end of the fall 2017 semester to measure changes over one academic semester. Guided by the frameworks of opportunity to learn, cognitively responsive teaching, teaching for sustainability, and transformative sustainability learning outcomes, data were analyzed with logistic and ordinary least squares regression, and Structural Equation Modeling (SEM). Results found that approximately two-thirds of participants reported that they had the opportunity to learn about sustainability. On average, neither cognitively responsive teaching, nor teaching for sustainability, pedagogical approaches were employed to teach sustainability. Interestingly, though, when instructors surfaced students’ prior knowledge about sustainability while teaching the subject, students’ sustainability behaviors increased over the course of the semester. As such, this study illustrated the importance of the pedagogical technique of utilizing students’ prior knowledge when teaching them about sustainability in higher education.