Journal of Sustainability Education

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Educating For and About Sustainability
Updated: 1 hour 57 min ago

Caring as Class: Resolving the Emotional Paradox of Climate Change Education

Mon, 2021-05-24 18:05


‘Vision for a Sustainable Lawrence’ image resulting from a Collective Drawing Exercise led by student April Snay in Spring 2020 Course.


Ward Lyles University of Kansas
Kelly Overstreet University of Kansas
Yiwen Wu University of Kansas
Jasmin Moore Douglas County (KS) and City of Lawrence (KS)

What will it take to create a transformation in human society to coexist with our human and more-than-human earth kin?”

– Journal of Sustainability Education call for papers 2021 

The question of what it will take to induce societal transformation in the face of climate change is daunting to consider, intimidating to try and answer in the abstract, and potentially paralyzing to try and address through teaching, research, and practice. That is, in response to the JSE editors’ question, we may be tempted to simply curl up in a ball and rock back and forth in search of temporary comfort and escape.

Yet, in crafting the subtitle for this issue on climate change, JSE’s editorial team has pointed to multiple paths forward: resistance, recuperation, and resilience. Each of those terms have their roots in sustained action, with the Latin meaning of the ‘re’ prefix based in doing again and again (, 1995). The same implication is present with kindred concepts often used in the realm of grappling with climate change like regeneration, reparations, restoration, recentering, and renewal. Altogether the emphasis on sustained actions, with each term in its own way looking both backwards and forwards in time and knowledge, raises a very direct challenge for educators: how do we help students (and ourselves) prepare to engage in sustained action in the face of climate change and its root causes of extraction, inequity, racism and colonialism?

In this article, we describe our response to this question, admittedly very much a work in progress. We first elaborate on the conceptual and practical challenges in preparing students for sustained action to imagine and enact the future. Paramount among these challenges is acknowledging that climate change cannot be addressed in an equitable way without also addressing its roots in colonization, racism, sexism, and extractive capitalism. Next, we discuss our integrated teaching-research-engagement approach, developed as part of a US National Science Foundation CAREER award project aimed at examining the potential role of compassion as a transformative practice for reducing long-term risks from natural hazards and climate change. Then, we provide summaries of and reflections on a pair of courses taught in 2019 and 2020 that explored, respectively the inner personal dimensions and external relational dimensions of professional work to reduce climate risks. Finally, we detail some of the lessons we’ve learned in the processes of convening these courses and look to future opportunities for growth and sustained action as educators ourselves.

Climate Equity, Multiple Knowledges, and the Emotional Paradox of Sustainability Education

Our aim in developing these courses stems from a deeply humanistic concern with inequities associated with the causes and impacts of climate change. For this audience we assume familiarity with widely documented inequities at all scales. Examples include, but are far from limited to, the global phenomenon of predominantly white, northern hemisphere, exploitative colonizer societies releasing the greenhouse gases driving climate change while climate impacts first and most severely impact predominantly Black and brown, southern hemisphere, exploited colonized societies (Johnson & Wilkinson 2020; IPCC 2014, Prakash & Girgenti 2020) to the local phenomenon of suburban development patterns associated with predominantly wealthy and white communities contributing more per capita to local urban heat islands while predominantly poorer communities of color suffer during heat waves (Stone, 2012). Our humanistic concern does not exclude concern for other beings – those clearly sentient and those whose sentience we might question. But, like readers of the Journal of Sustainability Education we find ourselves part of a growing cadre of educators interested in bridging the often technical and ‘objective’ realm of climate science and policy with the often relational and ‘subjective’ realms of ethics, compassion, and community-driven action (Ray, 2020; Walsh et al., 2020).

Work in the realm of climate inequity fundamentally deals with identity, values, power, and interdependent systems (Johnson & Wilkinson 2020). In learning environments focused on anthropogenic climate change, students and instructors face questions related to who are ‘we,’ which implies a different and perhaps less worthy ‘them.’ Who emits most greenhouse gases? Who doesn’t? Who has the resources to adapt to impacts? Who doesn’t? Who accepts climate change as a problem worth addressing? Who doesn’t? At the risk of stating the obvious, these questions unfold in the context exploitative and destructive legacies and ongoing realities associated with colonization, exclusion based on race, sex, gender, ethnicity and more, and inherently extractive capitalism. At a deeper level, they also elevate traditional views of the student as an individual, thereby de-coupling the problems and solutions they learn about from solutions that demand collective action. The words of the visionary Black feminist Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” challenge us as educators to consider how the learning environments we provide students serve to reinforce the systems that created our climate crisis, as do her calls for love and connection point to a relational path forward (Lorde, 2007).

All too often we find that students who take sustainability-oriented courses experience the following positive-feedback cycle. Introductory courses with an environmental or social justice dimension, whether in the physical sciences, social sciences, or humanities, provide captivating information and incisive analyses that motivate students to learn more about what is arguably the grand challenge of the 21st century: climate change. Each new course makes them more and more aware of the scale of the problems and over time reveals to them their own (often unchosen) complicity in the systems that create the problems. Their relative obscurity as young people (students no less) drives home a perception of lack of agency to make a positive difference as an individual, in spite of the amazing examples of Greta Thunberg, Xiye Bastida, Isra Hirsi, Leah Namugerwa, and Alexandra Villasenor. In most educational settings, the solution to a problem is to seek more knowledge as an individual, which leads back to the start of the cycle.

But what type of knowledge do they find? Sadly, many students find themselves spinning a more and more intricate web of awareness rooted predominantly or exclusively in rational, objective, scientific ways of knowing. They learn about biogeochemical nuances of the climate cycle or debates between supply side and demand side economic theories or how racism drives land use decisions that determine health above other factors or legal and administrative dimensions of policy and planning interventions. None of this focus on objective and rational knowledge is bad; it is essential. Yet it is incomplete, perilously so because so many of these forms of knowledge have been co-opted and used as tools to build the technical, economic, social, political architecture of the house of climate change we find ourselves.

In our own specific field of urban and regional planning, the same pattern plays out. Students focusing on environmental and land use planning at accredited programs learn lots about zoning codes, basic statistics, subdivision regulations, comprehensive plans, and public involvement techniques, the standard tools of the profession. Some students may also take coursework on emerging, innovative, and eye-opening areas of practice like food systems planning, urban forestry, or sustainable transportation. Yet, the tools and subareas of planning have been shaped as much, if not more, by legal and economic systems designed to reinforce existing power structures than by the aspirational values and norms of serving the public interest. Again, the conventional rational-objective approaches to planning and sustainability education are not bad, just incomplete. Ward teaches just such a summer school course on hazards and climate planning that students seem to really benefit from; the course relies on technical how-to resources like Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports (2014), the US National Climate Assessments (2018), and Climate Action Planning (Boswell et al., 2020) and a project-based approach to help students gain practical experience developing an actual local climate plan.

Only recently have some planning scholars promoted a new line of inquiry pushing our community to stop thinking and teaching about planning with ‘half a mind,’ which describes the typical approach of more or less ignoring emotions and relationships of the people who actually do the planning (Baum, 2015). In groundbreaking work, Erfan explores what it might mean to conduct trauma-informed planning, looking to Indigenous communities for wisdom and tangible lessons (2017). Stacey White and I (Ward) have described the emotional paradox of public engagement as arising “when planners experience the need to minimize and contain the influence of emotions in their work,” even though those emotions are what motivate them to pursue public service and community engagement as their career (Lyles & White, 2019). Here we adapt the concept to define the emotional paradox of sustainability education:

Students and instructors often find sustainability issues engaging because of their deep emotional commitment to the topic but in educational settings often find themselves having to minimize or deny the emotional dimensions inherent to learning and action aimed at achieving long-term sustainability.

Some students are fortunate enough to find courses and instructors who help them cut through this paradox. These students encounter learning processes focused more on the power of relationships (Keltner, 2016) and the myriad forms of active compassion (Armstrong, 2011), often arising out of feminist, queer, Black, Indigenous and similar theories and practices (Lorde, 2007; Simpson, 2017; Gumbs, 2020). Students encounter not just a late 1800s speech from Chief Joseph or an advertising trope like the ‘Crying Indian,’ but contemporary Indigenous writings on how land itself is pedagogy (Simpson, 2017) and how centering anti-colonialist Indigenous knowledges can serve as the foundation for the transformations we need (Wildcat, 2010; Simpson, 2017; Gilio-Whitaker, 2019; Estes & Dhilling, 2020). Students encounter not just documentation of the egregious and shameful patterns of environmental injustice (Bullard, 2008), but brilliant and revolutionary inspiration from Black feminist activists linking deep theory with artistic expression and real-time collaborative social change at the local scale (brown, 2017; Gumbs, 2020). And, these students begin to see how these contemporary academic activists, who provide accessible models for their own future growth as individuals who can and do make a tangible difference, are rooted in robust traditions of resistance, recuperation, and resilience.

We conclude this section by acknowledging that we are far from alone in this quest. We recently discovered Sarah Jaquette Ray’s amazing book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, which anyone interested sustainability education in the Anthropocene should read. Ray covers much of the same intellectual territory we just covered, but in much greater detail than we could possibly do here, with particular attention to teaching undergraduate students (2020). The book synthesizes deep wisdom while providing actionable ideas for instructors and students alike. Zach Walsh, Jessica Bohme, Brooke Lavelle, and Christine Wamsler likewise offer ideas for innovative learning opportunities, grounded deeply in theories and practices often ignored in sustainability realms. Their 2020 article ‘Transformative education, towards a relational, justice-oriented approach to sustainability’ “provides a reflexive case study of the design, content, and impact of a course on eco-justice that integrates relational learning with an equity and justice lens” (2020). Not coincidentally, Brooke Lavelle has been an inspiration and guide in our efforts through Courage of Care Coalition (described below) and Ward has co-authored an article with Brooke and Stacey White on ‘The Prospect of Compassionate Planning’ (2017). More broadly, in the time since we taught our classes, wonderful new volumes have been published that we anticipate using in future iterations, starting with All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, the groundbreaking collaboration of more than two dozen women essayists and poets edited by Ayana Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson (2020), Winning the Green New Deal: Why We Must, How We Can, edited by leaders of the Sunrise Movement Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti (2020), and The Future Earth by Eric Holthaus (2020). 

Our approach:

Our attempts to explore and help resolve questions of creating learning environments for students to develop the skills, confidence, and personal grounding to engage with sustained action to address climate change have been made possible by a CAREER award grant (5-years, $500,000) from the US National Science Foundation, specifically the Humans, Disasters, and Built Environment program in the Engineering Directorate. The project develops, tests, and refines a new model of long-term risk hazard reduction, which explicitly incorporates stakeholders’ thoughts and emotions as factors that interact to enhance or constrain hazard mitigation decision-making.

Box 1 Communication Breakdown: this brief interlude address confusion arising from differences in the use of the term of mitigation in difference fields.

The two courses we developed were conceived as serving two purposes: 1) testing and refining learning modules, activities, and exercises that can be delivered in higher education settings and 2) taking what is learned in the higher education testbed to develop modules, activities, and exercises that can also be delivered as ongoing professional education for public servants and engaged community stakeholders.

Oddly enough, the first activity we (Ward and Kelly in this case) undertook to launch the CAREER project was to participate in a five-day intensive anti-oppression ‘retreat’ grounded deeply in contemplative traditions and trauma-informed practices that was offered by the non-profit Courage of Care Coalition, led by Brooke Lavelle. The retreat served as the launching point for a year-long program (2018-2019) of deep introspection, relationship building, and somatic work to help us develop as educators. The experience for both of us was transformative -we both agreed that it was among the most intense experiences of our lives – and profoundly influenced virtually every aspect of the course development. However, we did not aim to replicate the Courage experience (as we called it) in our courses, due to multiple factors we knew we could not replicate and also anticipated that others who might build from our work might not be able to replicate as well. These factors include but are not limited to: a) the Courage experience included a 1:3 facilitator to participant ratio, b) the Courage facilitators embody numerous different racial, sexual, ethnic and other identities, c) the Courage facilitators include professional therapists, extensively trained contemplative practitioners, and people with decades of involvement in social justice activism, and d) the Courage program involved a five-day in-person experience. In sum, we’ve tried to strike a balance of anticipating that people attracted to this type of curriculum will have experience (or at least interest) in the realms of contemplative practices, trauma-informed interaction, and social justice activism, but may be early in their journey in these processes. Through Courage of Care, Brooke has served as a consultant on the development of our courses, roughly over the same timespan that she, Zach Walsh, Jessica Bohme, and Christine Wamsler were developing and teaching a similar course at Lund University in Sweden. [Yiwen also participated in the Courage program, but did so in 2019-20 through an online-only format.]

In developing our courses, we sought to maximize the potential for replication and adaption by reducing the requirement that instructors go through specific preparation programs, through Courage of Care or other similar entities. However, we do feel compelled to make some cautionary notes for other instructors considering a similar approach to ours.

First and foremost, if instructors themselves are not comfortable holding space as students grapple with deeply personal and highly emotional issues, then more preparation is likely necessary. Thinking and talking about climate change can be (should be) deeply emotional for students and instructors, but for the purposes of teaching instructors need to be able to at least temporarily center themselves and be ready to support students. One aspect of teaching this type of course that cannot be over-emphasized is the benefit of having two or more co-instructors, ideally with mutual trust and understanding but different identities and perspectives.

Second, we’ve taught the class with graduate students in public service-oriented professions who self-selected into the course. Given the necessity of engaging with issues like racism and colonialism, if students who are not interested in – or worse, are dismissive of the reality of these issues – are required to take the course, then other students and the instructors themselves may be harmed. Students who live every day overtly negatively impacted by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression and erasure should not be subjected to other students (or instructors) denying, minimizing, or mocking their reality, even if it is part of the learning process of privileged students.

Third, for reasons likely to be obvious, we have not approached these first iterations of the courses as opportunities for ‘objective’ experimental design with pre-test/post-test data collection. Nonetheless, we do feel that our experiences described below may be instructive for others grappling with the vital questions posed in this issue of the Journal of Sustainability Education.

Spring 2019 Experience

We titled the course taught in Spring 2019 “Cultivating Compassionate, Sustainable Communities I: Personal Transformation for Natural Hazards and Climate Change. The core aim of the class, as described in the syllabus was to ““promote personal transformation in the context of broader systems change, drawing heavily on practices that are simultaneously emerging and cutting-edge in this context, but also are informed by ancient and time-tested wisdom.” The main learning objectives were for participants to:

  1. Dedicate time, thought, and feeling to exploring the interplay between a) professional ethics and norms, b) compassion and emotions, and d) serving the public in difficult contexts;
  2. Apply a compassionate systems framework to learn about the role of public service professions in long-term risk hazard and climate change risk reduction at the local level, especially our chosen profession;
  3. Deepen our personal compassionate practices of extending care to others, receiving care from others, and self-care; and,
  4. Expand our abilities to formally and informally communicate how thoughts and emotions intersect in our work, in hopes that our sharing opens opportunities for our peers.

We built the course around three core modules, each centered on a partial-day mini-retreat with companion activities completed in between. The three course modules centered on the following themes, built around touchstone readings.

Module 1: Professions, Love, and Long-Term Hazard Risk Reduction

Touchstone readings for this module included Dweck’s Mindset (2006), hooks’ All About Love (2001), and Boswell et al.’s Local Climate Action Planning (2012).

Module 2: Compassion, Deep Diversity, and Differential Suffering from Hazards and Climate Change

Touchstone readings for this module included Chodhury’s Deep Diversity (2015), Worline and Dutton’s Awakening Compassion at Work (2017), and a set of journal articles on hazards, environmental justice, and climate equity planning.

Module 3: Emotions, Leadership, and Promoting Sustainable Flourishing in the Face of Climate Injustice

Touchstone readings for this module included Goleman, Boyatzis, and McKee’s Primal Leadership (2013) and Wamsler’s ‘Mind the gap: The role of mindfulness in adapting to increasing risk and climate change’ (2018.).

The workshops, which took place on Saturdays to accommodate students’ schedules and take advantage of availability of multiple classrooms for smaller group breakout activities, consisted of strategically ordered activities. We began the workshops with icebreaker activities designed to decenter the instructors as the locus of attention and knowledge and to build community. We then alternated between mini-lectures and white-board discussions, typically led by Ward, brief mindfulness meditation activities adapted from Courage of Care and led by Kelly, and group activities, such as pair-and-share discussions wherein a pair of students take turns helping their partners understand how each other’s professions (e.g. engineering, public administration, planning). During each workshop, the instructors provided food and there was extended time for sharing a morning and noontime meal.

Each module also included four main expectations for out-of-class: 1) completing readings and viewing/watching audio/visual materials, 2) completing guided contemplative practices, 3) personal journaling, and 4) two assignments resulting in tangible digital products. There were weekly expectations for keeping up with the contemplative practices and personal journaling, which required roughly 2 to 3 hours per week. The completion of the readings and assignments enabled more flexibly in pacing and were intended to take 15 to 20 hours per module (about 4 or 5 hours per week if paced evenly throughout the semester).

Students completed six activities (2 each module) designed to enhance their understanding of the core topics in each module through observation, reflection, and critical analysis. Each assignment aimed to push students out of typical ‘academic’ modalities into the types of ‘products’ they might be asked to develop in a professional setting, while still engaging with issues of emotions, and ethics, and uncertainty in the face of climate change.

Assignment 1: Blog Post on Professional Interview and Professional Resources

Assignment 2: Case Examples for Professional Ethics Training

Assignment 3: Memo applying Deep Diversity Framework to Code of Ethics

Assignment 4: Slide Show for Professional Training Workshop

Assignment 5: Letter to Self from the Future

Assignment 6: Leadership Statement

Assessments and Lessons Learned

In keeping with our emphasis on reflection, a rigorous but flexible course evaluation process was important to our overall course design. At the university where the course was taught, course evaluation processes include electronic, anonymous submission by students of responses to a standard course evaluation form near the end of the semester. Evaluation items ask students to answer questions about how often the class met, their anticipated grade, and coarse ratings on the class tasks; they also provide space to answer open-ended prompts about positive and negative aspects of the course instruction. Because of the timing and anonymity of the course evaluation process, it helps ensure students are not impacted by retaliatory grading if they provide a negative evaluation. However, the student evaluation process is limited in a variety of ways: many students do not fill out evaluations, some fill them out with minimal effort or interest, and the substance and phrasing of the questions means instructors receive virtually no information that is actionable to improve the course. Moreover, the process provides no opportunity for interaction between both peers and instructors for follow-up, clarification, and meaningful discussion about how to improve future courses.

To expand upon the university’s standard course evaluation processes, we developed our own Structured Feedback Process that involved feedback and reflection at several levels. First, we provided an open forum for feedback at the final course workshop where students and instructors could chat candidly in an informal setting about what worked and didn’t work. Second, the instructors practiced self-reflection by writing up a set of notes based on their experiences during the course and the feedback from the students. Finally, the course syllabus, assignments, workshop agenda and notes, student and instructor feedback were compiled into a Final Course Packet and shared with experts in different subject-areas for an additional layer of feedback.

Student Feedback. The final workshop offered students space to engage in a course reflection conversation. Feedback focused on assignments, journaling and sustaining contemplative practice, course structure, and natural hazards/disasters emphasized content. Students provided positive feedback in general along with suggestions for improvements. Students articulated the importance of connecting cultivating compassion to leadership and management in their own professions. One of the highlights of this course was the inter-disciplinary and collective transformation of knowledge. “We, as a group of graduate students from different fields, can learn from other’s professional experience. More importantly, we exchanged values and ideas of dealing with climate related issues as a whole.”

With an emphasis on “personal transformation”, students’ feelings and demands from the course varied. Some students commented that the workload felt light on assignments, but the class overall was mentally challenging. They reported that the contemplative practice dimensions did not feel overly quantified (e.g. you must meditate for X minutes per day) or too performative (e.g. you must do this exercise in a group with others), but the tradeoff was that it was difficult to sustain their weekly practice. This response relates to the stated intent of the course, which was to be mentally challenging without being burdensome on students with rigorous workloads already.

The course was designed to provide students with ample time to develop their practice, readings, and reflection. Regarding scheduled assignments, students reported that the more creative assignments, like Assignment 5: Letter from the Future, were particularly helpful and refreshing in the second half of the semester. This feedback prompted instructors to review the schedule to consider the overall flow of the semester – students’ overall workloads often peak mid-semester and obviously in the final weeks – in scheduling assignment due dates. As noted, one of the reported challenges of the class was accountability in maintaining contemplative work and journaling. When asked how instructors could support meditation practices students referenced accountability, suggestions included requiring a daily reflection on their practice, or perhaps the inclusion of an accountability partner. Some students formed small groups and scheduled weekly group time for contemplative practices. One student indicated that it was helpful “that instructors leave freedom for students to facilitate their own practices based on privacy and own demands.” Students also provided suggestions on different journaling activities including the “BestSelf” journal or some sort of equivalent journal that might include prompts for planning, setting goals, gratitude, and more “Strengthsfinder” type items.

Regarding the class format, a few students expressed desires for a 3-hour weekly seminar over workshops. Students’ various levels of knowledge and exposure to climate change affected their demands for class content. Weekly seminars could be helpful to connect students to traditional hazards/climate change learning. Nonetheless, most students felt that multi-hour, weekend workshops brought better-connected interpersonal communication. Again, the flexibility and personalized dimensions of the course was reflected by assignments (e.g. slides making, and leadership). Students could tailor the assignments to meet their academic goals. Several students inserted a note that a better coherence between hazards/climate change and public service/emotion could benefit the course. There was a discussion of whether the course would benefit from focusing solely on emotions and public service without a hazards piece. However, the hazards and natural disasters component forms a most essential piece that motivates students/different professions to work together, as stated in the CAREER grant. So additional brainstorming on how to better integrate hazards and natural disasters will be needed in future iterations of the course. Additional suggestions included building assignments around their selected hazard event throughout the semester or assigning a single disaster or hazard event to guide assignments, sharing, and discussion throughout the semester.

Instructor Reflections. The instructors (Kelly and Ward) reflected on the course using the following prompts: What worked well, what could be improved, personal experience, and changes to consider. Returning to our conceptual framework for emotions in planning, we agreed that the course met most of our expectations on climate and pedagogy, but perhaps was imbalanced in the content. In creating an inclusive learning environment, instructor feedback noted a positive association with creating new spaces within graduate education for community building and exploration, not just information transition, such as “Really felt like helped fill glaring gap in graduate education for bridging personal and professional realms” and I “Loved seeing and hearing the students interact at workshops—felt like I was part of something bigger than just a ‘class’ or a ‘workshop.’” Both instructors noted that building trust is essential to implementing a course like this and providing both informal and formal modes for students to interact and continue to build trust would be enhanced by consistently “sharing space” weekly in a 3-hour seminar class. Other means to further enhance the learning climate could include offering weekly group sits where students practice mindfulness together.

Instructors agreed that student concerns about hazard mitigation content, a reflection that speaks to an imbalance in the “content” aspect of our framework. Solutions to correct this imbalance include altering the course structure to a 3-hour weekly seminar to provide some time for more traditional lecturing around hazard mitigation planning, especially for non-planning students, and assigning all students the same hazard event at the beginning of the semester. Alternatively, one or more prerequisite courses in hazards or climate change could be required, though that would create an undesirable barrier to enrolling in the course.

Peer Feedback. Kelly and Ward also received feedback from three experts in different subject areas and professions. One expert serves in an administrative capacity at the university’s Public Management Center (PMC), which provides professionals continuing education in myriad aspects of public management. Another expert is a professor of practice in Social Welfare, providing expertise both from a research and faculty perspective, and as a clinician, facilitator, and practitioner of mindfulness exercises. The final expert manages the nonprofit Courage of Care and provided expertise primarily on the compassion and mindfulness aspects of our course. Expert feedback was returned in a variety of ways—some experts reviewed the Course Evaluation Packet and made in-document additions, comments, and changes. Others provided a series of summative statements on their overall thoughts.

In general, comments addressed the following actions: overall format and class structure, adjustments to syllabus, assignments, and workshop agendas, and course content including readings to add or remove and suggestions on meditative practices. Expert comments highlighted a handful of recommendations that touched on overarching areas: 1) Community building, formal and informal networking; 2) Increased infrastructure and support for developing a contemplative practice, including providing more explicit support and safety for students who may be triggered emotionally or challenged in other stressful ways by beginning a meditative practice, including offering different options during contemplative practices, and pacing the practices so that there are fewer, and shorter practices in the beginning of the course; 3) Integrate content on social oppression in addition to talking about power; 4) More teaching on compassion as a motivational stance. Experts also provided additional articles, teaching techniques, and meditative practices to the syllabus and assignments.

Concluding thoughts on Spring 2019 Course

We sought to implement our proposed framework for teaching in higher education centered on climate, pedagogy, and content, focusing first on how to create a learning environment that was reflective, supportive, and ideally, safe for students. Our compassion and mindfulness training provided the foundation for beginning to create better learning climates for students of all backgrounds, however there can always be more work to be done. Compassion and mindfulness training also provide an additional avenue for instructors and students alike to practice self-reflection, and we argue that the value of reflection matters both for the profession, academy and within the development of a new format and type of teaching.

From this process we generated lessons learned about course development and implementation and developed questions that direct future course development, and we hope will engage planning educators moving forward. First, when implementing a course that centers emotions, additional support must be available for students to both develop their own contemplative practice (maintain accountability), and access mental and emotional health support as needed (provide a safe learning environment). Second, the relational aspect of this course was valuable both to students, instructors, and expert reviewers. To further support this stated goal and benefit of our course, future iterations of this course will be held in-person rather than in a hybrid online/workshop format. Third, creating an educational space based on our framework that builds on a foundation of classroom climate and relationships first, pedagogy next, and content last will require some retraining for both instructors and students. Taking this approach also likely means more explicit orientation to the course objectives and design for students. It likely also means instructors need to spend more up-front time on the subject of developing one’s own mindfulness practice. Despite these adjustments, we believe this model holds promise for a wide array of courses at the intersections of humans, ecology, and the built environment.

Spring 2020 Experience

For the Spring 2020 course, we opted for the title “Envisioning a Compassionate and Sustainable Future during the Climate Crisis.” In the period between the spring 2019 course and the start of the 2020 course, our team had established a partnership with the Sustainability Office of the City of Lawrence and Douglas County to work on a deep engagement local planning process centered on climate equity. As such, we approached the spring 2020 course as an externally focused, service-learning experience. The learning objectives for the course were to explore three main themes:

  • the intersection of compassion and justice in our professions,
  • theories and practices of community engagement and participatory action research, and,
  • climate change and long-term hazard risks.

Our hope was that each of the participants would have time to:

  1. Dedicate time, thought, and feeling to exploring the interplay between the three course themes;
  2. Apply a compassionate systems framework to learn about the role of public service professions in long-term risk hazard and climate change risk reduction at the local level;
  3. Learn about the broad array of theories and practices associated with community engagement, participatory action research, and service learning;
  4. Gain experience with multiple theories and practices in the context of Lawrence’s 2020 climate change planning process; and
  5. Add to their portfolio of learning products that showcase their preparation for professional work in the realms of community engagement and the climate crisis.

In terms of format, the course syllabus planned weekly seminar meetings for the first half of the semester, followed by a month of optional work sessions, which would culminate in the students presenting their final projects at a 2-day Climate Compassion and Justice symposium hosted by KU’s Center for Compassionate and Sustainable Communities and planned for April 16-17, 2020. The symposium was to be a kick-off event for the broader city/county programming to unfold over the following week, which marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day internationally, and the 20th anniversary of its celebration locally. Together these activities would serve as the launch of a months-long deep engagement process for the community as part of the climate equity planning process. As noted below, the spread of SARS-CV-2 (COVID-19) resulted in reconsideration of priorities and adaptations to our aspirations. Before addressing those adjustments, though, we lay out in more detail what we covered in the first half of the semester and what had been planned for the second half of the semester.

Topics for the first half of the semester were chosen to help students broaden and deepen their perspectives on what constitutes knowledge relevant to climate change and how public engagement might diverge from traditional, formulaic, and generally top-down planning activities. Each session involved students completing a set of reading in advance and then listening to and talking with guest experts. Our community partner from the Sustainability Office, co-author Jasmin Moore, participated throughout the semester, as she had done in the prior months helping conceive of and design the course format. The topics we covered over the first six weeks included: a) Climate change in Lawrence, b) Compassion and climate change, c) Community Engagement and Participatory Action Research, d) Indigenous Knowledges and Youth knowledges, e) Community Science and ‘Lay’ Knowledges, and f) Integrating Arts, Engagement, and Research. Guest experts included faculty from KU and other universities, a museum curator, an arts event coordinator and community climate organizer, a poet and professor, an architect and community organizer, a mental health professional and mindfulness instructor, and more. The identities of these guests varied across gender, sexual orientation, race, and ethnicity, embodying in person the diversity of knowledges also presented.

During this process of expanding our horizons in the first half of the course, students completed six exercises, each of which asked them to try on and practice to form of knowledge and techniques we learned about during the corresponding week. Emphasis was placed on taking risks and getting out of comfort zones, not performance or perfection. The assignments were:

Assignment 1: Letter to Self from Climate Future

Assignment 2: Perspective Taking

Assignment 3: Photovoice

Assignment 4: Oral History/Interview

Assignment 5: Community Science

Assignment 6: Community Art

The intention before the COVID disruption was for students to pick one of the methods of participatory action research they had learned about in the first half of the summer and develop a project that could be displayed during the April 16-17 symposium and/or be conducted during the symposium with the participation of attendees.

Box 2 COVID Adjustments: The explosion of SARS-CoV-2 in March 2021 transformed our class experience and resulted in multiple changes in our plans and work together.

Assessment and Lessons-Learned

Student Feedback. Student feedback was invaluable to the overall course design. However, with the pandemic interrupting the original course design halfway through the semester, the feedback protocols used in 2019 had to be adjusted. The bulk of the feedback was provided via the university’s standards course evaluation process. In addition, Yiwen, who took both classes in springs of 2019 and 2020, provided an additional student perspective:

“I was greatly impacted by the course both academically and personally. I was able to transform knowledge about climate adaptation learned in previous courses into a set of practical skills, including public engagement tools, compassionate planning techniques, and qualitative research skills (e.g., interviews, surveys and creative way of analyzing text). More importantly, as Covid-19 hit, the courses and projects moving online enabled me to think broadly, adaptively, and creatively without limiting myself to focusing solely on technical dimensions of hazards and climate change. For my project, I interviewed three individuals from all over the world regarding how they and their cities had accommodated the global pandemic. I aimed to borrow insights from dealing with pandemic to inform climate adaptation planning practices. At the personal level, I applied compassionate engagement techniques while conducting interviews. When constructing interview questions, I deeply reflected on what had been learned from “perspective taking”, which allowed me to think empathetically. When asking a question compassionately, it was more likely that interviewees would share more so that a better conversation environment could be resulted.”

Instructor Reflections. As with the spring 2019 course, instructors reflected on the course using the following prompts: What worked well, what could be improved, personal experience, and changes to consider.

Drawing from the lessons-learned during our Spring 2019 course, and due to its intended service-learning and collaborative nature of this course, we adjusted the format of this course from online meetings with periodic longer workshops, to weekly in-person sessions for the first half of the semester, followed by co-work sessions in the second-half (at least that was the plan at the outset of the semester). Before the pandemic hit around mid-semester, the weekly in-person meetings created a good environment for collaborative learning and trust building, something that may not have been possible had we been all online from day one. In turn, when we had to adjust the course due to COVID, the transition was fairly smooth with some students showing up for weekly chat and co-work sessions, and others choosing to proceed independently.

As in Spring 2019, we found that the content we built into the syllabus aligned well with our students’ interests and desires for more applied professional training. Service learning and participatory action research were good additions to the previous years’ focus on compassion, professions, and hazards. These added subjects were particularly helpful for urban planning professional training that students can use in internships and future job settings. We expect the format will translate well into an undergrad sustainability studies or environmental studies capstone-type environment.

When asked what could be improved, instructors pointed to COVID as the single biggest challenge of the semester. The initial disruption and subsequent public health measures meant that the cumulative process focused on ‘real-world’ public engagement evaporated. While disappointing to all involved, the changes provided an opportunity as instructors put our skills and training in compassion into practice and offer our students unprecedented flexibility and support as possible. As a group, we navigated the changes with success partly because care and community were part of its ethos from the outset. Students were given options on how to proceed with the semester, and supported in altering their projects as needed. In the end, many of the students creatively reimagined their projects in a new context with great results. Consistent with the themes of compassion and adaption, we worked to accommodate the needs of students that lacked the capacity to adjust post-pandemic. For some students this meant making it clear that it was ok if they could not attend weekly sessions. For other students it meant understanding that their other school and life demands would mean that the ideas and goals they had for their semester project needed to be scaled back considerably.

As a doctoral student and course facilitator, Kelly faced some unique dynamics during the Spring 2020 worth noting. Like most doctoral students in their first or second year of their program, she had her own classes to complete, some of which did not manage the mid-semester adjustments due to COVID as carefully nor as successfully. Kelly also was a relatively new parent at the time and her childcare responsibilities changed overnight as a result of the pandemic. These simultaneous and unanticipated changes reduce her capacity and increased her stress, dynamics still present at the time of writing this manuscript. This situation points to a major takeaway: a course that is grounded in core conceptions of compassion, especially the ability to consider others’ perspectives, to feel with them and to use the will to act in accordance with that understanding, is fundamentally suited to unforeseen changes of the magnitude we experienced in March 2019. A course grounded in collaboration and compassion, regardless of topic, will continue to be more successful and accommodating of students as we move deeper into climate change.

Community Partner Reflections. The timing of the course aligned with the public outreach planned for the Douglas County climate action and adaptation plan. A guiding value of the climate action and adaptation plan was equitable engagement. The deliverables developed by the students related to engagement strategies were intended to inform some of the plan engagement. The Sustainability Office’s schedule related to the development of the climate action and adaptation plan shifted significantly as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. When it was no longer possible to literally meet people where they naturally gathered, it was necessary to pause a public launch and consider what equitable engagement looks like during a global pandemic. The course and the mid-semester shift made by the students provided insight into how in-person engagement strategies could be adapted for online engagement. The final deliverables presented at the end of the course were packaged in an accessible format, which made it easy to share with community partners interested in testing out the engagement strategies.

Importantly, building a rapport between local government, university partners, and students in not easy. There is a long history of extractive research practices characterized by researchers going into communities to conduct research and then neglecting to provide any community benefit or share findings. The partnership between the Sustainability Office and the researchers involved in the course was developed many months in advance. The scope of the course deliverable – applied participatory action research – was developed in partnership with us, the primary community partner. Early and meaningful engagement of university researchers with the local government partner resulted in a trusted relationship that was responsive to the drastic changes brought on by the pandemic. We will benefit from future iterations of this course in connection with implementation of the climate action and adaptation plan, if it is offered in the future.

Moving forward

None of us alone cannot answer the editors’ motivating question of what it will take to transform society. None of us alone can even answer the much more constrained question of what it will take to transform sustainability education in our own domain of graduate education at a research-focused institution. But, as part of a broader community we can – and like to think we have begun to – test new ideas, share what seemed to work and did not, and continue to adapt our own approaches. As we noted earlier, in the short time since we began to develop these courses, and even since we finished teaching them last spring, there has been a massive blossoming of new books and articles that we are learning from and will incorporate into our own work moving forward.

Box 3 Four Takeaways: Four key points serve as the big ‘takeaways’ for instructors interested in compassionate orientations to climate-related courses.

We conclude by noting some of the activities we are engaging in right now and anticipate being part of our lives in the months and years ahead. Clearly, learning from our peers and growing as instructors never ends. We feel fortunate to find ourselves in a broader network of like-minded educators and look forward to more informal and formal connections with people like Sarah Ray, Christine Wamsler, and perhaps readers of this case study. We will continue to use the experiences with COVID as a living model to help our students conceptualize, feel their way through, and problem-solve for climate change. The same is true of cautionary lessons to be learned as university administrators like those at the University of Kansas seize on financial crises arising from COVID as ways to consolidate power and sometimes attack the essential workers of the institution. Finally, we will work to adapt the syllabi, assignments, and other materials we’ve developed to be used more broadly in professional development settings, workshops, and other venues beyond the traditional semester-length university course. [More information about the grant, the interdisciplinary Center for Compassionate and Sustainable Communities that has grown out of the grant, and the actual materials used in the courses can be found online at:]


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Categories: Research

Sustainability education in the Anthropocene: Storytelling, the environmental humanities, and the unknown Since

Fri, 2021-05-21 16:47

Nathan Hensley, Bowling Green State University,


In this paper, I draw from the fields of curriculum studies and the environmental humanities to address the sustainability issues associated with the Anthropocene and to theorize what it means to reinhabit our unique bioregions. I argue that it is time to transgress the fragmented and mono-disciplinary investigations emblematic of the academy by embracing pluralistic ways of knowing and going beyond conventional epistemologies to better understand the cultural forces involved in wicked problems such as climate change. Using autoethnography, I draw from my personal experiences related to higher education for sustainable development while discussing what it means to better appreciate a problem’s intractability and to hold our assumptions open to questioning. Additionally, I make connections to Donna Harraway’s conception of staying with the trouble in the midst of these socio-ecological turbulent times. Accordingly, I theorize what it means to stay with the trouble by learning to “love the questions” inherent to studying sustainability issues while articulating the roles that reflection, storytelling and transdisciplinary scholarship play in (re)envisioning a future that sustains the (more than) human world.


Sustainability education in the Anthropocene: Storytelling and the unknown

In the Anthropocene, every discipline has a role. (Matthew Nisbet, 2015, n.p.)

Each time a story helps me remember what I thought I knew, or introduces me to new knowledge, a muscle critical for caring about flourishing gets some aerobic exercise. Such exercise enhances collective thinking and movement in complexity. (Donna Haraway, 2016, p. 29)

While working on my undergraduate degree in outdoor education (in the late 1990s) at Northland College, I recall professor Joe Rose, the director of the Native American Studies program at that time, speaking about the fact that humankind has reached a fork in the road in which we must decide to take a sustainable path or an unsustainable path. These experiences were my first encounter with traditional ecological knowledge in the academy. Professor Rose said that we need to choose a pathway that embraces traditional ways of knowing and that path involves slowing down instead of the conventional mechanistic approach that precipitates the great acceleration. I recall his observation that taking the more sustainable route would be very difficult and that it would involve a great deal of patience, stamina, and collaboration. As an Ojibwa elder, Joe was steeped in the art of storytelling and he was gifted at both grabbing the attention of any audience and encouraging transformative action. Professor Rose was able to amplify and sustain many traditions of the Ojibwa such as the sweat lodge and storytelling circles. As we face even more environmental crises, applying the power of storytelling to sustainability becomes crucial. It’s this urgency that has drawn me to study sustainability from the perspective of curriculum studies.

Now, more than 20 years after my time at Northland College, I am wrapping up my sixth year as an Assistant Professor of Sustainability Education at Bowling Green State University in northwestern Ohio and recognize that I sit on the shoulders of giants with my work—so much has been written on sustainability education. In my teaching and research, I strive to infuse indigenous perspectives and embrace place-based viewpoints. As a citizen of the Western Lake Erie Basin, I seek to learn along with my students and colleagues more about our unique watershed and to take part in the opportunities to reinhabit this part of NW Ohio. One approach that I utilize in my research and teaching is that of storytelling.

The stories of human-caused ecological disequilibrium exemplified by climate change, water quality issues, and biodiversity loss converge in the Anthropocene (the Anthropocene is a term commonly used to describe an epoch in which human activity has become the dominant influence on the environment). As we face the onslaught of the socio-ecological uncertainties tied to the Anthropocene, sustainability education becomes even more urgent than it was a few decades ago. The complexities of the ecological and social crises embedded within the Anthropocene demand a fundamental restructuring of conventional problem-solving approaches. It’s time to transgress the fragmented and mono-disciplinary investigations emblematic of the academy by embracing pluralistic ways of knowing (Hensley, 2016, 2018a; 2018b). Since wicked sustainability problems—problems that appear to be intractable and “by their nature defy complete and clear solutions” (Holm, Adamson, Huang et al., 2015, p. 982)—resist traditional problem-solving strategies, a radically different educational configuration and approach needs to be adopted in higher education for sustainable development. This (re)configuration requires a transdisciplinary approach that adopts a posture of “staying with the trouble,” where the questions are just as important as the answers. Donna Haraway (2016) proposes that we “stay with the trouble,” that is, face the ecological crisis head-on and not view it from an escapist perspective. Haraway believes that “language can provide a route away from environmental catastrophe” (Basciano, 2017, n.p.) and she urges us to recognize that “we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all” (Haraway, 2016, p. 4). The work that needs to be done to address the environmental crisis needs to be approached through the interdisciplinarity embodied in the environmental humanities.

The environmental humanities—a discipline that draws from several subfields in and beyond the humanities—offers diverse insight into “cultural, historical and ethical dimensions of our most intractable environmental problems” (Forêt, Hall, & Kueffer, 2014, p. 67) and is well-positioned to navigate seemingly intractable sustainability issues and to stay with the trouble embedded in the unknown (Hensley, 2020a). One way to understand and articulate what it means to stay with the trouble is to study relevant educational experience(s) through autoethnography (Adams, Jones, & Ellis, 2015). Ellis, Adams, and Bochner (2011) explain that “Autoethnography is an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” (p. 1). In this paper, I utilize theoretical inquiry and draw from autoethnography to explore sustainability education and make connections to the theme of staying with the trouble within the Anthropocene. Accordingly, through the lens of the environmental humanities, I will theorize what it means to stay with the trouble by learning to love the questions inherent to studying sustainability issues while articulating the role that reflection and storytelling plays in (re)envisioning a future that sustains the (more than) human.


Loving the questions themselves

Leave the door open for the unknown, the door into the dark. That’s where the most important things come from, where you yourself came from, and where you will go. (Rebecca Solnit, 2018 n.p.)

Because the sciences [tend to] eschew uncertainty and contingency, new approaches and radically new alignments of disciplines are required... (Paul Holm et al., 2013, p. 31)

One way to embrace the vast amount of uncertainty embedded in sustainability studies is to love the questions themselves. The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (2019) urges us to

…love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer. (p. 12)

In the field of sustainability studies, what might it look like to love the questions themselves? An ability to embrace uncertainty is interwoven into this posture of being present and is a necessary component to face the challenges of advancing sustainability (Hensley, 2020a; Stirling, 2018). According to Davison (2001),

The ideal of sustainability gives rise to an agenda of good questions, practical questions that bear directly on our forms of life, drawing out and giving practical substance to our disquiet and to our hopes. Responses to the questions are essentially contestable, they demand of us not categorical certainty but the capacity to articulate what we feel to be most worthy of being sustained in our lives. These questions are valuable to us because they command our attention in an age of ecological crisis while simultaneously defying resolution and closure: they demand that we hold open for questions our assumptions about what a resolution of this crisis might involve. (italics added, p. 213)

Holding our assumptions open to questioning is a process that requires patience, perseverance, and embracing the unknown (Hensley, 2020a). With the complexities and uncertainties inherent to sustainability problems, it is inevitable that some attempts at sustainability solutions will be wrong or lead us astray. Thus, sustainability work demands an unprecedented level of humility across all epistemological and ontological orientations.

Reminding us of the importance of humility in addressing environmental issues, Rachel Carson (1962/2002) states that the “control of nature is a phrase conceived in arrogance…when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man” (p. 297). Carson exhibited an impressive level of humility and curiosity in her work that led to the best seller A Silent Spring, which laid the groundwork for clean water and clean air policies along with pesticide safety and awareness (Carson, 1962/2002). Grassroots approaches to cultivating an environmental ethic, grounded in humility, can interlink nature writers with ecologists.

The writer, philosopher, and scientist Wes Jackson suggests that an alternative to the “dominant knowledge paradigm is humility—to accept unknowns as mysteries” (Lukasik, 2010, p. 54). Jackson advises that when “we think that we have the recipe” then we have “to be prepared to realize where the recipe breaks down.” He adds that “if you think you got it, that’s the best indication that you don’t” (in Jensen, 2020). Jackson argues that it is crucial to move beyond an attitude of arrogance and to openly embrace ignorance. He warns that, “Knowledge, especially of complex dynamic systems such as ecosystems is necessarily incomplete, uncertain, and continually open to revision…and overconfidence in the use of knowledge has hidden the potential for anthropogenic environmental damage” (Fredericks, 2009, p. 123). Uncertainty is an inherent component of ecological knowledge and is, as Stirling (2018) says, “an unavoidable reflection of complex environmental realities” (p. 122). The uncertainty embedded in socio-ecological systems requires non-conventional modes of inquiry.

Integrating a knowledge of the unknown with that of the known is fundamental to understanding wicked problems. An overconfidence in “high status knowledge” (Bowers, 2009)—such as science-based knowledge—can be misleading, other times it can be lethal (as in perpetuating an industrial-scientific worldview and its effects). There will always be limits on what we, as humans, can know, and, as Jackson states, that “recognizing the limits of knowledge enables a more realistic description of the world and a more helpful approach to environmental, medical economic, ethical, and pedagogical problems than solutions that demand ultimate confidence in knowledge” (Fredricks, 2009, p. 123). Accepting human’s scarcity of knowledge is not an easy task, especially in the academy. In recognition of this, Vitek and Jackson (2010) ask, “Since we’re billions of times more ignorant than knowledgeable, why not go with our long suit and have an ignorance-based worldview?” (p. 1). Fredericks (2009) explains that an ignorance-based worldview includes “an emphasis on the limits of human knowledge and cautious decision making in the face of uncertainty” (p. 124). In some circumstances, cautious decision-making is an outcome of holding our assumptions up to investigation.

To accept an ignorance-based worldview and to hold our assumptions open to questioning is fundamental to staying with the trouble because critical self-reflection empowers us to reimagine what it means to advance the relationships integral to sustaining the integrity, stability, and beauty of the natural world (Leopold, 1949). Enhancing the quality of relationships that exist between humans and the more-than-human population is a cornerstone to promulgating sustainability. In contrast, if one’s focus is on finding answers and solutions to sustainability problems, it can lead to failing to ‘stay with the trouble’ (Haraway, 2016).

By embracing an agenda of good questions, scholars in the environmental humanities value a Socratic dialogue that “promotes questions as well as answers” (Kueffer, Forêt, Hall, Wiedmer, 2018, p. 255). Scholars suggest that rather “than searching for the shortest path to the best solution to problems that have already been identified, problem-solving may involve open, exploratory, and experimental processes. EH [Environmental Humanity] scholars emphasize that we must learn to better appreciate a problem’s intractability” (emphasis mine, Kueffer, Forêt, Hall, Wiedmer, 2018, p. 235). When we better appreciate a problem’s intractability we are better able to turn discomfort into inquiry, which helps us stay with the trouble.

Kueffer et al. (2018) observe that “environmental humanists acknowledge and embrace uncertainty, subjectivity and relational knowledge” (pp. 254-255) and that the environmental humanities aim to “utilize methodologies, epistemologies and values from across the range of human experience to understand and address our environmental problems” (p. 256). Approaching sustainability issues through the lens of human experience is central to conducting scholarship in the environmental humanities. For example, autoethnography allows scholars to draw from their lived experiences and utilize writing as a method of inquiry (Richardson & St. Pierre, 2003). Writing as inquiry involves using writing to clarify and make sense of new experiences (Poulos, 2021; Richardson & St. Pierre, 2003) and offers passageways to new perspectives on these experiences. Poulos (2021), observes that writing as inquiry may involve retreating from a situation and actively reflecting on lived experience, while asking “What is going on here?” (p. 31). In my own scholarly life, for example, I tend to write in my journal after teaching new content or trying new activities in my classes. I am able to learn a lot by going back to these journals at a later time and reflecting on the discoveries. Accordingly, reflecting on my lived experiences as a teacher inform my future pedagogical practices.

Understanding our own lived experience enables us to better relate to others. Allison and Miller (2019) note that scholars in the humanities “interpret human history, literature, and imagery to figure out how people make sense of their world” adding that “[h]umanists challenge others to consider what makes a good life and pose uncomfortable questions” (2019, n.p.). It is the ability of humanists to go beyond science that enables them to define the “cultural forces driving climate change, such as the fossil fuel dependence of industrialized societies” (2019, n.p.). Understanding the multiple dimensions of environmental issues such as climate change requires humanistic knowledge.

Studying epistemology—in the realm of sustainability education—requires a layered humanities-based approach that weaves in personal narrative and theoretical grounding (Hensley, 2020a). As Adams et al. (2015) indicate, “Social life is messy, uncertain, and emotional. If our desire is to research social life, then we must embrace a research method that, to the best of its/our ability, acknowledges and accommodates mess and chaos, uncertainty and emotion” (p. 9). Autoethnography is a form of inquiry that addresses the uncertainty (and the mess and chaos inherent to lived experience). It draws from self-reflection to explore how personal experiences link a writer’s unique story to wider “cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings” (Autoethnography, 2021). Autoethnography-based inquiry offers a passageway to the particularities of an individual’s lived experience and makes connections to cultural implications of that experience.


Stories and lived experiences in the Anthropocene

To characterize the Anthropocene by means of quantitative data is one thing; to describe and understand how it perceives human interaction, culture, institutions, and societies – indeed, the meaning of being human – is truly another and a major challenge for the scholarly, literary, artistic, practitioner, and policy communities … What now matters more than anything is our capacity to respond rapidly and efficiently to linked societal and environmental challenges. (Palsson et al., 2013, p. 10)

As a curriculum theorist studying the intersections of the environmental humanities, curriculum studies, and sustainability education, I recognize and appreciate the power of story in approaching the complexities of sustainability issues (such as climate change). Noel Gough (2008) writes that life storytelling involves inquiry into lived experience and re-presenting “that experience in a narrative form that provides rich detail and context about the life (or lives) in question” (p. 484). In this section, I reflect on my experience in the academy and argue that in higher education for sustainable development (HESD) we need to create the space that is necessary for students to reflect on their unique lived experiences and to tell their stories. We need to shift from an efficiency-based and fast transfer of knowledge educational approach to an education that promotes reflection and provides the space for spontaneity, mystery, wonder, and embracing the unknown—all of which are inherent to the humanities (Hensley, 2018). Allison and Miller (2019) posit that scholars in the humanities “interpret human history, literature and imagery to figure out how people make sense of their world” (n.p.). Also, humanists “challenge others to consider what makes a good life and pose uncomfortable questions – for example, ‘Good for whom?’ and ‘At whose expense?’” (Allison & Miller, 2019, n.p.).

The ever-expanding surplus of literature that addresses sustainability is overwhelming, even for those in the field of sustainability studies, as I am. However, in the midst of the proliferation of sustainability scholarship, the value of contextualized research continues to increase. The environmental humanities are well positioned to help contextualize and traverse the transdisciplinary terrain of sustainability research. Storytelling is one approach to integrate the breadth of disciplines necessary for advancing sustainability studies. Mike Hulme (2011) observes that the “importance of story-making and story-telling around climate change needs elevating alongside that of fact-finding. Stories are the way that humans make sense of change and the humanities understand the practices of story-telling very well” (p. 178). The art of storytelling fits well within the humanities. However, the effort to better infuse storytelling in communicating environmental issues requires a transdisciplinary integration across all disciplines (Holm et al., 2013; Kitch, 2017). It is key that effective cross disciplinary communication of environmental information is grounded in the humanities and it is time to view this communication as a top priority.

The existential and urgent threat of climate change and its associated ecological crises necessitates that higher education marshals its available resources to address it (Smith, 2014). Elliott, Domodaran, and Cullis (2018) define the humanities and their role in the context of climate change. They say, “Understood as the study of human experience and the ways in which people have expressed their experiences, the humanities, we argue, should be more confident and vocal in addressing the climate change debate” (p. 15). Although the humanities understand human experience and storytelling well, we must also draw from other disciplines to tackle climate change. The natural and social sciences and the arts must be included with the humanities in addressing wicked sustainability problems. Elliot, Domodaran, and Cullis (2017) explain, “The growing acceptance that a multi-disciplinary approach is needed requires also an acceptance that the climate change debate has itself been constructed through a variety of discourses historically, scientifically, in and through society, politically and economically. It is therefore important that the humanities are included at all stages of this crucial debate” (p. 16). Integrating the humanities throughout climate change writing and debate involves the art of storytelling.


Storytelling and Sustainability

It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. (Thomas Berry, 1978, p. 1)

Storytelling is the oldest form of education. (Terry Tempest Williams, 1997, p.4)

Another point worth remembering is the way these interrelationships [across the web of life] work, how intricately they are woven into the fabric of the whole, including how living things became what they are. (Sigurd Olson, 1998, p. 70)

Storytelling is an effective way to reach students as they work to understand sustainability and reinhabit their places. It is through story that we can learn to make sense of our lived experience, celebrate the places we live, and comprehend the relationships and interdependencies which make up the web of life (Hensley, 2020a). Educational theorists Molthan-Hill et al. (2020) explain that

Since the beginning of humankind, humans have lived their stories. Stories have provided a way to condense knowledge and practical experience; as well as to communicate world-views. Stories have aided humans throughout many centuries to describe problems and seek solutions, to object against the status quo and to express wonder at life’s blissful encounters; stories have provided refuge, solidarity and solace. Perhaps above all, stories have educated, if we consider the root of the word as educe, to draw out what lies latent within us. (pp. 1-2)

Humans learn best through story because it is through narrative that we discover the intersection of ideas and the patterns that connect (Bateson, 2008). That is, stories highlight and enliven the interconnections and interdependencies that are commonly overlooked. Stories enable us to expand our sensibilities and competencies surrounding sustainability topics. Molthan-Hill et al. (2020) add that

…storytelling in the context of sustainable development can supplement in a very powerful way, the facts which might otherwise form the core of teaching activities. Stories allow for a greater ‘stickiness’ because they ‘allow a person to feel and see the information, as well as factually understand it . . . you ‘hear’ the information factually, visually and emotionally.’ (Neuhauser as cited in Molthan-Hill et al., 2020, p. 5)

The value of story is further highlighted in the interpretation of natural areas. Nature interpretation involves mediating knowledge about and evoking feelings for nature and the cultural landscape (SCNI, 2017). By telling stories, naturalists are able to convey complex ecological concepts that cannot be effectively communicated through sharing bulleted facts and figures. Molthan-Hill (2020) observe that the “teaching of sustainability, as well as public discourse on the subject, is often dominated by facts and figures” (p. 4). Science is concerned with verifiability, reproducibility, and empirical fact, but, communicating science to a general audience is an art that requires good storytelling.

Hensley (2020a) indicates that stories “enable students to uncouple from unsustainable worldviews and make sense of the ecological crisis. Stories help students acknowledge the human role in the ecological crisis and empower students to initiate the process of generating sustainable solutions” (p. 28). Initiating the process of generating sustainable solutions is at the intersection of sustainability education and public impact. When students learn both to tell their own story (autobiography/autoethnography) and to study the story of their surrounding bioregion through place-based education, then they are well-positioned to generate sustainable solutions (Hensley, 2011, 2020b). For example, in my graduate level course on sustainability education, I give an assignment—inspired by the founding father of bioregionalism, Peter Berg (2005)—that requires my students to create a subjective map of their unique bioregion. On this bioregional map, students are instructed to determine their own spatial scale, put their home/apartment in the center, sketch the nearest river, include soil type, list sustainable practices of the community members, etc. This assignment serves as a launching point for discussion about sense of place, ecological literacy, and watershed studies. This assignment allows students to sample autobiographical work as they create a map from their own perspectives, acknowledge the interconnectedness of the natural and built environments, and articulate their role in the bioregion. This leads to reinhabitation-oriented thinking which Berg and Dasmann explain as:

[L]earning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation. It involves becoming native to a place through becoming aware of the particular ecological relationships that operate within and around it. It means understanding activities and evolving social behavior that will enrich the life of that place….Simply stated, it involves applying for membership in a biotic community and ceasing to be its exploiter. (In Smith & Williams, 1999, pp. 214-215)

Advancing reinhabitation-oriented practices is at the core of place-based education and is demonstrated through bioregional scholarly literature (Glotfelty, 2014; Hensley, 2013). Learning about the ecological connections in one’s place and developing a mutually beneficial relationship with nature necessitates a great amount of effort and focus, which opens up lines of inquiry to promote this level of reinhabitation (Hensley, 2013).

Reinhabitation involves learning the nuances of a particular ecosystem and identifying pathways to ecological restoration (Hensley, 2011, 2013). Steffen et al. (2018) state that:

Addressing [sustainability] questions requires a deep integration of knowledge from biogeophysical Earth System science with that from the social sciences and humanities on the development and functioning of human societies. Integrating the requisite knowledge can be difficult, especially in light of the formidable range of timescales involved. Increasingly, concepts from complex systems analysis provide a framework that unites the diverse fields of inquiry relevant to the Anthropocene. (p. 8253)

Uniting diverse fields of inquiry relevant to the Anthropocene and integrating knowledge from the sciences, the arts, and the humanities are among the most important tasks of today’s scholarship (Hensley, 2016, 2020a). A holistic and unifying approach to sustainability research is urgent and complicated. It is complicated because conventional research is not transdisciplinary, and transcending traditional approaches to research involves a great deal of external motivation and collaboration.  Yet, if we don’t motivate and exert the effort, we might experience ecological collapse.

The environmental humanities are helping to mobilize the forms of collaboration necessary to advance transdisciplinary sustainability studies. This is exemplified in programs such as the Humanities for the Environment (HFE, 2020). The Humanities for the Environment project networks universities and researchers internationally through a system of observatories. These observatories aim to identify, explore, and demonstrate the contributions that humanistic and artistic disciplines make to solving social and environmental challenges (Holm et al., 2015). This is just one example of many that illustrate projects underway that advance the environmental humanities and continue to advance sustainability across the globe.



Learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying together on a damaged earth will prove more conducive to the kind of thinking that would provide the means to building more livable futures. (Duke University Press, n.d., n.p.)  

Too much attention to scientific detail can rob one of awareness and deeper meanings. (Sigurd Olson, 1998, pp. 69)

With the high level of socio-ecological uncertainty associated with the Anthropocene, it is becoming even more imperative to infuse the environmental humanities into higher education for sustainable development. We have an obligation to teach the next generation to be able to navigate unknown waters while “staying with the trouble.” Learning to “love the questions” is a component of staying with the trouble as is being able to reflect upon and tell the stories of our unique lived experiences. Integrating stories into sustainability education is a holistic way to counter the fragmentation and management approach common to sustainability science.

As the nature writer Barry Lopez (1988) states, “One learns a landscape finally not by knowing the name or identity of everything in it, but by perceiving the relationships in it…” (Lopez, 1988, p. 64). Through storytelling we can help students learn to perceive the relationships in nature without overemphasizing the importance of knowing all of the scientific names in an ecosystem. The humanities allow us to better appreciate a wicked problem’s intractability and enable us to hold our assumptions open to questions. The reflective space offered by questioning our assumptions is fertile ground for creativity and transdisciplinary inquiry. Thus, when we recognize that the voice of the humanities is largely missing from the literature pertaining to tackling wicked sustainability problems, we can initiate the steps to address this issue within sustainability education and beyond.



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Figure 1 Photo of the Author with students in the mangroves of SW Florida (used with permission by Florida Gulf Coast University)


Figure 2 Wintergarden Preserve Bowling Green, Ohio — photo by the author

Categories: Research

Board Games as Educational Tools

Fri, 2021-05-21 16:39

Board Games as Educational Tools

Leading to Climate Change Action: A Literature Review

Linda C. Pope, MLA MS PhD Candidate, Prescott College.

The use of board games in education is under-utilized. As we come out of this pandemic, and adjust to new directions, education can reinvent itself, and create better learning environments. Games can engage students with different learning styles and inspire individual creativity. Board games represent the missing tool in our toolboxes, and they can replace the traditional lectures with a method that reaches all students. This literature review introduces the background needed to incorporate games into curriculum and to encourage educators to embrace that possibility of engagement. Games have the potential to lead us into action in our communities and find solutions for global climate change issues.

Due to its comprehensive nature, sustainability can be a difficult subject to teach as it requires that we attempt to be an expert in every field. The consequences of not adopting sustainable behavioral changes and our continued unsustainable actions have led us to the climate change climax we currently face. Therefore, there is an urgent need to find innovative ways to engage others in learning about global warming and climate change. Wu and Lee write that first-hand experience is a better teacher for this subject, due to the emotional triggers inherent in necessary behavioral changes. New perspectives can happen more productively, allowing for self-change instead of imposed change, when players participate in games designed to encourage climate action (Wu & Lee, 2015).

Addressing climate change is a serious matter and you may think we can’t afford to waste time playing games. Mazur-Stommen and Farley (2016) state, however, that according to the Institute for the Future, the opposite is actually true: we do not play enough games. Games release our creativity, increase our efforts to express collaboration and enhance our ability to learn. To solve the world’s most urgent sustainability problems, Mazur-Stommen and Farley (2016) state that even 3 billion hours of game play a week is not enough to enact all the urgently necessary changes.

Kids learn by playing games, until, according to Mackay (2013), they go to school. Then the games stop, and so does learning (Mackay, 2013). Additionally, Mackay asserts that human minds are designed to learn together, taking advantage of a “collective intelligence,” and that people play everywhere except in school. Tasnim (2012) writes that “games are the most ancient and time-honored vehicle for education.” He also posits that to even pose the question regarding the value of games in education is absurd (Tasmin 2012).

Treher (2011) says that the outmoded idea of interactive learning, as consisting of a presentation followed by questions and quizzes, or short discussion sessions and case studies with reliance on PowerPoint presentations, is “unlikely  to lead to learning retention, skill development, or behavior change,” as the ability to retain information after 10-20 minutes of lecture is no more than 50% (Treher, 2011). She notes that, although board games have gained some traction in the corporate world, the view persists that games of any kind for adults are inappropriate, despite the fact that the power of play and entertainment in learning is based on solid, reputable, decades-old research. Treher feels that the value of board games designed for learning is not fully recognized, and that current research supports the power of games to “facilitate rapid learning and retention” (Treher, 2011).

Despeisse (2018) writes that games provide opportunities particularly well adapted to sustainability education. Students are immersed in complex situations providing active roles in decision-making and collaboration in uncertain conditions (Despeisse, 2018). Eisenack (2012) asserts that board games excel in simulating real-world climate negotiation because the face-to-face discussions necessary in playing them are more representative of real-world exchanges.  Fábrega (n.d.) agrees, stating that games provide the most effective way to learn, and provide an authentic experience that is “entertaining, engaging, and exciting,” in addition to teaching skills and transforming thoughts. Stirling (2013) writes that, although game players do not always reach a game’s intended goals, this is not an obstacle to learning as repeated attempts at something provide their own lessons.

Experience leads to learning, but experience alone is not enough. According to Treher (2011) a combination of “hands-on and heads-on learning works best,” and asserts that “properly designed board games are an effective way to provide this combination” (Treher, 2011). Dahlin et al. (2015) also list many acquired skills from game playing, including “know-how, awareness, understanding, exploring attitudes and values, systems thinking, information processing, decision making, collaborative working and communication skills” and state that these strongly contribute to an ability to learn about sustainability.


Becker (2021) writes that any game must have the following properties: be interactive; have rules; have at least one goal; have a means to measure progress or success; and have a recognizable ending. Mazur-Stommen & Farley (2016) agree and add that games may be either competitive or cooperative in nature, with points being frequently awarded as one possible outcome. There is little agreement and often considerable discussion regarding how the various gaming terms are used within the industry and between the various disciplines. Although a search for digital games in 2020 alone recorded nearly 30,000 hits, many authors, digital and non-digital, are still confused regarding the terminology and do not clearly distinguish between serious games, educational games, game-based learning, and gamification (Becker, 2021).

Educational Games

Allery (2014) defines an educational game as “a specific learning tool which requires learners to engage in some form of competitive activity undertaken within a set of predefined rules.” She also outlines the skills that are developed as “including decision making, problem solving and negotiation.” Rouse (2013 defines educational game as “competitive activities governed by rules and regulations which provide a mechanism for connecting experience and understanding to allow students a better grasp of the world.” Educational games can include board, card, and video games.

Serious Games

Serious games are “games that do not have entertainment, enjoyment or fun as their primary purpose” (Chen & Michael, 2005). Trifonov (2012) defines serious games as those designed to teach a specific lesson. Mohmad et al. (2018) agree, and state “a serious game has the appearance of a game but is designed for specific purposes so as to achieve something.” Noemi and Máximo (2014) state that there is no single definition for serious games, but that they usually involve “training, advertising, simulation, or education,” representing real-world events designed to solve a problem. Mohamad et al. (2018) add “simulation is similar to serious games, simulating real world things and they are always used for trainings. Serious games combine education, communication, with the play of a game. Although often delivered via video or digital games, serious games are not limited to these, and may include other non-digital game formats (Fatta et al., 2018).

Game-Based Learning

Game-Based Learning (GBL) is a type of gameplay with defined learning outcomes designed to balance subject matter with gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world (Team, 2017). According to Mohamad et al. (2018), it involves “actual games in the classroom to enhance teaching and learning experiences.” Qian and Clark (2016) describe game-based learning as “an environment where game content and game play enhance knowledge and skills acquisition, and where game activities involve problem solving spaces and challenges that provide players/learners with a sense of achievement.” Fatta et al. (2018) note that “educational game” is a term that sometimes replaces game-based learning.

Although many feel digital games are the direction of the future, Wiggins suggests that non-digital games are engaged more frequently, possibly due to the limitations that digital versions face. The frequency of use in the classroom for digital games is 27%, whereas for non-digital games the frequency is 56%, possibly due to lower accessibility threshold.


Some argue that gamification is just a new word for traditional instructional strategies. However, gamification has been used to change behavior for over 120 years – an example is when Sperry & Hutchinson began offering stamps (S&H Green stamps) to retailers back in 1896 to encourage additional purchases at stores offering them (Mazur-Stommen & Farley, 2016).

Wiggins (2016) cites that many authors use the terms game-based learning and gamification interchangeably, and suggests that gamification may be a subset of game-based learning. In looking at both digital and non-digital games and the use of both GBL and gamification, Wiggins defines gamification as “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts” (p. 19) and describes the power of gamification to motivate people.

Gamification may not be a familiar word, but most people are familiar with its strategies: levels, points, badges, leaderboards, etc. Gamification is defined by Rouse (2013) as “the process of adding game mechanics to processes, programs, and platforms that would not traditionally use such concepts.” Mohamad et al. (2013) would add that “gamification is the concept of applying game mechanics to engage and motivate students in learning,” with the use of “game elements and game design methods in a non-game context.” Although the term can be applied more broadly, gamification generally refers to digital game-based learning (Fatta et al., 2018).

Due to climate change mitigation factors, gamification (for primarily video games) has gained a lot of attention for its potential to harness the attention of large numbers of people as well as to change their behaviors (Mazur-Stommen & Farley, 2016). Online, games have the potential to reach billions of people.

Sustainable Development Education

Dieleman and Huisingh (2006) note that sustainable development (SD) education involves teachers and students in a multidisciplinary collaboration, bridging “different professional cultures, traditions, gender differences and ages.” They state that when games are played, the roles of others can be easily stepped into, allowing an emotional understanding of why other groups act as they do, and without negative consequences, provide learning by both  doing and failing. According to Dorn (1989), learning is enhanced when real rather than vicarious experiences are used, as when participating in decision-making. Dorn also states that simulation games have a basis in experiential learning rather than just information processing.

Plass et al. (2015) writes, “the debate around how games are defined cannot be resolved here, this may not be a problem, as play—the essential activity in games—has long been thought of as a critical element in human development.”

History and Background

According to Noemi and Máximo (2014), simulation games were introduced in 1946 in a project that enabled military pilots to train in controlled situations. There is research by Coleman et al. (1973) that supports game-based learning as early as the 1970s, when a large-scale review looked at more than 150 studies. More recently, Stanitsas et al. (2019) looked at 77 games to uncover the role these games could play in facilitating sustainability education. They found the most popular serious games are board games and computer games, but that it was difficult to determine which one was most appropriate to meet their sustainability education goals. However, many of the games did incorporate all three of sustainability’s triple-bottom line parameters: economic, social, and environmental (Stanitsas et al., 2019).

Wu and Lee (2015) tell us that the first environmental games related to climate change were made available over 30 years ago. One of the first commercially available games was Keep Cool, which gives players the chance to choose to represent either low or high emitting factories and negotiate issues related to economic growth while avoiding floods and droughts caused by climate change.

Crookall and Thorngate (2009) provide an interesting historical viewpoint regarding the relationship between knowledge acquisition and game playing. Their view that “action ultimately precedes knowledge” means that knowledge acquisition is dependent upon action, that the experience provided by action is what actually impels learning. They support their view with several historical references, including a quote from famed educational reformer John Dewey: “Give the pupils something to do, not something to learn; and the doing is of such a nature as to demand thinking; learning naturally results” (Crookall and Thorngate (2009).

Crookall and Thorngate (2009) aim to restore what we have known for thousands of years, that “action and knowledge are intimately intertwined,” and unfortunately Western education has created in humans an inability to translate knowledge into beneficial actions. On a grand scale, this point of view has resulted in knowing what to do but not taking the necessary action. When we consider the early reports from the Club of Rome in The Limits to Growth (Meadows, Randers, & Meadows, 1972), the sequels Beyond the Limits (Meadows, Meadows, & Randers, 1992) and finally the Thirty-Year Update (Meadows, Randers, & Meadows, 2004), we see that the messages in these books describing the dire potential outcomes due to inaction did not inspire us to action. Public education regarding these dire forecasts either fell behind or perhaps never even started (Crookall and Thorngate, 2009).

Sustainability education is not widespread yet and, when available, the methods used to present information are not always effective in changing people’s behavior (Chappin, 2017). Chappin describes workshops that study the impact of playing sustainability related games and their impact on the players. Research shows that teaching sustainability through games shows an untapped potential. Dielelman and Huisingh (2006) state that although sustainability education is growing in higher education programs, it is much less so in lower education programs. Due to the complexity of the subject, Fabricatore and Lopez (2012) write that traditional methods of teaching – lectures, assignments etc. – may be difficult and may not engage students. Whereas according to Chapin et al. (2017), “some consider gaming to be the most important tool for education because it grounds the educational effort in experience” and the complex topic of sustainability can be more easily communicated through games. Dorn (1989) reveals that games make learning a more direct experience, that they relieve tedium and demand 100% of the gameplayers’ attention and participation. Students that do poorly in the traditional classroom (tests and lectures) are the most receptive to simulation through games, rarely expressing apathy. Dorn (1989) also notes that racial barriers can be reduced among students from different social and ethnic backgrounds. Dorn (1989) summarizes with one persistent finding that simulation games are as effective as other forms of teaching and that students learn as much from games as they do from films or science experiments.

Features of Board Games in Education Purposes and Benefits – the Pros

Learning Styles and Teaching Methods

Every individual has a unique learning style. In order to reach a wide range of students, Tasnim (2012) tells us that a substantial body of literature confirms that games are valuable teaching tools, providing the means by which students with a mix of learning styles can be engaged. Spiegelman and Glass (2008–2009) also recognize that games can be learning tools, immersing players in the game and challenging them at the same time. Allery (2014) writes that there is something about a game with a winner that learners find to be highly motivating. With board games, it is also pleasurable to move game chits and Meeples around the game board while participating with real human friends, according to Kraus (2015), and that the games are much more sophisticated and addictive than the games played by our parents. Stirling (2013) says games have the ability to be a totally immersive experience like reading a good book. Mackay (2013) remarks, “you have to interact,” and that traditional classrooms can stifle qualities needed for learning such as “persistence, risk taking, collaboration, and problem solving.” Treher (2011) and Tasnim (2012) remark that games prepare gamers to react to unpredictable events and prepare students to solve problems outside the classroom.

Tasnim (2012) describes a study done by Hake (1998) involving 48 physics classes using interactive engagement as a teaching method, and 14 classes where traditional lecture methods were used. She noted that pre- and post-tests were performed, and that students’ conceptual knowledge “had considerably larger gains” in the interactive courses, no matter what level of education (high school, college or university). She describes the consistency of the positive results of the 6,500 students as reinforcing the idea that activities in the classroom benefit learning.

Tasnim (2012) states that reflective teaching methods (lectures, handouts, required readings, content-oriented examinations) ignore the complexities of the environment and are ineffective. Whereas in active pedagogy, the facilitator guides the learning process through the use of “role play, simulation, brainstorming, team tasks, and interactive discussions.” Listening and note taking are not paths to learning. The number one reason people play games is to face a challenge and overcome it (Tasnim, 2012).

Types of Game Players

A well-designed game addresses the different types of learners as well as the needs of the different types of game players. In a review of 40 games, Mazur-Stommen and Farley (2016) introduce the idea of different types of players:

  • Achievers: players who work hard to achieve game-related goals, like accumulating treasure or completing specific challenges.
  • Socializers: players who want to converse and interact with other players.
  • Explorers: players who are interested in learning as much as they can about the game world—both the story lore and the limits of the game engine.
  • Customizers: those who like to customize their online avatar or habitat.
  • Killers: players who impose themselves on others (griefers), or who work hard to win at the expense of others.

Chappin et al. (2017) described the various types of players in the game The Island of Catan:

  • A “green hard-liner,” only convinced of his moral values, implying that he is purely driven by environmental concerns.
  • A “fundamentally green” player who understands the potentially disastrous consequences of using oil.
  • An “opportunistically green” player who focuses on his individual gains.
  • A “purely self-interested” player who focuses on his individual gain and makes use of the opportunities of oil for as long as he can.
  • Lastly a “calculative player” who aims for a balance between the disastrous consequences of oil consumption and the advantages oil consumption brings.

General Skill Building

Opportunities to learn are provided as players plan, negotiate, analyze, make decisions and get immediate feedback, thus their learning becomes memorable (Allery, 2014; Treher, 2011). Both Catapano (2009–2019) and Hockaday et al. (2017) expand on this by adding the benefits of building social skills, self-esteem, overcoming shyness and developing language skills, as well as learning to understand game rules, competition, fair play, and values. Stathakis (2013) adds critical thinking skills, creativity, teamwork, and good sportsmanship. In agreement, Chong (2019) points out that board games require that players interact with each other and increase the development of skills such as speaking and interpersonal skills, critical and strategic thinking, and the ability to negotiate. Chong (2019) agrees with Allery (2014) and notes that in cooperative games, players have to come together to solve or prevent a problem by putting their brains together, interacting and negotiating through teamwork. Dieleman and Huisingh (2006) say that games provide opportunities to create shared experiences that involve diverse stakeholders. Climate change solutions cannot focus on a single outcome, such as those stakeholders interested in the economic aspects, but must acknowledge the equal importance of the social and environmental aspects as well. This shared experience facilitates a mutual understanding and contributes to better team building.

Fábrega (n.d.) mentions that “board games help to develop mental flexibility, and the ability to bounce back quickly when adversity strikes,” tools that are much needed in developing sustainable systems. Fábrega (n.d.) also describes the usefulness of some games as life learning tools. For example, Chutes and Ladders teaches that even when everything is planned out carefully, sooner or later you slide down a chute, but that this can be a great thing just when you expect it least. The game of Monopoly explains capitalism. Pandemic, a cooperative game, has players discussing their options and make plans out 4 or 5 turns to prevent a disease from wiping out humankind (Fábrega n.d.). Despeisse (2018) feels that learners adopt a more positive mindset to see sustainability as an opportunity, rather than an oppressive limiting factor.

Dahlin et al. (2015) also lists many acquired skills, including “know-how, awareness, understanding, exploring attitudes and values, systems thinking, information processing, decision making, collaborative working and communication skills” and that these strongly contribute to an ability to learn about sustainability.

In comparing a game application and an equivalent non-game version, Girard et al. (2013) found the “game-based application to be more attractive and more educationally effective,” with students acquiring more knowledge than the control group. Hockaday et al. (2017) describe the skill-building and learning that takes place using games occurs during the debrief period where written reflections are asked of the participants. A method called the Description, Interpretation, Evaluation (DIE) Model is described by Hockaday et al. (2017). Kirkpatrick (2012) agrees that a written reflection is of great value, having the following advantages:

  • Students are forced to organize their thoughts.
  • Students integrate the game experience into real life experiences.
  • Students express their own feelings and thoughts.
  • Teachers hear the thoughts and experiences of all students.
  • Teachers improve their teaching skills through the feedback.

Tasnim (2012) notes that computers can never duplicate the complexity and richness of competing and cooperating among humans, the “old-fashioned” board games remain well- admired, even among young adults today. The advantages to board games are especially noted in developing countries where teachers are in short supply and electronic games are often not available.

Typically, boys read a couple of grade levels below their age group but read decidedly above their grade level if the reading is related to online games (Mackay, 2013). Mackay noted that when students choose what they want to read, they push themselves harder, and games provide this avenue to greater learning.

Petsche (2011) informs us that learning should be fun and that educational games can turn a “potentially boring subject into something exciting and desirable,” and also illuminates the idea that the educational element can be heavy or very much in the background (sneaky learning). We learn from our mistakes. Games are an escape from the real world because those mistakes do not produce serious or lasting harm, write the authors of “Why Use Games to Teach (2018). Often a player can recover within a game and successfully complete tasks; personally, there are no real consequences with game play choices.

Overall, Noemi and Máximo (2014) describe many directions to consider in games:

  • Sustainability and how environments will be managed.
  • Spirit of innovation as a driver of competition.
  • Initiative and entrepreneurship including a variety of decisions.
  • Problem-solving for unforeseen circumstances.
  • Risk-taking and the consequences.
  • Continuous improvement for each player.
  • Orientation towards quality to produce the best overall design.
  • Value of effort to make progress throughout the game and subsequent games.
  • Mathematical and analytical skills.
  • Capacity to plan and organize and monitor the process.
  • Strategy skills to determine when some objectives may have to be abandoned.
  • Technological competence when sophisticated technologies are being used.
  • Information management capabilities valuing information from multiple sources.
  • Independent learning to develop initiative and responsibility from one’s own learning.
  • Adaptability to different environments that addresses the randomness of the game.
  • Creativity to find different solutions when faced with problems.
  • Accuracy in dealing with the details of decisions.
  • Responsibility of managing all the resources involved in the game play.
  • Resource management to reach the goals of the game with limited resources.

Negotiation Skill Building

Hockaday et al. (2017) defines the purpose of using games in negotiation. He notes that using games to mediate between parties involved in water conflict issues helps to dissolve the “petty attitude between parties.” He reminds us that the primary reason that games are used in negotiations is that they increase participation of all parties while breaking down barriers of communication. The games allow the practice and development of mediation and negotiation skills during the games. This also creates a better learning environment.

Hockaday et al. (2017) informs us that they found over 40 water-related games focusing on “water conflict resolution, water diplomacy, and in some college courses, water management, environmental conflict resolution, and business.” Some were board games, others digital computer games, or a combination of the two. Magombeyi, M.S., D. Rollin, and B. Lankford. (2008) explored river basin negotiations and found that, as a result of the game, small-holder farmers were able to share knowledge and set agreements on equitable water sharing that resulted in additional benefits including community harmony, transparency, and acceptance of operating rules.

Board games present opportunities to simulate situations of conflict and, through repetition, determine the best path forward. Chong (2019) tells us that once gameplay has been established, board games “foster the critical thinking, negotiation and interpersonal skills that simple word games do not nurture.” Redpath et al. (2018) agree when they state that games help us to understand patterns of conflict and have the potential “to highlight effective management solutions.” Hockaday et al. (2017) describe the purpose of simulation games as including the imitation of real-life scenarios and, by playing different stakeholders, each is encouraged to discuss their varying positions and come up with a mutually agreed upon solution. In making decisions about a shared resource, the scope of their understanding broadens, enhancing negotiation skills between stakeholders. He describes the work by Craven et al. (2017) and a river basin management simulation game. Redpath et al. (2018) says that, in reality, problems involve a complex layering of multiple stakeholders, all of which have “different interests, values, goals and life experiences in different political, cultural, and historical settings.” When studying some of these issues, Redpath et al. (2018) tell us that traditional ecological approaches have often failed and have even exacerbated the existing problems.

Redpath et al. (2018) powerfully outline the benefits of games when they write that games provide the framework necessary to analyze conflicts and can clarify the key elements of a conflict. They also state that games illuminate the beliefs and behaviors of the participants and result in productive discussion between the various stakeholders. Novel solutions can be uncovered that promote cooperation and build trust between stakeholders. Redpath et al. note that during games, conflicts can be mapped, and underlying patterns be exposed. A key element can be uncovered: how conflicts evolve and change over time, and the moment when the conflict switches to cooperation.

If hesitating to use a game to solve a conflict, Redpath et al. note that while games may “spark conflicts or add fuel to existing ones, conflicts are rarely created by the interactions of the games but are inherent to the situation being explored. Games bring these processes to light so that the conflict can be managed instead of suppressed by the power structure of the status quo.” Games have the potential to provide genuine insight even as conflicts are challenging to study due to their complexity, but they also have potential to be fun, according to Redpath et al. (2018). The potential of using games in negotiations is ready for development, as long as their limitations and ethical constraints are considered. When games and role-play are used in negotiations, Sanpietro (2018) tells us that participants get to explore options on both sides of the situation and see the potential results of different solutions to the conflict. Sanpietro (2018) describes an organization, the Teaching Negotiation Resource Center (TNRC), that offers more than 200 negotiation games, teaching materials, 30 videos, more than 100 books, many periodicals, and critical case studies. The materials offered by TNRC are intended for educational purposes in colleges and corporate training settings, and for individuals who want to improve their own negotiation skills (Sanpietro, 2018).

Redpath et al. (2018) outline three different approaches to one conflict in Sweden between agriculture and growing geese populations: 1) a theoretical game example that predicts the results of management practices that include collaboration; 2) an experimental game example where farmers have the potential to use a lethal method to control the geese; and 3) a constructivist game example wherein stakeholders explore lethal versus non-lethal methods under changing economic situations. Their examples show the potential of offering various scenarios in game play.

Decision-Making Skill Building

In the game Island, Noemi and Máximo (2014) describe an environment to be managed as one that is extremely fragile, and that the innovation of the players is a distinctive element that drives competition. There is no clear path described in the game, but alternative ways to manage the island are considered in the decisions. Many unforeseen circumstances arise and must be solved by the players. The authors describe situations where risk-taking may be profitable, however the citizens of the island do not forgive any mistakes that are made! From an educational point of view, decisions that require the ability to perform mathematical calculations can be of benefit, according to Noemi and Máximo. They describe an orientation towards quality and continuous improvement as important factors, as well as recognizing the value of effort as a beneficial aspect in the game. The use of analytical skills may also be required to ascertain if the right decisions have been made.

In the game of Island, Noemi and Máximo (2014) noticed that, after game play, most students had improved their “skills in sustainability, teamwork, solidarity, innovation, creativity, problem-solving, continuous improvement, energy efficiency, mathematical precision, initiative, goal achievement, result orientation, flexibility, and working with the environment,” all as a part of the game having a “positive influence in the process of learning.” McGonigal (2010) outlines ways to evaluate whether a game has had a positive effect, and includes the following questions:

  •  Are these games increasing the happiness, the health, the well-being of the people who play them?
  •  Are these games enhancing positive social relationships with friends, family, colleagues, and neighbors?
  •  Do these games connect players to something bigger than themselves, purpose, mission, or a collective endeavor?
  •  Do these games give people opportunities to wake up and do something that matters, to achieve something in their daily lives?
Links to Reality

It is important for the game to have strong links to reality. In a game that simulates irrigation solutions in Senegal, Bousquet et al. (2001) report that the players were fully capable of interpreting the results of the game and linking the model to reality. A great deal of satisfaction was expressed by game players due to a precise real local and the use of a GIS map with detailed, relevant information. In simulations related to real designs to be implemented, Bousquet et al. (2001) suggest that it may be useful to switch roles in order to better understand constraints faced by others, as well as understand their behavior. This encourages richer discussions.

Mazur-Stommen and Farley (2016) tell us that gamification is used to approach problems in a way to tap into the psychology of motivation. Game mechanics can heighten real-world activities. Eisenack and Reckien (2013) write that games can raise awareness and empower people when it comes to dealing with climate change issues.

Hockaday et al (2017) also found that although games foster collaboration, they “can only be used to intervene in real-life negotiations if they are crafted in a realistic way” and that “real-life participants want the opportunity to consider all options.” Gaming does create a common ground between players, especially those that are unable to cooperate with each other.

Cooperation versus Competition

In a study by Creighton and Szymkowiak (2014), teachers rated the amount of cooperative actions after game play versus before game play. They rated cooperative interaction significantly higher after game play compared to low rates before game play. For one thing, cooperative game play resulted in more conversation. Dorn (1989) writes that simulation games are not value-free. There are sociological, economic, and political lessons that are learned; implicit and often explicit moral and value lessons are also presented.

Knowledge into Action

In many academic situations, knowledge is transmitted in the form of lectures, tests, reading, and essays, and action is discouraged, as though it were of no value (Crookall and Thorngate, 2009, pp. 10-11). According to Crookall and Thorngate, action should be the prime goal for education. They state, for example, that action is not taken often enough to achieve the changes being sought and that people know about problems but do nothing to prevent them (2009, p. 13). There is a persistent feeling that actions to address problems lag behind scientific knowledge and possible solutions. “It’s not that we don’t know what to do. It’s that we don’t do it” (Ireland, 2007). Summarizing, they state, “clearly, neither concern nor knowledge of climate change necessarily translates into personal action to mitigate it.”

Crookall and Thorngate (2009, p. 8) discuss in detail the complex relationship that exists between action and knowledge as a two-way interaction. They illuminate the notion that currently we take-for-granted the idea that knowledge must exist before action can occur. They describe the connection as if it were a two-way highway, with traffic in both directions. Without action, knowledge is not possible.

Crookall and Thorngate (2009, p. 9) state that this understanding has a national bias. British culture prefers to do before conceptualizing. The French prefer theory before action. Eastern cultures believe that the written knowledge can be the only means to have effective action, whereas non-alphabetic East Asian cultures believe it is the direct engagement of tasks that leads to knowing rather than the use of abstract written signs and symbols. Western culture feels that doing and observation leads to learning. It is a Western preoccupation that believes “knowledge-creation-application-performance” as the only path towards learning and action. Crookall and Thorngate (2009, p. 10) find it interesting to examine this gap in understanding and how it is being currently addressed in simulation and gaming in “education, industry, organizations, and teacher education” to bring the knowledge-action gap closer together.

Value of Games in Education

Despeisse (2018) writes that serious games are emerging as strong educational tools because they can immerse students in complex situations and give students experience in the role of decision-makers. Despeisse (2018) also asserts that board games are needed to provide experiential and participatory methods for teaching sustainability. Eli (2014) agrees, stating that educators have long understood the potential of games to benefit both teaching and learning, and recommends the possibility of structuring an entire course as a game.

Games that were not initially designed as educational games are being mapped to school curricula by Libraries Got Game (Nicholson, 2011). Nicholson tells us it is important to engage as many players as possible as often as possible in order for an educational game to be successful as a learning tool. He recommends designing the goal of the game within this context: “Do not ask questions.” Winning has to do more with who does the best job, according to Nicholson (2011), and it is better if all players either win or lose as a team. He also states that too many new games look just like other commercially available games in existence already. He recommends that game designers look beyond mass-market games. Building a game out of learning outcomes and content, Nicholson states, is a challenging one, but can “teach, motivate, and engage learners…in ways much more effective than a simple trivia-game model. Kraus (2015) informs us of a series of books called Teaching Through Games. Harris and Harris (and sometimes Mayer) (2015) have worked a wealth of activities and exercises that incorporate the use of a game in the classroom, including a one-week lesson plan as well. Some examples of games in current use for the purposes of sustainability education are:

  • In Clim’way players can design the infrastructure of a city and watch the evolution of their design over a simulated 50 years. Players are challenged to address climate change issues in the games PowerAgent, Habitat, Greenify, SMARTIC, Eco Chains: Arctic Crisis, Fate of the World, Climate Mission 3D, and FutureCoast (Wu and Lee (2015).
  • Some games are aimed at the individual and changing potential behaviors in their own homes, such as Me Eco-Home (MEH) where the consequences of sustainable versus unsustainable actions are tried by the players (Trifonov et al., 2012).
  • Snowflake Education has developed an entire suite of board games for sustainability education, including ClimeOut, which teaches students the value of discussing scientific data and to understand the vocabulary of climate research (n.d. Snowflake Education).

Allery (2014) tells us that games level the playing field, allowing all players to have an equal opportunity. Prior skills or knowledge are not required. Bousquet et al. (2001) outline a variety of roles that games employ to extend knowledge:

  • To simulate a variety of schemes.
  • To help in mediation.
  • To predict the impact of development.
  • To simulate scenarios of adaptation.
  • To test hypotheses.
  • To facilitate discussions between populations.

Dorn (1989) recognizes the difference between the two methods used in education.

In the banking system of education:

  1. Students receive information in the form of a book or lecture.
  2. Students assimilate and understand this information.
  3. They infer particular applications of what is learned to general principles.
  4. They learn to use the general principles to act in some way.

Whereas in the experiential model:

  1. Students act in a particular instance of application.
  2. They attempt to understand the effects of their behavior.
  3. They seek to understand the general principles.
  4. They apply the general principle to a new circumstance so that learning is valuable in their future behavior.

Catapano (2009–2019) asks if there is a carryover after the game. He suggests that students should be offered games that develop skills that can extend into other potential areas. Crookall and Thorngate (2009) suggest that facilitators should run two games back-to-back, and that, in the second game, participants can draw upon what was learned in the first game. This can result in additional learning when participants recognize that the second-round results have improved. When teamwork and cooperation are reinforced, Digital Pedagogy (2019) says that better outcomes are created as opposed to individual representation in the game. Eli (2014) agrees and states that when games are designed for teams, collaborative skills are built as a result.

Considerations for Education: What is Missing? – The Cons

There are few negative articles about board games. Madani et al. (2016) noted that in environmental management games, the main shortcoming was the omission of an assessment of the game’s effectiveness and the pedagogical foundations on which the game was based. Madani et al. note that the development of standardized methods to evaluate game effectiveness is essential for future game research, including the game design features, mechanics, game narrative and environment.

Eisenack (2012) describes an increased tension near the end of the game when players strive to reach their goals. Initial discussions may focus on the “strategic aspects of winning the game.” Eisenack continues by reminding us that learning only takes place if the game is carefully debriefed, and that repeated game play could allow for a deeper understanding. He facilitated the game sessions over 3 to 4 hours in seminar-type settings, including the game introduction, game play, and debrief time for 25 students divided into smaller groups. Due to the complex themes in sustainability or climate change issues, games are also often quite complex. Eisenack states that objectives of the games are still met at least to some degree. He also states that introductions can require some time, especially if the participants are not frequent board game players. He also reminds us that the use of a board game creates a common language where different views can be discussed.

Since it is difficult to get humans to act on knowledge, Crookall and Thorngate (2009) say that it is also difficult to prove the effectiveness of using games as a learning tool. Although it is easy to see progress in participants after playing a game, it is hard to measure. They state that they intuitively sense that learning took place even when it is difficult to quantify that learning. In the banking concept of education (Freire, 1968), action follows learning, and the incentive for learning is not clear until the end. In experiential learning, action occurs first and learning already has a reason to be motivated (Dorn, 1989). It can often take two rounds of game play to get used to the game play sequence and the mechanics of the game (Despeisse, 2018).

There are situations when game participants have a negative view of the game play. Despeisse (2018) described one participant as being skeptical regarding the potential to learn from a game and was not expecting to actually play a real game. Some players wanted to change the game so that their team would have won, and Depeisse notes that it can be challenging to get players to focus on what they learned as opposed to why they lost the game, focusing on their own small mistakes. If, during the game, the players are required to work as a team towards a common goal, Despeisse notes that players take the time to consider their own strengths when working in combination with others.

Despeisse (2018) informs us of several limitations of game play. One, it can oversimplify the real world. Also, the frustration of losing a game, in a worst-case scenario, can turn into a blame game. In some cases, there is a prejudice against games, not recognizing their value. At the other extreme, the game can be so exciting that it causes a barrier to learning.

Crookall and Thorngate (2009) remind us that as long as knowledge is used as a measure of effectiveness, there will be problems brought up by anti-gamers: “the hiatus between action and knowledge may, thus, be one reason that it is notoriously difficult to prove that simulations work.” Stanitsas et al. (2019) agree and find the clarity of the findings to be hard to evaluate. They also felt that the effectiveness of meeting sustainability’s educational requirements did not apply to all games, and that a large number of studies did not properly define their research methods and lacked quantitative results.

Wu and Lee (2015) also complain that studies regarding games in education “lack rigor and validity in experimental design.”  However, they also reference 7 other authors in their conclusion “that people can learn from playing games” and gameplay “is overwhelmingly supported by a large base of empirical evidence.” Girard et al. (2013) inform us that it can be very challenging to form ideal control groups when conducting research.

Tasmin (2012) notes that although board games are extremely popular with all age groups, there is inadequate research regarding how learning is affected by the use of board games. Wu and Lee (2015) agree when they question whether there are long-lasting behavioral benefits of Habitat and Greenify, stating researchers have not provided conclusive results. Wu and Lee (2015) describe climate change progress as a matter of civic engagement. And civic engagement requires that people are able to process information, debate the issue, and, ultimately, take action. They do note that games are in a unique position to aid in this transition and foster trust, but that real behavioral changes have not yet been seen. The scant research regarding how a climate change game may influence a players’ behavior could promote a change in civic engagement (Wu & Lee, 2015).

Mazur-Stommen et al. (2016) suggest that there is ample research that shows that games can lead to behavioral changes, but to “truly harness the power of games to change the world, designers need to look beyond simple stimulation and response and towards the deeper possibilities of engaging players through positive content and context…to consider shifting their perspectives towards one of gameful design and its focus on positive interactions and outcomes instead of mindless repetition.”

Although Stanitsas et al. (2019) recognize the positive effects that serious games have on learning outcomes, they also note that the data from most studies end in 2013; since then, an enormous expansion has occurred. They reviewed 81 journal articles, 10 conference papers, 5 books, 4 reports from international organizations, and 1 online database. The overall purpose of their research was to “reveal the contribution of serious games as effective tools in facilitating sustainability education and to group them according to their nature and direction in relation to sustainability.” In particular they were interested in finding games that addressed all three aspects of the triple bottom line: economy, environment and the social aspects. Although some games met their standards, there were many that did not include all three aspects.

Learning Assessment and the Incorporation of Games

Dorn (1989) recognizes the challenges that teachers face as they attempt to incorporate games into their curriculum. Games can be difficult to grade and assess; they can be difficult to fit into schedules. Eli (2014) agrees with Dorn regarding grading game activities but suggests that feedback rather than grades might be more appropriate, allowing students to retrace their steps and make corrections, or try again until they succeed. Eli suggests that this permits students to realize that multiple attempts are sometimes necessary as a part of learning and success. In this way, students learn from games in ways that traditional forms of teaching cannot offer.

As reported by Treher (2011), when students from 23 states, age 12 to 24 and their teachers, were surveyed before and after playing a game, answers improved from 55 to 93 percent, even without incorporating additional lessons.

To evaluate a game design, Despeisse (2018) enlisted the help of 29 individuals in 8 pilot sessions. The sessions began with a 5 to 10 minute short lecture regarding the topic, and 10 to 15 minutes to explain the game rules emphasizing a real-world context. Dorn (1989) says that one third of the total time should be reserved for debriefing. Eisenack (2012) agrees with the need for preliminary instruction and concluding time to debrief. This debriefing allows students the analytical time required to process the information gained by the experience. Despeisse (2018) tells us that time is needed for students to absorb the benefits of the game, even 24 hours can be needed for participants to understand what they learned, once the excitement level has decreased.

In order to assess the potential of games in learning, Girard et al. (2013) suggest using two or more types of training, such as pencil and paper versus a game. They suggest comparing a group of students with no training versus one with a different type of training material. In their own studies, Girard et al. found that “children in the virtual world environment were more motivated, more satisfied and more engaged than those in the traditional learning groups.” Girard et al. also suggest the need to assess the effect that the gameplay has on the everyday lives of the players.

Participants should also be allowed to criticize the game so that it can be redesigned to model reality more accurately. Eisenack (2012) also remarks that not all objectives can be incorporated directly into a game without the game becoming too complex.

In order for Chappin et al. (2017) to measure changes in knowledge, attitude and behavior, a baseline perspective was measured before the game, and repeated following the game. They performed 6 workshops with 4 to 9 participants each (total of 35 participants). They describe a survey that took place directly before the game and then again immediately after the game. The surveys measured knowledge, attitude,e and behavior regarding sustainability issues (Figure 1).

Crookall and Thorngate (2009) remind us that “playing a game without debriefing is like playing a soccer game without scoring goals.” Dieleman and Huisingh (2006) remind us that debriefing is a crucial action that weaves action and knowledge together. By listening to the learning expressed by others, students realize that people learn differently from performing the same activities. The debriefing questions they considered were:

  • What did I learn about myself, my behavior, my values, my thoughts, my fears, and my eagerness to win, while participating in this game or games?
  • What did I learn about the others, their behavior and attitudes?
  • What did I learn about different forms of communication?
  • What was new to me?
  • What did I know but do not do?
  • What did I learn concerning the topic of my study or work (SD) and how can I use this in the future?

Dieleman and Huisingh (2006) feel that educators and teachers should incorporate games and change their curricula to facilitate usage of games. This will inspire us to become increasingly more productive in helping our students to become effective change agents in building a more sustainable society. Despeisse (2018) agrees with debriefing, encouraging participants to reflect on their actions during the game. Despeisse’s debriefing included a checklist to see if the learning objectives had been met, if students understood the purpose of the game, and if they had fun (did they want to play the game again?). The initial questions asked by Despeisse were:

  • Was the aim of the game clear?
  • Was it easy to learn the rules?
  • Did you learn about concepts for industrial sustainability?
  • Did you learn about eco-efficiency as a set of practices?
  • Did the game raise your interest/awareness on these topics?

Dorn (1989) recommends that in-depth interviews or formal questionnaires can provide an overall effectiveness assessment of the game. He also felt objective observers could be employed to record observations during the game and provide some indication as to the success or failure of the game. Eisenack (2012) listed questions related to understanding, for example, the meaning of the various climate cards and protection tokens.

Treher (2011) reported that post-test results were significantly higher after game play than scores after a lecture or library assignment, and no difference was found in pre-game tests. She noted that the game was the most effective and most enjoyable way to learn. Long-term retention was also significantly enhanced by gameplay, more than any other teaching method.

Changes in Behavior

Trying to get people to change their habits in order to reduce their carbon footprint is largely unsuccessful, according to Ro et al. (2017). However, they report this is due to the traditional educational focus on simply increasing knowledge. Ro et al. developed a game to encourage the reduction of household electricity use, and found that, 6 months after the game, electricity use was significantly reduced, especially in high-energy consumers. Their study showed that it is possible to elicit a long-term change in sustainability habits by building awareness through action.

Mazur-Stommen and Farley (2016) tells us there is evidence to suggest that games can encourage positive behavior changes. Where a game is played (in schools, universities, workplaces, and in communities) may influence the outcome of the game, according to Mazur-Stommen and Farley (2016). They feel that in order for a player to be challenged to do better, achieve more, score higher, the players need someone to compete against. They also recommend quests, levels of achievement, special narratives, and the acquisition of badges as a reward. Badges can indicate a player’s status within a game and be added to users’ profile pages. They describe situations where badges were found to act as powerful motivational tools, and that players are often willing to put in a significant amount of effort to attain them.

Ro et al. (2017) were encouraged by the results provided by gamification to produce changes in attitude as well as behavior. They discuss the use of “points, levels, and badges” as a means to communicate progression through the game, citing that competitions have been incorporated to motivate players to engage in various activities. The tangible reward, however, can make players feel they are doing the activity for the reward and not because they are actually interested in changing their habits.

Because it can be overwhelming to be presented with a number of behaviors to change, Ro et al. suggest offering a few sustainable behavior changes and then waiting before offering additional options. Ro et al. (2017)  report that there are a “number of psychological barriers that prevent behavior changes” but say that people do change when made aware of the severity of the problem, if they understand what to do or if it is in their best interest financially. They also report that although monetary rewards can be effective in the short term, once the incentive is removed, people return to their old patterns. Unfortunately, most behavior change research relies on self-reports, uses sample sizes that are too small, or neglects to have a control group. Ro et al. also report that most information is collected immediately after the game and did not determine if there was a long-term lasting effect. Additional research, especially longitudinal studies are greatly needed.

During game play for The Island of Catan, players changed their gameplay as the game progressed and they tried to prevent “the tragedy of the commons.” Chappin et al. (2017) reported that qualitative analysis would suggest that playing the game results in a change in the players understanding and behaviors. However, as with most gameplay research, due to “the small sample size and deviating demographics,” the sample could not be representative of the population or allow a generalization of the results.

Chappin et al. (2017) note that game players are exposed over and over again to ways to ration resources, learn from disasters, and learn by shock. In the game The Island of Catan, Chappin et al. inform us that 15% of the game sessions ended in a fatal disaster.

To address climate change, behavioral changes must be addressed. Although board games do not explicitly aim to induce those changes, they are, however, a powerful tool that can reach a broad audience with a particular interest in changing behavior, for example to lower the participants’ carbon footprint (Mazur-Stommen & Farley, 2016). Treher (2011) agrees with Mazur-Stommen and Farley (2016) and reports that learning through game play does translate into behavior changes and reduces the time needed to apply new information. They also state that the behavior change can occur after the game, as in educational or activist games which aim to influence behavior after the game is concluded.


According to Tasnim (2012), there is a vast potential for games and simulations in our classrooms. She notes that games have the potential to contribute to “active learning pedagogy, breaking new grounds and creating momentous impact of the perception of gaming as credible pedagogical features in classrooms.” Chappin et al. (2017) agree and add that games have the potential to transmit sustainability concepts to the public at large. They feel serious gaming can be an effective teaching tool, although it is not yet widespread in its use.

Tasnim (2012) remarks that if games are to be part of a meaningful language, then they should be central to a teacher’s repertoire, and not used at the end of the term or when it rains. It is a learning tool and not just a time-filler. She states that schools are the new notion, not games.

Recently, Schrier (2014–2019) has written three books, describing the incorporation of games into educational formats, including a description of over 100 games and their potential use in the classroom. Using the tools, she offers can provide the appropriate assistance necessary to move into a different paradigm, that of using games as a teaching tool in our everyday experience.

All of the information in this literature review has guided the development of a board game, Paved ParadiseTM – A Tiny House Ecovillage Board Game. In this game, participants strive for net zero impact on the planet as an ecovillage is designed. If interested in participating in the gameplay research, please contact the author.

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Categories: Research

What I know, what I think I know, how I act, & why I don’t: Examining students’ self-assessed vs. scientific knowledge about climate change

Fri, 2021-05-21 16:13

The present study examined what undergraduate students thought they knew about climate change, what they actually knew in terms of scientific knowledge, and how these two types of knowledge predicted their pro-environmental intentions and behaviors. We tested these questions using a cross-sectional online survey and data from a subsample of undergraduate student participants who believe in anthropogenic climate change (N = 3,310). Students reported moderate levels of self-assessed knowledge yet objectively lacked an understanding of the causes of climate change. Self-assessed knowledge more strongly predicted pro-environmental intentions and action than actual knowledge. Students’ understanding of the consequences of climate change predicted intentions while understanding the causes and climate science predicted action. Students self-identified a lack of knowledge and a lack of prioritization as barriers to climate change mitigating action. Pedagogical implications are discussed.

Higher education plays a critical role in educating students about global climate change. However, the belief that climate change is happening and human-caused does not appear to be the only driving force behind climate inaction in college populations. Indeed, one study found that while 75% of college students said they believe climate change is happening and human-caused, only 15% reported having taken any action to reduce global warming (Wachholz, Artz, & Chene, 2014). As members of a large higher education institution, we were interested in understanding whether students’ understanding of accepted scientific knowledge about climate change (i.e., what students actually know) and self-assessed knowledge (i.e., what students believe they know) were predictors of their self-reported behavioral intentions and actions to mitigate climate change. Further, we explored whether students identified a lack of knowledge as a reason for inaction. In the present work, we explore 1) students’ understanding of climate change and self-assessed knowledge of climate change as predictors of climate change mitigating intentions and self-reported behavior and 2) students’ self-identified barriers to action.

The current generation of college students is likely to have more knowledge about climate change than any other population in history (Perera & Hewege, 2013). Climate education is related to a variety of important outcomes. For example, individuals with knowledge about climate change are more likely to believe it is occurring (Hornsey, Harris, Bain, & Fielding, 2016), that is it a threat (Sundblad, Biel, & Garling, 2007), and are less likely to be skeptical about climate science (Hibberd & Nguyen, 2013).  However, when considering broad environmental awareness, there is a gap between knowledge and behavior (Kollmuss & Agyeman, 2010). While the current generation of college students have some degree of knowledge about climate change, past research suggests that an accurate understanding of climate change may not translate directly to pro-environmental action.

Rather than assessing knowledge broadly, some educational researchers suggest considering several different types of scientific knowledge. For example, Taddicken and colleagues suggest that knowledge about climate change is a complex and multi-faceted concept that includes knowledge about climate change causes, effects, and behavioral interventions (Taddicken, Reif, & Hoppe, 2018). Other work suggests researchers should be examining the public’s knowledge of the difference between climate and weather (Bostrom, Morgan, Fischoff, & Read, 1994) as it was linked to climate change policy support (Reynolds, Bostrom, Read, & Morgan, 2010). There are multiple types of climate knowledge, and they may functionally predict unique outcomes.

While some studies explored the relevance of scientific knowledge about climate change regarding pro-environmental action, fewer have considered the role of self-assessed knowledge. While there is some evidence of a modest relationship between actual knowledge and self-assessed knowledge (van der Linden, Maibach, & Leiserowitz, 2015), other work suggests no relationship (Howansky & Cole, 2016). Scientific knowledge and self-assessed knowledge may function independently when predicting pro-environmental outcomes. A survey of university students found that while 63% of students believed their climate change knowledge was moderate or extensive, most did not receive a passing grade on a scientific knowledge quiz (Wachholz et al., 2014). Students may not have an accurate understanding of what they do and do not know about climate change.

Self-assessed knowledge is related to a variety of important climate change relevant outcomes. For example, the more knowledgeable someone feels about climate change, the more likely they are to believe it is occurring (Hornsey et al., 2016), to be concerned about it,  and to feel it important to mitigate (Aitken, Chapman, & McClure, 2011; Boyes et al., 2014). Further, the more students believe they know about climate change, the more pro-environmental intentions they formulate and the more climate change limiting behaviors they enact (Howansky & Cole, 2016).

While some work suggests scientific knowledge is a stronger predictor of climate change belief than self-assessed knowledge (Hornsey et al., 2016), little work has directly compared self-assessed and scientific climate change knowledge as predictors of action in one sample. Further, limited work has explored the role of self-assessed and scientific knowledge in predicting actions and intentions beyond other important predictors of intentions and behavior such as perceived risk (O’Connor, Bord, & Fisher, 1999) and feelings of responsibility (Klöckner, 2013).

The goal of this research was twofold. First, we sought to examine self-assessed and scientific knowledge as predictors of pro-environmental intentions and self-reported behavior beyond other known predictors of climate mitigation, such as risk and responsibility. We predicted that both self-assessed and scientific knowledge would contribute to pro-environmental, climate change-limiting intentions and self-reported behavior. Secondly, we were interested in building upon the recent literature that has examined the factors that promote not just intentions but result in behaviors that reduce or mitigate climate change (e.g., Liu & Lin, 2015) by determining what students perceive as barriers to their action. Specifically, we explored whether students would identify a lack of knowledge as a barrier to their pro-environmental behaviors. All materials and data files are available at



All matriculated graduate and undergraduate students from a large northeastern U.S. university were invited via email and school newspaper advertisements to participate in an online survey about climate change and sustainability in exchange for a chance to win one of 30 gift cards ranging from $30 to $300. The university research office administered the link and identified institutional data, including race/ethnicity, gender, and citizenship.

A sample of 3,444 undergraduates completed the online study. Most students identified as women (60.6%) and U.S. citizens or permanent residents (88.7%). Approximately half of the sample identified as White (46.9%). One hundred and thirty-four students (3.9%) reported they did not believe climate change is occurring and were excluded from subsequent analyses, resulting in a final sample of 3,310 participants.

Students who opened the link for the survey saw an informed consent form before accessing the survey. Students who agreed to participate then read that “The Environmental Protection Agency defines climate change as ‘any significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time.’ In other words, climate change includes major changes in temperature, precipitation, or wind patterns, among other effects, that occur over several decades or longer.” Students were then asked whether they believed climate change was occurring; students that answered “no” were directed to questions about media usage and knowledge of university sustainability practices while students that answered “yes” then completed questions on risk perceptions, knowledge, responsibility, intentions, and behaviors related to climate change before seeing the questions that all other respondents saw at the end of the survey.

The measure of perceptions of climate change risk was obtained by asking students to report their level of concern about climate change on a 3-point scale from “not at all concerned” to “very concerned.” They also identified how far away they felt climate change is (i.e., psychological distance) on a 100-point slider scale from “immediate” to “very far in the future”.

To measure self-assessed knowledge, students were asked to report their own knowledge of climate change across two items (e.g., “How would you rate your level of knowledge about global climate change?”), which were averaged to create a single measure of self-assessed climate change knowledge (α = .73).  Items were rated on 7-point scales ranging from “I know almost nothing about this topic” to “I am an expert on this topic.”

The 56-item quiz of scientific knowledge (adapted from Bord, Connor, & Fisher, 2000; Bostrom et al., Read, 1994; NOAA, 2009; Reynolds et al., 2010) measured scientific knowledge across four climate change subject areas: causes (13 items), interventions (14 items), consequences (13 items), and general climate science (16 items).  Before inclusion in the survey, all measures were reviewed by a panel of three university experts in research on climate change. Experts responded to the scales in a true/false format. If one expert disagreed, the item was excluded from the analysis. Across all items, participant responses were also coded as “true” or “false.” Students received one point per response, which coincided with experts. Students who incorrectly answered an item or indicated that they did not know the answer did not receive a point. For each sub-scale, correct responses were summed and divided by the total possible points to create a percent correct score.

The measure of civic responsibility ranged from 1 (disagree) to 4 (agree) along a 12-item scale (adapted from Furco, Muller, & Ammon, 1998). We averaged responses to create one measure of civic responsibility (α = .88). Students also reported the extent to which they felt personally responsible for fixing the climate on a scale from 1 (not at all responsible) to 5 (extremely responsible).

Pro-environmental intentions were assessed by intentions to engage in 12 activities to reduce climate change via a 10-point scale from “never” to “always” (e.g., restrict the use of electricity, walk, bike, or use public transit; α = .87). Students then indicated whether they engage in 12 climate-change limiting behaviors (e.g., use public transit regularly). Pro-environmental behaviors were summed to create one measure of behavior. Students then reported reasons for why they did not behave pro-environmentally across seven items (e.g., not a priority) from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree). Finally, students responded to various items for use in another study (e.g., media use).




Descriptive Statistics

We first examined students’ self-assessed and scientific knowledge of climate change (Table 1). Students knew the most about climate change interventions, consequences, and general climate science. Students knew the least about the causes of climate change. Students showed the greatest variability in knowledge about the scientifically agreed consequences of climate change and climate science. There was less variability in student’s scientific knowledge about climate change interventions and causes. Students’ self-assessed knowledge scores were significantly higher than the mid-point of the scale (e.g., “moderate level of knowledge”), t(2490) = 17.02, p < .001, d = .31, yet significantly lower than one unit above the midpoint (i.e., “a lot of knowledge”), t(2940) = -49.96, p <.001, d  = .93. Students, on average, believed they have between a moderate amount and a lot of knowledge about climate change.


Relationships Among Variables

We then examined the degree to which risk perceptions, responsibility, and knowledge are related to pro-environmental intentions and self-reported behavior (Table 2).  Civic responsibility and concern were the strongest predictors of pro-environmental intentions and self-reported behavior such that the more civic responsibility or concern an individual felt, the more intentions and action they reported. Personal responsibility, self-assessed knowledge, and knowledge about the consequences of climate change were also among the strongest predictors of both intentions and reported action. Specifically, the more personal responsibility and knowledge students’ felt they had, the more intentions and behavior they reported. Additionally, the more knowledge students had about the consequences of climate change, the more intentions they and behaviors they reported. Knowledge of climate change causes and interventions more weakly predicted both intentions and reported behavior.

Intentions and self-reported behaviors were significantly related such that the more intentions students formed, the more behaviors they reported, r(2543) = 0.44, p < .001.


Predicting Intentions and Behavior

We next explored the extent to which risk perceptions, responsibility, and knowledge predict pro-environmental behavioral intentions via a hierarchical linear regression controlling for gender, ethnicity, and citizenship (Table 3). Risk, responsibility, and knowledge each independently predict intentions, accounting for about 26% of the variance in intentions. Of risk variables, concern about climate change predicted intentions, but psychological distance did not. In the next step, we explored the extent to which responsibility predicts intentions beyond risk variables and demographics. Feelings of climate change responsibility and civic responsibility predict intentions, but civic responsibility is a much stronger predictor. Finally, we explored the extent to which knowledge predicts intentions controlling for demographics, risk, and responsibility. Understanding the causes of climate change and the science behind climate change did not predict intentions. Intervention and consequence knowledge predicted intentions, but not to the same extent as self-assessed knowledge. With all variables included in the model, the strongest predictors of intentions were responsibility, concern, and self-assessed knowledge.

We next explored the extent to which intentions, risk perceptions, responsibility, and knowledge predict self-reported pro-environmental behavior via a hierarchical linear regression controlling for gender, ethnicity, and citizenship (Table 3). Intentions, risk, responsibility, and knowledge each independently predict behavior, accounting for 25% of the variance in behavior. Among risk variables, both concern and psychological distance predicted behavior. In the next step, we explored the extent to which responsibility predicts intentions beyond risk variables and demographics. Feelings of climate change responsibility and civic responsibility predict behavior, but civic responsibility is a much stronger predictor. Finally, we explored the extent to which knowledge predicts behavior controlling for demographics, intentions, risk, and responsibility. Knowledge of climate interventions, causes, and consequences did not predict behavior. Instead, knowledge of climate science and self-assessed knowledge predicted action. Together, beyond demographics and intentions, the strongest predictors of behavior were civic responsibility, concern, and self-assessed knowledge.


Table 3. Results from a hierarchical regression analysis predicting pro-environmental intentions and behavior Intentions Behavior Variable Β β t R R2 ΔR2 Β β t R R2 ΔR2 Step 1 .13 .02 .02 .12 .01 .01    Gender -0.20 -.06 -2.54* -0.27 -.07 -3.26**    Ethnicity -0.18 -.05 -2.34* 0.33 .09 3.84***    U.S. Citizen -0.47 -.08 -3.68*** 0.27 .04 1.90 Step 2 .34 .12 .10 .39 .15 .14    Gender -0.18 -.05 -2.47* -0.25 -.07 -3.24**    Ethnicity -0.21 -.06 -2.78** 0.28 .07 3.54***    U.S. Citizen -0.58 -.10 -4.74*** 0.09 .01 0.70    Concern 0.91 .31 13.19*** 1.06 .32 14.33***    Psychological Distance -0.000 -.03 -1.16 -0.01 -.10 -4.61*** Step 3 .50 .25 .13 .48 .23 .08    Gender -0.15 -.05 -2.28* -0.26 -.07 -3.45**    Ethnicity -0.18 -.05 -2.63** 0.28 .07 3.75***    U.S. Citizen -0.52 -.09 -4.55*** 0.17 .03 1.33    Concern 0.57 .19 8.52*** 0.78 .23 10.55***    Psychological Distance 0.000 .002 0.10 -0.01 -.08 -3.94***    Personal Resp. 0.19 .14 6.72*** 0.11 .07 3.51**    Civic Responsibility 1.05 .32 15.81*** 0.99 .27 13.43*** Step 4 .51 .26 .01 .50 .25 .02    Gender -0.19 -.06 -2.74** -0.41 -.11 -5.32***    Ethnicity -0.18 -.05 -2.66** 0.20 .05 2.58**    U.S. Citizen -0.48 -.09 -4.28*** 0.21 .03 1.68    Concern 0.45 .15 6.29*** 0.58 .17 7.50***    Psychological Distance 0.001 .02 0.74 -0.004 -.06 -2.71**    Personal Resp. 0.19 .14 6.61*** 0.10 .07 3.30**    Civic Responsibility 0.98 .30 14.42*** 0.91 .25 12.29***    Knowledge of Causes -0.003 -.02 -0.88 0.01 .04 1.81    Knowledge of

Interventions 0.01 .05 2.20* 0.003 .02 .71    Knowledge of

Consequences 0.01 .06 2.69** 0.002 .02 0.80    Knowledge of

Climate Science -0.001 -.01 -0.38 0.01 .09 4.37***    Self-assessed 0.16 .08 3.22** 0.24 .10 4.46*** Gender: 0 = Female, 1 = Male; Ethnicity: 0 = Non-White, 1 = White; U.S. Citizen: 0 = Non-Citizen, 1 = Citizen;

*p < .05, **p < .01, ***p <.001


Barriers to Action

We conducted a series of one-sample t-tests to explore whether students’ ratings of various barriers to pro-environmental action significantly differed from four, the midpoint on the scale (Table 4; Figure 1). Values significantly below the mid-point indicate that students did not identify that variable as a barrier to their pro-environmental behavior. Values above the mid-point indicate that students believe these factors are reasons why they do not behave pro-environmentally. Students’ responses were significantly below the scale mid-point on lack of importance, efficacy, belief, climate science knowledge, and finances, indicating that students do not believe these are reasons for their inaction. However, students reported significantly higher than the mid-point of the scale on personal prioritization and intervention knowledge, suggesting they identified a lack of personal prioritization and a lack of knowledge about climate interventions as reasons for inaction. Students’ beliefs that a lack of intervention knowledge caused their inaction was not significantly related to their actual intervention knowledge, r(2498) = -0.04, p = .06. Rather, beliefs that inaction stemmed from a lack of knowledge was more strongly correlated with their self-assessed knowledge, r(2594) = -0.18, p < .001, Z = -5.06, p < .001. Similarly, the degree to which students felt a lack of climate science knowledge prevents their pro-environmental behavior was more strongly correlated with their self-assessed knowledge, r(2596) = -0.47, p < .001, than their actual climate science knowledge, r(2484) = -.23, p < .001, Z = -26.50, p < .001.



Figure 1. Students’ self-reported barriers to inaction.



In the present study, we examined students’ self-assessed and scientific knowledge about climate change. Further, we considered the roles self-assessed and scientific knowledge play in predicting pro-environmental intentions and self-reported behaviors beyond other known predictors (i.e., concern, risk, demographics). Students subjectively reported moderate climate change knowledge. In terms of actual scientific knowledge, students exhibited the highest scientific understanding about climate change interventions, the consequences of climate change, and climate science. However, students struggled most with identifying the causes of climate change. Additionally, there was high variability in students’ knowledge about climate science and the consequences of climate change.

The present work corresponds to past work suggesting that university students believe they have a moderate understanding of climate change (Wachholz et al., 2014). However, the present findings contradict past work, which found students struggled most in their knowledge of climate science (Lombardi & Sinatra, 2012; Schreiner, Henriksen, & Hansen, 2005; Zimmer & Draeger, 2009), as our sample found students knew more about climate science than the causes of climate change. Further, while some work suggests students show a relatively high understanding of the causes and consequences of climate change (Kromer, Hartwagner, & Rauscher, 2007; Ojala, 2012), other work suggests individuals lack understanding in these areas (Dos Santos, 2012). In the present study, we find that students do show moderate levels of understanding about climate science and the consequences of climate change but lack understanding of climate change causes.

We also explored self-assessed and scientific knowledge as predictors of pro-environmental intentions and self-reported behavior. Across all knowledge measures, self-assessed knowledge was the strongest predictor of both intentions and action. Knowledge about climate change interventions and the consequences of climate change were significant scientific knowledge predictors of pro-environmental intentions. Indeed, students also identified a lack of knowledge about climate change interventions as a barrier to their pro-environmental behavior. While knowledge about climate change interventions and consequences did significantly predict intentions, they did not significantly predict self-reported pro-environmental action.

Knowledge about the consequences of climate change may result in intentions but not behavior due to disengagement due to the dramatic and fear-inducing way the issue of climate change has been represented (O’Neill & Nicholson-Cole, 2009). According to terror management theory (Goldenberg, Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 2000), individuals may be motivated to disengage from climate change because it is a reminder of their own mortality (Vess & Arndt, 2008). Mortality salience is likely to activate self-regulatory fear controls such as apathy (Lorenzoni et al., 2007).

Understanding climate science was the only scientific knowledge predictor of self-reported pro-environmental action. However, students themselves did not identify a lack of climate science as a barrier to their pro-environmental action. This finding highlights a disconnect from students’ perceptions of what type of knowledge predicts pro-environmental action. Indeed, students identified a lack of intervention knowledge as a barrier to action. Yet, there was no significant relationship between scientific knowledge about climate change interventions and actual self-reported behaviors. Future work should further explore the disconnect between the types of scientific knowledge students believe they need to motivate action and the types of knowledge they actually need. Across this study, there appears to be a disconnect between what students believe they know, what they actually know, the types of knowledge they believe are an important predictor of action and the types of knowledge that actually predict action. Future work should explore the origins of these discrepancies as well as their consequences.

While knowledge of consequences may influence concern and intentions (Aitken et al., 2011), in the present study, it is self-assessed knowledge and a scientific understanding of what climate change is that predict action. Self-assessed knowledge proved to be a significant predictor of both intentions and action, while no single measure of scientific knowledge predicted both. We also replicated an array of past work suggesting self-assessed risk and responsibility are predictors of intention (Klöckner, 2013; O’Connor et al., 1999). The work highlights the importance of considering the unique role that different areas of knowledge may play in instigating intentions compared to action.

Self-assessed knowledge may more directly lead to action compared to scientific knowledge in several ways. Individuals who believe they lack knowledge, whether or not they genuinely do, tend to abstain from engaging with a topic for fear of embarrassment (Miller & McFarland, 1987). Additionally, knowledge is power. Individuals who believe they understand climate change report lower feelings of powerlessness (Aitken et al., 2011). Indeed, feelings of powerlessness concerning climate change are associated with decreased engagement (Lorenzoni, Nicholson-Cole, & Whitmarsh, 2007). Even if students understand climate change, they may feel powerless and disengage from mitigation strategies if they do not feel as though they understand it.

Finally, we explored students’ self-identified barriers to pro-environmental behavior. Students identified a lack of personal prioritization as the reason for inaction.  These findings are consistent with the results of a Pew Research Center poll that reported that while most Americans said climate change was an important issue, they placed it 20th out of 20 issues surveyed (“Warming to the topic,” 2009). Students also reported a lack of knowledge was another barrier to their pro-environmental behavior. Importantly, students’ self-identified lack of knowledge weakly corresponded to their true scientific knowledge and rather more closely reflected their self-assessed knowledge. While students cited their lack of knowledge as a reason for inaction, their feelings of inadequacy did not correspond with an actual lack of knowledge.



While the present work explores discrepancies between self-assessed and scientific knowledge, it is imperative to note the scientific measure of knowledge utilized may not be exclusively objective. The scientific measures of knowledge about the interventions, causes, consequences, and science of climate change were obtained from reputable sources (adapted from Bord et al., 2000; Bostrom et al., 1994; NOAA, 2009; Reynolds et al., 2010); nonetheless, we felt it necessary for three additional experts to review the items to ensure there was a consensus for which responses were correct. Despite consistency between surveyed experts and the developers of the test questions for most items (93.75%), six items fostered disagreement (four items about interventions, two items about consequences). While we intended to use a truly objective measure of knowledge, there is some debate about whether certain activities are adequate climate change interventions and the potential consequences of climate change. For example, experts disagree about whether replacing fossil fuels with natural gas is an effective climate change intervention. Natural gas produces approximately half of the carbon dioxide emissions as coal (U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2016); however, natural gas is primarily methane which is 25x more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat (IPCC, 2007).

There is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of some interventions and the extent of climate change consequences. Therefore, in the present work, we only included items in these measures that demonstrated consensus among test creators and resident experts. Further, while it is important to recognize that scientific knowledge of climate change may change over time, the scientific measure included in the present work is certainly more objective than the self-assessed knowledge measure.

Importantly, the present work recorded self-assessed measures of behavior rather than observational measures. Students’ self-reported behaviors may not be entirely reflective of their actual behaviors. Memories tend to be altered to support the self-concept (Conway, 2005; Greenwald, 1980; Wilson & Ross, 2003). The students in this sample all believed anthropogenic climate change is occurring. As such, these students may be motivated to overestimate their climate change limiting behaviors to bolster their self-concepts. Future work should utilize direct or observational measures of climate mitigating behavior.


Prescriptions for Educators

In this study, undergraduate students’ perceptions of their own climate change knowledge more strongly predicted their self-reported pro-environmental behaviors and intentions than their scientific understanding of climate change interventions, causes, consequences, or climate science. The purpose of this work is certainly not to suggest scientific understanding is unimportant. The present study did not explore where perceptions of knowledge originate. It is possible, and likely that students’ perceptions of knowledge come from past learning experiences. Indeed, students in our sample who had taken a course that included discussions of climate change reported higher self-assessed knowledge (M = 3.49, SD = 0.76) than those who did not (M = 3.07, SD = 0.80), t(2740) = 13.99, p < .001 and self-assessed and scientific knowledge are related with r’s between .14 and .34. Future work should explore how self-assessed knowledge of climate change develops and the role of the classroom in empowering students to believe they have the knowledge necessary to mitigate climate change.

We started this research to understand the roles of scientific and self-assessed knowledge as predictors of students’ behavioral intentions and self-reported actions to mitigate climate change.  Ultimately, we hoped this information would help us refine our courses and programs to achieve improved knowledge and behavioral outcomes.  Based on our findings, we recommend that educators focus classroom efforts in educating students about climate change in several ways: 1) focus not just on the causes and drivers of climate change, but make sure to emphasize and include knowledge about behaviors that can mitigate climate change, 2) encourage reflection on evidence to help students recognize that they know enough about climate change to act – you know enough, and because you know enough, you can do something about climate change, and 3) incorporate climate change education across disciplines to emphasize its personal prioritization value.

Beyond scientific understanding, self-assessed knowledge about climate change was a predictor of pro-environmental intentions and behaviors for university students who believe in climate change. Further, students identified their perceptions of a climate science and intervention knowledge deficiency as a reason for their inaction. Students yearn for climate education and require confidence in that knowledge to promote engagement (Wachholz et al., 2014). Taken together, this work suggests that what students think they know may play an important role in empowering students to tackle the issue of global climate change.



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Acknowledgments: The authors would like to thank Rob Hefferman and his team in the Office of Institutional Research and Academic Planning for survey implementation; and the following for input of survey design: Department of Human Ecology, Rachael Shwom; Ecology and Evolution, Daniel Clark; Journalism and Media Studies, Lauren Feldman; Rutgers Climate Institute, Marjorie Kaplan; Sustainability Institute, College of New Jersey; Melanie McDermott; Marine and Coastal Studies, Janice McDonnell.

Categories: Research