Research Summary

Characterizing the motives and environmental literacy of undergraduate and graduate students who elect environmental programs – a comparison between teaching-oriented and other students

Determining environmental course selection motives and environmental literacy among teaching and non-teaching students

Environmental Education Research
2018

Increasing environmental literacy (EL) and pro-environmental behaviors among citizens is vital to address environmental issues. Many EE practitioners receive teaching or non-teaching degrees from institutions of higher education (IHE), and may have various levels of training in environmental science or related concepts. A shift towards a more interdisciplinary approach of environmental programs, also known as the framing approach, has been implemented throughout many IHE programs. This shift aims to integrate environmental and sustainability issues within the curriculum, rather than teaching them as separate subjects. The framing approach has resulted in sustainability-orientated (SO) programs within IHEs. This study explored students’ motives for enrolling in SO programs in Israel, as well as measuring their environmental literacy prior to the start of their course.

The EL framework suggests that environmental literacy is composed of interrelated components of EL, known as EL-domains. There are three EL-domains: cognitive, affective and behavioral. The cognitive domain focuses on knowledge and skills, while the affective domain focuses on feelings towards the environment. The behavior domain refers to the interconnectedness between the cognitive and affective domain, which results in responsible environmental behaviors among individuals. This study selected IHEs in Israel by identifying SO programs that promoted EL-domains and interdisciplinary perspectives of the environment and related issues.

The researchers identified 15 undergraduate and graduate programs, and ultimately included 7 programs due to the availability of the program coordinator. The researchers selected environmental students that were teaching-oriented (enrolled in a teaching degree) and non-teaching-oriented (not enrolled in a teaching degree) to participate in the study. Only students who elected to enroll in SO programs were selected. Overall, 141 students were recruited from the 7 participating programs. The participants were divided into 3 focus groups: 1) undergraduate pre-service teachers (75 participants); 2) graduate in-service teachers (36 participants); and 3) graduate non-teachers (30 participants). All participants were in their first year of their Bachelor’s or Master’s degree. The researchers distributed a questionnaire during the first week of the first semester. The questionnaire had five sections: motives for choosing an SO program, environmental knowledge, environmental disposition, self-reported environmental behavior, and demographic/background. The questionnaire consisted of both closed-ended and open-ended questions. The questionnaire was analyzed using statistics to identify themes across the five sections of the questionnaire.

Overall, the most frequently mentioned motive among all groups of participants was to gain knowledge. Additionally, two themes emerged: environment-related motives and non-environment-related motives. All groups indicated they selected SO programs to gain professional development in the area of environment and sustainability, however their motives varied. Graduate non-teachers indicated they chose SO programs specifically for environmental career-related motives, while the other groups did not. The motive to gain PD as an environmental educator was highest among graduate in-service teachers.

The study found that graduate non-teachers had higher EL than both undergraduate and graduate teaching participants. Although undergraduate pre-service teachers had the lowest subjective knowledge (knowledge of environmental topics), graduate in-service teachers had the lowest objective knowledge (ability to give an in-depth explanation of environmental topics) of environmental issues. Overall, graduate in-service teachers reported a lower level of environmental knowledge when compared to both the other groups of participants.

The researchers hypothesized that the main focus of teaching programs is on pedagogical practices among teachers, rather than environmental knowledge. Although undergraduate pre-service teachers reported higher levels of EL, the majority of graduate in-service teachers indicated low levels of EL. This finding led researchers to believe undergraduate teaching programs are not emphasizing environmental knowledge in their programming.

The researchers noted that a limitation of this study was the exclusion of other relevant IHE programs in Israel, which could result in a lack of representation of the entire spectrum. Additionally, not including a fourth group of undergraduate non-teachers could have excluded an important group that may have had varying motives for their course selection. Lastly, another study undertaken in a different location or context would likely produce different results.

The researchers recommend that undergraduate teaching programs strengthen environmental-oriented coursework while continuing to emphasize the importance of pedagogical skills. In addition, the authors recommend that EE programs consider reviewing their instructor’s knowledge and understanding of topics to ensure that the program participants are receiving accurate information, which should result in increased EL. The researchers suggested increasing PD opportunities during graduate studies for non-teachers, such as exposing students to various environmental options in the workforce during their SO programming.

The Bottom Line

This study explored the motives behind teaching and non-teaching students’ selection of undergraduate and graduate environmental programs in Israel, and measured the participants environmental literacy at the start of their program. The authors found that undergraduate pre-service teachers and graduate non-teaching students sought to gain knowledge and environmental literacy, and hypothesized that undergraduate teaching programs did not sufficiently prepare teachers with environmental knowledge. The researchers recommended stronger environmental coursework during undergraduate teacher programs to complement the focus on pedagogical practices.