30 SES 10 B, Higher Education and Sustainability
Research question: What connections can be found between experienced sustainability curricula and student self-perception of competence?
Universities play a key role in the work toward sustainable development by enabling future change agents to contribute to this ongoing process (Barth 2015). The existence of sustainability curricula as an expanding feature of higher education is evident from the growing body of research on this topic (Weiss and Barth 2019) . This positive development brings with it the hurdle of evaluating the effectiveness of such curricula. In answer to the critical point of how sustainability curricula can reach the goal of preparing and empowering students, growing consensus points to competence-oriented curricula (Lozano et al. 2017; Wiek et al. 2011; de Haan 2010). The next challenge is to investigate whether and how students are in fact developing these competencies.
Currently, the link between competence development in students and the curriculum they experience remains under-researched (Redman 2020). Specific pedagogical approaches such as transformative learning (Mezirow 1997; Sipos et al. 2008), dialogic interaction (Wals and Schwarzin 2012), experience-based learning (Caniglia et al. 2016), and project-based learning (Cörvers et al. 2016; Vilsmaier and Lang 2015) have all been suggested as suitable to sustainability education, and to some extent, competence-oriented education. Recent research has examined the connection between pedagogy and competence from a course design and delivery perspective (Lozano et al. 2017; Lozano et al. 2019). However, to better understand how curricula contributes to student transformation, student experiences and voices need to be considered (Backman et al. 2019).
Attempts at competence evaluation using vignettes has shown that the impact of one class in a single semester has less influence on a student’s competence than the student’s embodied past and current experiences (Remington‐Doucette et al. 2013; Remington-Doucette and Musgrove 2015). To add, a quantitative competence assessment tool has yet to be developed (Redman 2020). Even in the existence of said tool, input from students on what activities and interactions they engaged in over the course of their studies would be needed to understand the link between student competence and the curriculum as they experience it. Through the process of self-assessment and reflection, students are able to describe their learning experiences in ways which both offer rich insights on the what, how and why of impactful pedagogical features and which illuminate patterns when compared with other students (Bandini et al. 2015; Mok et al. 2007).
This comparative case study follows the learning journeys of ten sustainability graduate students across the four semesters of their respective programs. The three programs are located at Leuphana University in Lüneburg, Germany and Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, U.S.A. Both universities are pioneers in sustainability education, as both were the first in their respective countries to host a department of sustainability and dedicated sustainability degrees. All three programs forefront transdisciplinary project work in order to build ties between the universities, the surrounding communities, local businesses and the political bodies which shape sustainable development in their respective contexts. All three programs include competence-oriented classes and activities. Students in all three programs are required to take a combination of foundational courses, classes in the social and natural sciences, and classes with students outside of the sustainability major. Through comparison within and between programs, this research seeks to find relationships between curricula for sustainability and student self-perceived competence development.
This research took place from August 2017 to August 2019. To gather data on both the learning outcomes and processes, we conducted a comparative case study of three sustainability masters programs: The Masters of Sustainability Science at Leuphana University, Lüneburg, the Masters of Sustainability at Arizona State University in the U.S., and the Global Sustainability Science program at both institutions. Ten students (minimum three per program) were selected and followed for the duration of their studies. The students each participated in an initial, introductory interview as part of the selection process and to gather initial data. In the subsequent research period each student participated in four competence self-assessments and reflective interviews (one per semester). These interviews and self-assessments were analyzed to create maps of each student’s personal learning path through the curriculum, their self-assessed competence, and a taxonomy of learning types. Additional data on context and curricula were gathered through in-vivo observation of classes and activities, instructor interviews, interviews with program coordinators and curriculum designers, and document analysis of program and course descriptions and materials.
While each student’s journey is unique, certain positive patterns are apparent. Student self-perception of competence improves as predicted when students experience a combination of information-based support and real-world application. However, factors outside of the curriculum such as student attitudes and support networks also influence student self-perceived competence development. In particular, student engagement with the surrounding community, whether as a program feature (transdisciplinary project work) or extracurricular (volunteer work or conference participation) positively influenced student self-reported competence in all areas. Curricular measures such as focus on collaborative skills, cohort bonding, and the building of both a strong informational/philosophical base in the beginning, as well as guided practice in reflection and problem-solving help build resilience to future challenges in the student’s studies. This resilience and skill in reflection enabled students to use both rewarding and frustrating experiences as opportunities to grow competence. Additionally, initial results point to the role of mentorship in positive student self-perceived competence development.
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