The Contribution of Tertiary Sustainability Education to Student Knowledge, Views, Attitudes and Behaviour toward Sustainability

Sidiropoulos, Elizabeth (2019) The Contribution of Tertiary Sustainability Education to Student Knowledge, Views, Attitudes and Behaviour toward Sustainability. PhD thesis, Victoria University.


Higher education (HE) is increasingly expected to graduate students with the requisite skills and competencies to address contemporary sustainability challenges and many tertiary institutions have begun to introduce sustainability education (SE) into their curriculum. To facilitate student learning, educators require a deep understanding of their students’ existing sustainability dispositions and influences that shape their ability and willingness to develop competencies for sustainability. Therefore, this research aims to improve understanding of tertiary students’ current attitudes and the influence of SE on their views, knowledge and agency towards sustainability transitions. This research project was guided by a conceptual framework that linked elements across theories in education and learning, environmental psychology and sustainability transitions. This thesis describes the findings of a mixed methods study conducted over three sequential stages and presented as a series of five publications that are drawn together through an exegesis. The first study provides an initial literature review on different conceptions of sustainability, Education for Sustainability (EfS), learning theories including threshold learning, environmental psychology, social and personal values towards sustainability, and societal and sectoral transitions to sustainability. It explored the role and influence of EfS in facilitating personal, organisational and societal sustainability transitions, and investigated the role and progress of the HE (principally business education) and business sectors around the world and found mixed results, with a low incidence of EfS in Australian business schools. The paper recommended that tertiary business schools audit and embed EfS in all programs, and for educators to identify and locate their students’ current knowledge and perspectives before selecting the appropriate pedagogy to scaffold student learning for sustainability. These recommendations were adopted in all subsequent studies. The second study is a Pilot EfS program conducted at CQUniversity in 2011. The study reports the influence of various types of SE interventions on tertiary students’ sustainability and environmental attitudes and knowledge. The sample consisted of international students enrolled in undergraduate or postgraduate programmes or in ESL courses. Sustainability interventions consisted of course-specific introductory sustainability seminars, courses with sustainability elements already embedded in course curricula, and courses with no elements of sustainability. The influence of such interventions was assessed using a short pre-post survey based on a validated scale, the NEP. Results from student surveys and group discussions indicated significant underlying differences in student views and knowledge about sustainability and varying shifts and resistance in their views following the EfS interventions. Findings revealed heterogeneity in student responses to the same intervention based on their age, gender and culture and shed light on the influence of EfS interventions on particular aspects of students’ sustainability knowledge and attitudes, although limited sample sizes precluded statistical inferences to be made. The third study is a case study that extended the scope of the pilot study to include students’ sustainability behaviour and longer-term impacts after 12-18 months. The study reported on the researcher’s own EfS praxis in tertiary business education courses over an 8-year period (2005-2013) and the influence on students’ sustainability views, conceptions and behaviour over this time. Findings revealed an escalating influence of SE course assessment on student attitudes and behaviour as well as persistence and accumulation of effects over time. The fourth study expanded the scope and scale of the Pilot EfS and case studies into a multi-university, multi--country study that used a common instrument to systematically investigate the influence of SE on student views, attitudes and behaviour across a range of contexts. Pre-test and post-test snapshots of tertiary student perspectives were taken across various terms of study during 2013-2015. The study reported heterogeneity in initial student sustainability perspectives that were influenced by personal and educational factors such as gender, age, “culture” and discipline of study. Environmental worldviews were largely represented by an “instrumental” view of human-nature relations. The influence of exposure to SE was significant compared to the control group however, the effect was weak and moderated by the students' personal and educational context. Findings indicate the current ad hoc approach to SE leads to learning outcomes that are far from certain and weak. The paper argued for a rethink of current educational approaches towards a more coherent and targeted educational strategy. Further research was recommended into the influence of SE on the incidence and experience of transformative learning (TL) and key learning outcomes, and this was adopted in the final study. The final study investigated the TL experience of undergraduate students in dedicated SE subjects/units at two Australian HEIs and reported learning outcomes in terms of their knowledge, attitudes, behaviour and agency for sustainability. The study reported the use of an augmented Learning Activities Survey to identify and measure TL outcomes. Findings revealed that shifts in students’ mindsets and perspectives towards sustainability were fostered by the concept of holistic sustainability, complex problems and systems thinking, participation in group work, independent research and experiential learning as well as previous learning experiences. However, self-reported behaviour changes were limited to the personal sphere rather than enactment of professional competence. Key emerging themes from the PhD research project are a convergence in student views and attitudes after tertiary education towards an “integrative eco-humanist” perspective, limited cases of student empowerment and occasional disempowerment from SE, a focus by students on personal behaviour change rather than professional action/agency, and a limited extent of wider agency. Overall, the current “ad hoc” approach to SE in HE is largely ineffective in creating widespread agents for change. Nevertheless, cumulative learning for sustainability was evident with repetition of SE, greater connection to student’s lifeworld and motivation for change. In summary, the thesis provides insights into the current contribution of tertiary education to student learning for sustainability and identifies influences that foster TL for sustainability and the development of their competency to assist in sustainability transitions. Implications for the development of policy and praxis are discussed to support and develop opportunities that enhance student learning in terms of knowledge, skills and competencies for sustainability. With this knowledge, tertiary educators will be better able to assist students to conceptualise and address sustainability challenges, thus providing an array of societal benefits.

Additional Information

This thesis includes 3 articles for which access is restricted due to copyright (Chapters 4, 5 & 8). Where possible details of access to these papers has been inserted in the thesis, replacing the articles themselves.

Item type Thesis (PhD thesis)
Subjects Historical > FOR Classification > 1302 Curriculum and Pedagogy
Current > Division/Research > College of Arts and Education
Current > Division/Research > Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities
Keywords thesis by publication; Education for Sustainability; EfS; higher education; sustainability education; tertiary students; attitudes; transformative learning
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