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  • Education for Sustainability:Exploring Teaching Practices and Perceptions of Learning Associated with a General Education Requirement

Higher education institutions are increasingly interested in infusing sustainability content into their curricula. This can be accomplished through general education programs, which the University of Vermont recently established. The implementation of this new requirement created a unique opportunity to investigate sustainability- related teaching and learning. The purpose of this study was to explore how instructors structured and taught sustainability learning outcomes and students' perceptions of learning within an assortment of general education courses. The variety of data collection methods (online survey, interviews, focus groups, observation, and document review) enabled the identification and triangulation of strong themes. Findings describe three course design approaches instructors used to incorporate sustainability. Instructors taught sustainability through class discussions, papers, readings, projects, guest speakers, and case studies. Students reported the following teaching practices as particularly helpful: experiencing real-world applications, discussing sustainability issues in class, exploring different perspectives, experiencing agency, and learning from peers and guest speakers. The following are recommended areas for skill development: (1) training instructors to align learning outcomes with assessment strategies to ensure that appropriate evidence is gathered, (2) encouraging instructors to reflect upon which teaching practices effectively supported student learning and consider improvements, and (3) using a variety of teaching practices and assessment strategies.


general education, sustainability-acrossthe-curriculum, education for sustainability, teaching practices in higher education, learning outcomes in higher education[End Page 216]

Nationwide, higher education institutions (hels) are increasingly interested in incorporating sustainability content into their curricula. Information is needed about how best to infuse sustainability content into undergraduate curricula. Sustainability, as defined at the University of Vermont (UVM), is "the pursuit of ecological, social, and economic vitality with the understanding that the needs of the present be met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (Hill & Wang, 2014, p. 4). heis have the opportunity to play a critical role in improving the quality of our lives by graduating students with problem-solving skills and knowledge of the interconnections of economic, ecological, and social dimensions of sustainability issues (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2010). Emerging initiatives call upon heis to teach students sustainability content, such as the United Nations' call for universities to revise curricula to include a clear focus on cultivating sustainability knowledge, skills, and values (Tilbury, 2011).

Numerous HEIs have created distinct sustainability majors or minors, while others have increased their sustainability course offerings (Rowe, 2002). However, these strategies do not necessarily reach all students, so Rowe (2002) recommends establishing a general education requirement as an effective way to embed sustainability throughout all curricula. A number of HEIs have added components to their general education programs that align with sustainability principles, such as social responsibility and civic engagement (D. Rowe, pers. comm., 2016). Other HEIs have established sustainability general education requirements that either require a specific sustainability course or embed sustainability content into a variety of different courses (Hattan, 2009; Rowe, 2002). Nationally, almost twenty HEIs have implemented sustainability general education requirements. They fall into two categories of nine institutions each: (1) small (fewer than three thousand students) private institutions and (2) large (more than ten thousand students) public institutions.

In 2015, UVM became an example of a larger public university with a sustainability general education requirement. UVM has an "embedded throughout" course model because it does not require a distinct course; rather, a variety of courses or experiences can fulfill the requirement. The launch of UVM's requirement provided an opportunity to investigate how the defined Sustainability Learning Outcomes (SLOs) are being taught within a variety of disciplinary contexts. The purpose of this study was to explore how instructors structured and taught and how students perceived they learned the SLOs within courses designed to meet this new general education requirement. Specifically, this study considered the following two questions: First, in what ways did instructors structure their teaching to incorporate the SLOs in their sustainability-designated courses? Second, to what extent did students perceive that [End Page 217] their instructor's teaching practices were more or less helpful to their learning? In answering these questions, this study has potential for contributing to two distinct bodies of literature: (1) how instructors incorporate sustainability learning outcomes into their teaching and (2) students' perceptions of helpful teaching practices for learning about sustainability.

The remainder of this article is organized as follows: first, a description of the study's context, the UVM sustainability general education requirement; second, a presentation of existing literature on curriculum design approaches, the Education for Sustainability framework, and sustainability teaching practices; third, an overview of the study design and data collection methods; and fourth, a summary of study findings on course design approaches, teaching practices, instructor reflections, and student perceptions. Finally, a conclusion with a discussion of study findings' implications for teaching and institutional practices is provided.

UVM's Sustainability General Education Requirement

The Faculty Senate is responsible for creating general education requirements, as faculty control the curricula. For many years, there was resistance among faculty toward adding more than the one diversity general education requirement. There were concerns about adding required courses to professional degree programs and the lack of an institutional assessment mechanism. In fall 2010, UVM established a learning outcomes approach to its general education requirements, creating a variety of pathways (course, curricular, and co-curricular) to meet requirements. Creating an outcomes-based approach to general education helped to address areas of faculty resistance because students could meet the outcomes in a variety of different ways and the outcomes articulated the desired student learning, making it easier to assess. Establishing learning outcomes enables departments to tweak their courses to teach those outcomes so that students do not need to take additional courses. The outcomes-based approach helped the Faculty Senate consider adding additional general education requirements.

In 2009 six potential areas of general education were identified through a faculty survey, and the Faculty Senate approved them in principle in May 2011. A committee was established to create learning outcomes and an implementation plan for the most popular requirement—writing and information literacy. A pilot study demonstrated an improvement in writing skills among students who participated in the coursework, helping this requirement gain approval. In March 2010, UVM's Student Government Association submitted a resolution supporting the creation of a university-wide sustainability curricular requirement for all undergraduate students. In response to the resolution, an [End Page 218] ad hoc Sustainability General Education Committee was formed in fall 2012 with the responsibility of creating sustainability learning outcomes. In April 2014 the Faculty Senate approved the four learning outcomes and established the Sustainability Curriculum Review Committee, charged with designing and implementing the sustainability designation application process.

In April 2015, UVM's Faculty Senate approved four slos as the general education requirement. All undergraduate students matriculating at UVM beginning in fall 2015 were required to satisfy the sustainability requirement to graduate (Kaza, Natkin, & Rowse, 2015). The Sustainability Learning Outcomes are

Learning outcome 1: Students can have an informed conversation about the multiple dimensions and complexity of sustainability. (knowledge category)

Learning outcome 2: Students can evaluate sustainability using an evidence-based disciplinary approach and integrate economic, ecological, and social perspectives. (skills category)

Learning outcome 3: Students think critically about sustainability across a diversity of cultural values and across multiple scales of relevance from local to global. (values category)

Learning outcome 4: Students, as members of society, can recognize and assess how sustainability impacts their lives and how their actions impact sustainability. (personal domain) (Hill & Wang, 2014, pp. 4-5)

Students may satisfy the requirement through a designated major, course, or co-curriculum program. This study explored sustainability courses—the most commonly used pathway by students to fulfill general education requirements. Faculty interested in teaching a course that addresses these learning outcomes and fulfills this sustainability requirement needed to apply for designation. The designation process involved explaining how faculty would teach students the SLOs and how they would assess for student learning (see Kaza et al., 2015).

As general education requirements were being approved, the next step was establishing institution-wide assessment processes. The provost office understood this need and funded a pilot project to explore how to effectively and efficiently create assessment processes. This funding brought Barbara Walvoord, an expert higher education assessment consultant, to campus for a series of workshops. Each general education requirement has an appointed assessment chair and newly established faculty committees. All seven UVM colleges have newly appointed assessment coordinators. Assessment coordinators are working to gain faculty support of their assessment efforts, which will remain close to what is happening in the classroom. [End Page 219]

Sustainability Faculty Fellows Program

UVM's university-wide sustainability curricular requirement was approved after six years of a sustainability-focused professional development program. In 2009, UVM established its Sustainability Faculty Fellows (sff) Program after two key campus leaders attended a Chase and Barlett workshop on developing sustainability-focused faculty learning communities (Barlett & Chase, 2012). This sff program was designed to enhance sustainability education by bringing faculty members together to expand their knowledge of sustainability concepts and to learn pedagogical strategies for integrating those concepts in curricula (Kaza et al., 2015; Natkin & Kolbe, 2016). Each year the program accepts fifteen-twenty participants. Faculty learning communities can support the integration of sustainability content into courses by helping overcome common challenges, such as not enough planning time, not enough time to cover additional content, and feeling uncertain about sustainability issues (Barlett & Chase, 2012; Barlett & Rappaport, 2009; Natkin & Kolbe, 2016). Program participants represented a broad range of disciplines, which added richness to the discussions and reflected the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability issues.

Over the course of an academic year, sff participants engaged in multiple activities intended to expand their understanding of sustainability concepts and increase their capacity to effectively integrate sustainability content in their teaching. The two-day institute was the program's cornerstone. During the institute, participants engaged in a mix of dialogue, reflection, writing, and critical thinking that helped them explore sustainability concepts and teaching practices. In addition to the institute, participants attended four faculty luncheons, each with a different theme. Participants also had access to an online repository of professional materials to support their work and received a $400 professional development stipend after completing the two-day institute. By 2016, 118 faculty and staff representing thirty-eight departments had completed the sff program (Natkin & Kolbe, 2016). Program participants were expected to design or enhance a course to integrate sustainability concepts, which was advantageous in supporting course capacity for the general education requirement (see Kaza et al., 2015; Natkin & Kolbe, 2016).

Literature Review

This section reviews literature about the course design approaches, the Education for Sustainability framework, and sustainability-related teaching practices. It concludes with a description of this study's conceptual framework. [End Page 220]

Course Design Approaches

UVM's general education programs are a collection of approved learning outcomes, not a list of required courses. Johnston (2013) advocates for requiring learning outcomes in general education programs because learning goals are clearly defined objectives empowering instructors to figure out how to integrate them in their unique curricula. Two course design strategies that utilize instructors' ability to begin their course design process with learning outcomes are Wiggins and McTighe's (2005) Understanding by Design and Biggs's (2003) Aligning Teaching for Constructive Alignment frameworks.

Wiggins and McTighe's (2005) Understanding by Design framework offers a backward design approach to creating course curricula. The backward design approach is a three-step process beginning with identifying desired results, followed by determining acceptable evidence that students have achieved those results, and concluding with planning the learning experiences. This process challenges instructors to shift their focus from how they will teach to how they will know whether students are learning (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Instructors have the opportunity to be intentional about what evidence of learning students will produce to indicate that they are meeting the desired outcomes, which is an important step in assessing the efficacy of the planned curricula (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005).

Biggs's (2003) Constructive Alignment framework is based on the understanding that students construct their own learning, so the instructor's role is to cultivate a learning environment that supports students' learning by thoughtfully aligning learning activities and assessment methods to the intended learning outcomes. Instructors are challenged to create a curriculum that engages students in activities designed for learning the desired skills and then to carefully choose assessment methods that will enable students to demonstrate their learning (Biggs, 2003; Biggs & Tang, 2007). Carefully designed assessment tasks are critical because students are likely to focus on what they think will be covered in graded assignments (Biggs, 2003; Biggs & Tang, 2007). Constructivist alignment encourages students and instructors to reflect on their learning experiences (Biggs & Tang, 2007).

Both curriculum design strategies (backward design and constructivist alignment) begin with identifying the desired learning goals; UVM's general education learning outcomes enable instructors to easily use either approach to create their course curricula. These approaches are particularly helpful in sustainability education because of their focus on developing student skills articulated in outcomes rather than simply increasing content knowledge. [End Page 221]

Education for Sustainability

There is a natural affinity between goals for general education programs and goals for sustainability education, particularly given the interdisciplinary nature of sustainability issues and the importance of social responsibility and problem-solving skills. General education programs were created to prepare all students to become educated citizens and workers with the ability to think critically, problem-solve, learn collaboratively, communicate effectively, and cultivate a sense of social responsibility (Gaston, 2015). Sustainability education aims to teach students from a variety of disciplinary perspectives problem-solving skills because addressing sustainability issues will require a variety of expertise; establishing related general education programs could help achieve this goal (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, 2010).

One framework that might offer guidance to hels' instructors teaching sustainability is Education for Sustainability (EfS; Cirillo & Hoyer, 2015). EfS aims to motivate and transform student learning by linking knowledge, inquiry, and action through innovative pedagogy, such as inquiry-based, project-based, place-based, and service-learning (Cirillo & Hoyer, 2015). These teaching practices prepare students to think critically, ask critical questions, work collaboratively, and consider their behavior concerning others now and in the future (Cirillo & Hoyer, 2015). EfS involves teaching practices that stimulate transformative learning, going beyond foundational knowledge to cultivate values and dispositions in students who will support global justice (Sterling, 2004; Wals & Dillon, 2013). Nolet (2016) explains the EfS aim to change students' worldviews, defining a sustainability worldview as a "way of seeing and engaging with the world through the lens of sustainability" (p. 10).

There are many key concepts for students to understand when they are cultivating a sustainability worldview, such as the underlying principles that govern complex systems, ecological principles, the science of climate change, and social justice issues (Meadows & Wright, 2008; Wessels, 2006). However, it is important to understand that EfS is not a subject to be taught; rather, it is a way of thinking to be developed. In other words, it is "not primarily teaching about sustainability but teaching towards sustainability" (Jenson, 2013, p. 25).

Sustainability Teaching Practices

There are many different recommended EfS teaching approaches for sustainability content, which can be broadly categorized into four types of teaching practices: (1) inquiry-based, (2) experiential, (3) collaborative, and (4) reflective (Cirillo & Hoyler, 2015; Holdsworth, Thomas, & Hegarty, 2013; Nolet, 2016; [End Page 222] Shriberg & MacDonald, 2013; Sterling, 2004; Wals & Dillon, 2013). These practices can be used as stand-alone instructional approaches or in combination with one another.

Inquiry-Based Learning

Nolet (2016) defines inquiry-based learning as instructors facilitating learners as they take responsibility for investigating open-ended questions in a way that is meaningful to them. Two approaches to inquiry-based learning are project-based learning and posing essential questions to students (Cirillo & Hoyler, 2015; Nolet, 2016). Essential questions "serve not only to promote understanding of the content of a unit on a particular topic; they also spark connections and promote transfer of ideas from one setting to others" (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005, p. 107). Project-based learning engages students with a problem, complex question, or challenge for an extended period of time to build skills.

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning engages learners in direct experiences to build knowledge and skills (Nolet, 2016). Experiential learning methods engage students with course material that reflects real-life applications. Students learn by analyzing case studies, connecting course material to their own lives, or engaging in creative problem solving through applied learning experiences (Holdsworth et al., 2013; Nolet, 2016; Sterling, 2004; Wals & Dillon, 2013). Service-learning is an experiential learning practice where students address real-world issues while participating in a service activity (Cirillo & Hoyler, 2015; Nolet, 2016; Shriberg & MacDonald, 2013).

Collaborative Learning

Collaborative learning occurs when learners work together to accomplish learning goals (Nolet, 2016). This can happen in many different types of class activities such as discussions, group projects, papers, presentations, and peer review of each other's work. Collaborative learning experiences challenge students to articulate their understanding to peers while developing social skills (Nolet, 2016).

Reflective Learning

Reflective learning allows students to analyze and give serious consideration to how their learning experience, new knowledge, and skill development relate to their lives and identity (Nolet, 2016). Nolet (2016) recommends teaching practices that support students, giving them the time, space, and structure to reflect on their own ways of looking at the world and their societies' values, inviting them to question their assumptions, beliefs, and values. [End Page 223]

Conceptual Framework

Instructors design their course activities, choosing the content and teaching practices they will implement to support student learning. Ideally, instructors are gathering information about how students are processing their planned curriculum, through conversations, student reactions, and course assignments, so that they can assess how students are learning, making necessary curricular adjustments (Biggs & Tang, 2007; Woolson, 2015). Assessment is the gathering of data on student learning with the intent to improve teaching practices and student learning (Walvoord, 2010). Hopefully, instructors reflect upon their assessment of their curricula. This study explored the four components of the process of teaching and learning in a sample of sustainability (SU) courses. See Figure 1 for an illustration of the cyclical process of teaching and learning.

Figure 1. Cyclical process of teaching and learning.
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Figure 1.

Cyclical process of teaching and learning.

Study Overview

As HEis become more interested in incorporating sustainability into their curricula, it would be helpful to have information about which teaching practices support student learning. The purpose of this study was to explore how instructors structured and taught sustainability learning outcomes within general education courses. Specifically, this study addresses the following two research questions: [End Page 224]

In what ways did instructors structure their teaching to incorporate the Sustainability Learning Outcomes in their SU-designated courses?

To what extent did students perceive that their instructors' teaching practices were more or less helpful to their learning?

To answer the first research question, relevant course material was reviewed, class sessions were observed, and instructors were interviewed. To answer the second research question, student focus groups were facilitated, and an online student survey was administered. The following section describes how the research sample was selected and how the data were collected and analyzed.

Data and Methods

Course Selection

Eight sustainability-designated courses made up this study's sample. A stratified purposeful sampling strategy was used to select a sample of courses to capture characteristics of interest to facilitate comparisons (Patton, 2002). Selection criteria included SU-designated courses taught in the Spring 2016 semester representing a variety of disciplines and course sizes. Table 1 summarizes the eight participating courses' department, enrollment number, instructor rank, and identifying disciplinary code.

Table 1. Participating Course Characteristics
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Table 1.

Participating Course Characteristics

Data Sources

Data were collected from instructors and students involved with this study's sample of eight SU-designated courses using the following methods: (1) [End Page 225] document review, (2) interviews, (3) classroom observations, (4) student focus groups, and (5) student survey. In addition to instructor interviews, four key informants were interviewed who were involved in the creation and implementation of the sustainability general education requirement. Table 2 provides a description of each data collection procedure.

Table 2. Summary of Data Collection Procedures
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Table 2.

Summary of Data Collection Procedures

[End Page 226]

Survey Respondents and Instrument

At the end of the semester, students (n = 479) enrolled in participating courses were invited to participate in an online survey. Of the 479 students, 178 students completed the survey (37 percent response rate). The survey was designed to capture students' perceptions of how the course helped expand their understanding of UVM's SLOs. Given the study's focus on teaching practices within SU courses and complexities associated with measuring students' learning, the survey was not designed to measure actual student learning but, rather, to measure students' perceptions of what they learned in their course.

Analytic Approach

Using a variety of methods enabled data analysis from a variety of angles, triangulating around identified strong themes. A within-course analysis was conducted, followed by an across-course analysis, collecting information to gain an understanding of each course and then looking across all courses (Bloomberg & Volpe, 2012). A course description table was created summarizing the key characteristics of course design, teaching practices, sustainability content covered, and assessment methodology. All transcriptions, documents, and open- ended survey data were coded to identify patterns and themes of SLO teaching and learning in UVM's SU courses.


Findings are organized according to four key topics aligned with the study's research questions: (1) course design approaches for sustainability, (2) sustainability course teaching practices, (3) instructors' reflections on student learning, and (4) student perceptions of learning.

Course Design Approaches for Sustainability

In general, there were three course design approaches instructors used to incorporate the SLOs into their coursework. They either reoriented some [End Page 227] of the curricula to incorporate sustainability, or designed a new distinct sustainability unit, or infused sustainability content throughout all course activities (Meagher, 2013). The breadth and depth of sustainability-related content also differed among the course design approaches. Based on instructors' course design approach, courses were characterized according to a three-part typology: (1) reoriented courses, (2) new unit courses, and (3) "infused throughout" courses. Courses were placed into different course design approach types primarily based on their design approach, but four other key characteristics were also factors: (1) level of sustainability content exposure, (2) range of content, (3) variety of teaching practices, and (4) extent of assessment. Students' exposure to sustainability content varied from introductory to deep, and the range of topics varied from narrow to widespread. Instructors used a variety of different teaching practices and assignments to assess student learning related to sustainability content. Based on this analysis, Geography, Economics, and Plant Biology were typed as r eoriented courses; Electrical Engineering and Elementary Education were typed as new unit courses; and Environmental Studies, Natural Resources, and Nutrition and Food Sciences were typed as infused throughout courses. Table 3 provides a summary of the content and characteristics by course type.

Reoriented course instructors' (Geography, Plant Biology, and Economics) design approach was to reorient some of the course content to incorporate [End Page 228]

Table 3. Course-Level Content, Teaching Practices, and Assessment Characteristics
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Table 3.

Course-Level Content, Teaching Practices, and Assessment Characteristics

sustainability. They tweaked a few key course activities, weaving in some sustainability-related content to complement existing course curricula. This provided students with an introductory (shallow) and widespread exposure to sustainability-related course topics. The new unit course instructors [End Page 229] (Electrical Engineering and Elementary Education) created a new distinct unit to address the SLOs, consisting of lectures, applied projects, and class activities. Incorporating sustainability into a new unit provided students with a deep and narrow exposure to sustainability content applicable to their professional field. Sustainability content was not comprehensively covered in reoriented or new unit courses compared with infused throughout courses. The infused throughout course instructors (Environmental Studies, Nutrition and Food Sciences, and Natural Resources) permeated sustainability content throughout all course activities and assignments, using it as the primary organizing topic. This provided students with a deep and widespread exposure to sustainability.

Instructors' assessment of student learning ranged from a few exam questions to multiple papers and projects. Instructors used different approaches to assess student learning that largely corresponded with their course design approach. Reoriented course instructors primarily used exam questions to assess student learning, often due to large class size. New unit course instructors used lab reports, small-group projects, exam questions, and small writing projects as mechanisms for assessing learning. Some instructors reported having a hard time assessing student learning because exams did not provide enough data. Infused throughout course instructors used most course assignments to assess students' learning about sustainability, such as projects, papers, and presentations. Due to the depth of in-class student discussions, infused throughout course instructors were able to assess how students were processing sustainability content. One instructor of a course infusing sustainability throughout shared how helpful reflective papers were in "gauging how students were processing and their change over time."

Sustainability Course Teaching Practices

The student survey asked participants to select the class activities they experienced in their sustainability course. Students' (n = 178) most commonly selected activities were class discussions (87 percent), readings (82 percent), guest speakers (55 percent), papers (44 percent), reflective activities (43 percent), and case studies (38 percent). Through analysis of qualitative data from the document review, instructor interviews, and the student survey, teaching practices were aligned with the following four types: (1) inquiry-based, (2) experiential, (3) collaborative, and (4) reflective. Table 4 describes examples of teaching practices within the four teaching practice types. [End Page 230]

Table 4. Examples of Sustainability Teaching Activities
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Table 4.

Examples of Sustainability Teaching Activities

[End Page 231]

Instructors' Reflections on Student Learning

Instructors filled out an assessment matrix reporting what course activities and assignments they used to assess students' learning of the slos, what they found out about how students were learning the SLOs, and what actions they planned to take in the future based on that information. Many instructors expressed gratitude for the process of filling out the assessment matrix. One said, "I appreciate being able to go through this process myself, like, What worked? What didn't work?" Another instructor said, "I was made aware of the need to develop interactive instruction and be OK with sacrificing some lecture time [End Page 232] in order to build in group work." A few instructors shared their realization that they were unsure of how students were learning the slos because they did not design assessment strategies to gather specific evidence of learning. Instructors reported class discussions, journals, and reflective papers as particularly helpful in assessing how students were learning the slos.

All instructors shared actions they planned to take in the future to enhance learning. Examples include making better connections between all activities; allowing more time for class discussions; adding a field trip; changing assignments; explicitly addressing diversity, values, and lifestyle issues; incorporating small-group work; and assigning short essays or reflective writing to capture data about student learning. During their discussion of potential future changes to their courses, a few instructors noted that they would appreciate a teaching assistant to help with grading and facilitating small-group discussions. An instructor explained how much easier it is in smaller classes to facilitate discussions and assign papers: "It strikes me that a lot of the slos are easier to hit if you're working in smaller courses" Other instructors felt frustrated by assessment, with one commenting on multiple-choice exams: "It narrows the capacity of what you can actually test. With multiple choice it's mostly fact-retrieval-style questions; it's right or wrong. You have no opportunity to really engage the students' process of thinking through a problem" Another instructor felt that he did not have "time to assess in a deep way, which is particularly necessary with sustainability"; he expressed a desire for assessment-related professional development.

Student Perceptions of Learning

Student survey questions were designed to gather students' perceptions about their learning related to UVM's four sustainability learning outcomes. Almost 80 percent of students reported that their course expanded their learning of the SLOs "somewhat" or "to a great extent" (see Table 5).

In addition to sharing their perceptions of learning, students were asked to indicate the extent to which certain teaching practices were helpful to their learning. Eighty-two percent of students reported class discussion, 74 percent reported readings, and 59 percent reported guest speakers as "somewhat" or "to a great extent" helpful to their learning (see Table 6).

Students described their most helpful sustainability-related learning experience. Student answers were coded and organized by the four types of teaching practices. Aspects of each teaching practice type were mentioned the following number of times: experiential learning, 157; collaborative learning, 88; reflective learning, 76; and inquiry-based learning, 58. The six most frequently mentioned teaching practices were (1) using real-world [End Page 233] examples that applied to their learning, (2) discussing sustainability issues in class, (3) having the opportunity to understand different perspectives, (4) learning with peers, (5) experiencing a sense of agency, and (6) learning from a guest speaker. One student reported, "The most helpful learning experience was our in-class discussions where we can debate back and forth beyond just reading and regurgitating information onto a test." Another student shared that writing assignments were most helpful "because I had to find evidence to support my claims, and had to analyze that evidence. It gave me a greater depth of understanding surrounding the material I incorporated into my papers."

Table 5. Extent to Which Students' Participation in a Sustainability Course Expanded Their Learning of the Sustainability Learning Outcomes (N = 178)
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Table 5.

Extent to Which Students' Participation in a Sustainability Course Expanded Their Learning of the Sustainability Learning Outcomes (N = 178)

The survey provided students with the opportunity to share ways their courses could be changed to improve sustainability learning experiences. They [End Page 234]

Table 6. Students' Indication of the Helpfulness of Teaching Practices (N = 178)
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Table 6.

Students' Indication of the Helpfulness of Teaching Practices (N = 178)

suggested learning more about sustainability, exploring lifestyle implications, having guest speakers, and doing group projects. The most common suggestion was more class discussions; students shared reasons such as "hearing more from students about their perspectives on sustainability" and "more in depth conversations about the readings." Students enjoyed having a variety of types of assignments and the ability to choose their topic. They preferred assignments that challenged them to apply what they had learned rather than memorizing definitions. They liked reflective writing assignments where they had to pull everything together and said that they would rather do projects than take exams. One student shared the experience of Plant Biology's pre-lecture assignments: "Before every class there is a question from the reading. And it's open ended, you can write a couple of sentences. It is so simple, but very effective for starting your thought process." Instructor reflections and student feedback for course improvement tended to mirror each other. Both shared a desire for more class discussion, sustainability content, writing assignments, and group projects. [End Page 235]


UVM's "embedded throughout" course model for its general education programs serves as an example for other hels interested in permeating sustainability learning opportunities throughout curricula. This study explored how instructors of eight sustainability-designated courses structured and taught established sustainability learning outcomes. Findings suggest that instructors used different approaches to redesign their courses and taught using a variety of practices. Across all course design approaches a majority of students perceived that they learned UVM's slos. Thus, instructors interested in teaching sustainability may find this study's teaching activity descriptions useful. This discussion of the findings will focus on two key areas: (1) implications for course design and (2) implications for professional development.

Implications for Course Design

Given UVM's learning outcomes approach to general education, the constructive alignment and backward course design approaches are promising techniques for instructors to incorporate desired learning into their curricula. Beginning with the SLOs, instructors are able to intentionally align their teaching practices with appropriate assessment strategies to collect evidence of learning (Biggs, 2003; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). Both course design approaches challenge instructors to strategically align student learning outcomes with course activities and assessment methods; instructors need to plan activities for gathering evidence of students learning the desired goals (Biggs, 2003; Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). A few instructors shared the realization that they were unsure whether students were learning the SLOs because they had not designed assessment strategies to gather specific evidence of applicable learning. This significant realization highlights the need for training around course design and assessment strategies. Some instructors shared how helpful class discussions, journals, and reflective papers were for assessing students' learning of the SLOs; supporting instructors' use of these assessment activities may improve their awareness of how their students are learning.

Eighty percent of students reported that the SU-designated courses expanded their learning of UVM's SLOs "somewhat" or "to a great extent" across all course types; however, students did not find all teaching practices equally helpful. It was helpful for students to experience a sense of agency and to be exposed to different perspectives. Many students expressed a desire for more opportunities to discuss issues with their peers and to work together on projects. Given these findings, instructors could consider increasing their use of collaborative teaching practices, allowing more time for class discussions [End Page 236] and group work. Students most frequently reported the use of real-world examples as helpful to their learning, which is a commonly recommended Education for Sustainability pedagogical approach (Cirillo & Hoyler, 2015; Holdsworth et al., 2013; Nolet, 2016). They also frequently mentioned learning from guest speakers, which is not as commonly recommended in the EfS literature. In an embedded throughout course model for general education, where instructors from a variety of disciplines are encouraged to teach sustainability content, hosting guest speakers may be a way to add less familiar content. This study's findings suggest that institutions find ways to support instructors' use of a variety of teaching practices, such as class discussions, guest speakers, and activities that involve real-world applications and perspective taking.

Implications for Professional Development

This study informs professional development considerations for this institution and other institutions designing and implementing general education programs, in particular ensuring the availability of assessment- and pedagogy-related training opportunities. Professional development opportunities focused on the backward and constructive alignment course design approaches may help instructors align their teaching practices and assessment methods with learning outcomes. Many instructors had difficulty assessing whether students were learning about sustainability; enhancing instructors' ability to use the backward or constructive alignment course design approach could improve their awareness of how students are learning the desired goals.

In addition to the implications of course design approaches, this study's findings highlight the importance of instructors' reflective practice. The study asked instructors to participate in a reflective practice by completing the assessment matrix. Many participants expressed how helpful the process was for considering which teaching practices effectively supported student learning and what changes might be made to strengthen future courses. Encouraging instructors to consider how students are learning course material can be an effective way to improve curricula and student learning (Woolson, 2015). It can be hard to take the time at the end of the semester to look back at the course experience and think about what worked well and what could have made it better, but it is a potentially powerful way to improve curriculum. Findings suggest that creating systems to institutionally support that reflective processing, such as an assessment matrix, could be a useful way to ensure that the desired learning goals are being met.

Some students expressed a desire for a diversity of assessment strategies, especially written assignments and activities that would challenge them to apply concepts. Several instructors reported writing assignments, especially [End Page 237] reflective writing, as helpful in their assessment of student learning. However, some instructors of larger courses indicated that they struggled when grading writing assignments and projects. Given large class size challenges, institutions might consider providing more access to teaching assistants and capping student enrollment to reduce class size as a way to support instructors incorporating more class discussion, interactive activities, and written papers. In addition to administrative support, instructors may benefit from professional development opportunities related to diversifying teaching practices and assessment techniques. Finally, this study's design serves as a potential model for using a variety of methods (document review, observation, interviews, and student focus groups and survey) to assess higher education teaching practices.

Limitations and Recommendations

This study explored a general education requirement at one specific university for a small sample of courses; thus other contexts need to be considered when applying these findings to other settings. The unit of analysis was the SU courses, not individual students, so this study did not measure individual student learning. Frequently the four types of teaching practices described can be used together, which is an important consideration when interpreting findings. To help encourage honesty, participants were assured that their data would be de-identified and kept confidential. This research study's lack of a causal design eliminates its ability to make causal statements about what enabled students to learn. The next research step would be to examine concretely whether certain practices have an impact on learning. Future research studies could more deeply explore which cognitive characteristics are necessary to learn about sustainability and cause a shift in worldview.


The world is facing a multitude of complex and interconnected issues—such as climate change, a growing population, global health issues, decreasing access to clean water, and intensifying social justice concerns—which are creating the need for college graduates to be confident in their ability to understand systems, have strong problem-solving skills, and have a sense of global citizenship. Education is a powerful mechanism for cultivating skills and changing people's values, behaviors, and worldviews (Nolet, 2016). Higher education institutions are being called upon to play a key role in graduating informed and engaged citizens. UVM's general education requirement serves as an example of one university's effort to graduate students with sustainability values, skills, and knowledge. This study's findings suggest that establishing a sustainability [End Page 238] general education program is a promising strategy for cultivating the desired skills, values, and knowledge among students.

Lisa Watts Natkin

lisa watts natkin, Ph.D., recently completed her doctorate In educational leadership and policy studies at the University of Vermont. She was the curriculum and community connections graduate assistant for the University of Vermont's Office of Sustainability. Her teaching experiences range from early childhood education to teaching environmental education to middle school students to teaching undergraduate courses. Her research interests include integrating sustainability principles into curriculum and evaluating educational effectiveness. Currently, she is working as an evaluator for Evergreen Evaluation and Consulting, Inc., evaluating Office of Special Education Programs- funded projects.

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