Research Summary

The effect of information source on higher education students’ sustainability knowledge

Classroom environmental lessons are strongest influences on sustainability knowledge in college students

Environmental Education Research
2021

As the climate crisis continues, universities are uniquely positioned to effectively prepare future alumni to engage in sustainable behaviors and create a resilient future. Despite the steps to develop sustainability efforts and curricula in higher education, it is imperative to acknowledge the influences on a students’ understanding about environmental issues and solutions. Though research has measured sustainability knowledge among students in K-12 and higher education, there has not been an effort to understand the impact of environmental information sources throughout a student’s educational journey through their final year of an undergraduate program. This study surveyed Michigan State University undergraduates to identify the most influential information sources for environmental topics and their subsequent level of sustainability knowledge to help educators capitalize student experience as a catalyst for learning.

In the context of this study, the researchers considered sustainability within environmental, economic, and social dimensions. Present sustainability knowledge was defined as a student’s current level of understanding of sustainability as the interconnectedness between environmental, economic, and social issues. It also included a student’s previous high school learning experiences and their current learning experiences in undergrad. The researchers focused on four areas of information sources, which included: 1) academic: the coursework and curriculum in formal secondary and postsecondary settings; 2) personal connections: the ways family and friends impact environmental interpretation; 3) media: both traditional (television, radio, newspaper) and social media; and, 4) institutional communication: marketing content like university websites and printed materials like flyers around campus. In addition, the surveys captured demographic characteristics of students such as gender, race/ethnicity, class year, and major.

The data in this study was collected during spring 2015 in an email survey to Michigan State University undergraduates. The survey was randomly sent to 25,000 students, and 2,841 students completed the survey (11.3%). The researchers used the Assessment of Sustainability Knowledge (ASK) to gauge student content knowledge on environmental, economic, and social dimensions. Some questions were in a multiple-choice format with one correct option, three incorrect options, and one option which was written as “I don’t know.” The ASK also included questions with answers on a seven-point scale shed insight on how often students got information about environmental topics from different sources such as coursework, social networks, and printed materials (1 = never to 7 = daily) and how effective their high school environmental studies classes were in the student’s opinion (1 = very bad to 7 = very good). The survey data was analyzed to reveal the relationships between present sustainability knowledge and information source.

Of the survey respondents, about half of the students represented a natural science major, and each class year was represented in the sample for a full representation of the educational journey through the final year of undergrad. The average ASK score, or correct answers to content questions, was 63.1%. The students shared they had well-taught high school classes on environmental topics. The most frequent source of environmental information was from social media, higher education courses, traditional media, and institutional communications and friends, in that order. The least frequent source was from families. Overall, the sources of environmental information significantly impacted the students’ present sustainability knowledge. The strongest positive relationship with knowledge was formal education in secondary and postsecondary settings, which was of slightly more significant influence than the students’ satisfaction level with those classes. However, when environmental information was mostly derived from families it correlated with lower levels of present sustainability knowledge. The results showed that K-12 experiences impact sustainability knowledge for undergraduate students.

There were limitations in this study. Though the researchers measured sustainability knowledge, the survey materials asked for information about environmental issues. This small language change may have impacted the results because of connotations for each concept. The study also looked only at the sources of information based on student perception instead of the source accuracy or quality. The researchers acknowledged the multiple-choice answers limited the results because there may have been other responses that more accurately fit the student’s experience. Finally, this study took place at an American institution that is very active in the sustainability space, so the student population is not representative of all university settings.

The researchers recommended educators perceive prior knowledge and consider different information sources as a springboard for increasing present sustainability knowledge in students. For example, teachers should refer back to information sources to support students in linking their prior understanding with new information in the classroom to deepen their present sustainability knowledge. Further, educators should create an enjoyable learning atmosphere, particularly in high school settings, for effective learning and to retain interest in environmental topics in students. The researchers also suggested that to support a culture of sustainability knowledge in students, policymakers should advocate for more training and resources to assist educators in teaching about sustainability.

The Bottom Line

Universities are uniquely positioned to effectively prepare future alumni to engage in sustainable behaviors and create a resilient future. However, undergraduate students have an array of prior information on sustainability and environmental issues. This study surveyed Michigan State University undergraduates to identify the most influential information sources for environmental topics and their subsequent level of sustainability knowledge to help educators capitalize student experience as a catalyst for learning. The strongest positive relationship was formal education in secondary and postsecondary settings. The researchers recommended educators perceive prior knowledge and consider different information sources as a springboard for increasing present sustainability knowledge. For example, teachers should refer back to information sources to support students in linking their prior understanding with new information in the classroom to deepen their present sustainability knowledge.