Research Summary

Environmental education program evaluation in the new millennium: what do we measure and what have we learned?

Best Practices in Environmental Education and Program Evaluation

Environmental Education Research

The authors of this paper conducted a literature review to understand current approaches to environmental education program evaluation. Specifically, the study considered best practices in environmental education, focusing on the criteria for “best practices” as indicated by the North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) and its published Guidelines for Excellence in Environmental Education, with a particular emphasis on how NAAEE suggests different EE programs and initiatives might be evaluated in different settings.

The literature review included studies published between 1999 and 2010; the researchers used keywords such as “environmental education” and “evaluation.” The authors vetted articles by reading the articles’ abstracts, and they ultimately selected papers that described programs that served participants in the 4-to-18-year-old age range. Selected articles included an evaluation component and a description of the program, resulting in evaluated practices that included active participation, place-based learning, project-based learning, and outdoor instruction, among others. In all, this literature review highlighted 21 teaching practices, which were derived from 66 articles describing 86 environmental education programs that were included in the review.

Following selection of the articles, the authors coded the papers for mentions of best practices and for learning objectives such as increased environmental knowledge, awareness, skills, attitudes, intention, behavior, and enjoyment. The authors also coded whether the findings related to the learning objectives of the program were null (no significant results), mixed (significant results for fewer than 50% of participants), or positive (positive outcomes for at least 50% of the participants).

Of the 86 programs mentioned in the articles, 49 were in the United States. The sample included a mix of residential programs, field trips, and those involving a classroom component. Evaluations of these programs included both qualitative and quantitative approaches, and 35 were classified as mixed methods. Most evaluations included a comparison of pre- and post-experience responses to surveys, although some studies only measured post-experience outcomes or included a delayed measure that considered the persistence of effects in the months after the program ended.

Experiential education, issues-based education, and direct contact with nature were among the most frequently offered explanations for program success, although few of these hypotheses included accompanying empirical data. Empowerment (i.e., measuring locus of control, self-efficacy, or self-confidence) and student-centered learning were also supported by the literature as effective practices. Knowledge was the most commonly tested and reported outcome, followed by attitude change. Behavior and awareness were the least commonly tested outcomes.

Largely, this review found that environmental education program evaluation often does not look deeply enough at the ability of various education practices in achieving desired outcomes. Instead, evaluations are primarily summative and/or focused narrowly on an isolated program. Most studies in this review, for example, provided circumstantial—rather than empirical—evidence to suggest a link between the program and the appearance of a desired outcome. The authors suggest that future evaluations focus more intentionally on determining the factors that contribute to a program’s success, instead of trying to only understand whether a program succeeded or failed.

The Bottom Line

Although progress had been made in terms of environmental education program evaluation practices and use, more emphasis is needed to understand outcomes other than knowledge and attitude change, such as behavior change. For evaluation studies that are published in the peer-reviewed literature, researchers should consider looking more deeply at the connections between desired outcomes and the teaching practices that most effectively bring about those outcomes. This will enhance understanding of what makes environmental education successful.