Paroma Wagle, Department of Urban Planning and Public Policy

Learning about sustainability, climate change, and environmental justice, the ‘wicked problems’ of the environment, is absolutely crucial for students, as they will not only go on maybe select careers in environment and policy fields, but also are going to be decision-makers in their own fields and consumers. Our day-to-day decisions as well as broader policies are closely connected to environmental concerns. Integrating environmental studies and sustainability studies is thus essential in higher education for promoting broader social change. Especially as future environmental professionals, environmental studies and sustainability students need to adopt an interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary approach. They need to acknowledge that most of the problems they are attempting to address are parts of the coupled socio-ecological systems in the world.

To meet the challenges of course design in Environmental Studies, the backwards design approach would be extremely useful. In backwards design approach, you identify the desired results, determine acceptable evidence of achieving said desired results, and plan your learning experiences and methods of instruction accordingly.

Step 1. Identifying Desired Outcomes: Deciding the Student Learning Outcomes

Students will need to understand complexity of these systems as an environmental professional. As the field is becoming more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary, they will have to learn to work collaboratively with colleagues and stakeholders. They will also have to develop a personal environmental ethic. As environmental justice issues are a huge part of the debates in environmental studies, they will also need to have not only sensitivity and awareness of the impacts of environmental issues on people from different backgrounds and regions of the world, but also need to work with stakeholders and community members facing those impacts. As these are the desired results of making strong environmental professionals out of the students, all these would need to be converted into appropriate student learning outcomes depending on the level of the course.

Step 2. Acceptable Evidence: Focus on Formative Assessment

Being an environmental professional requires a wide skill set. You need basic quantitative and qualitative data analysis skills, analytical skills, social and interpersonal skills, great writing skills, and excellent presentation skills. Thus, students need to get an opportunity to practice all these skills in the classroom. Having a wide range of formative assessments throughout the class would help practice and build these skills. Formative assessments are smaller assessments throughout the course, which tracks student learning. Designing formative assessments that focus on one or more of the skills mentioned above might prove extremely beneficial in not just checking in with the students, but also helping them hone their varied skills. For example, mini-presentations and mock trials, can be excellent formative assignments to assess their learning as well as help them work on their interpersonal and presentation skills.

Step 3. Learning Experience: Collaborative Learning

As environmental professionals, student will be expected to work collaboratively with colleagues, policy makers, decision makers, stakeholders and community members. As the field is constantly evolving and highly interdisciplinary, they will also need to go beyond what the norm of thinking is and be constantly learning, unlearning and developing new ideas and ways of thinking. Bringing both these elements in their training in the classroom is thus essential.  The main idea of collaborative learning is students’ exploration and application of the course material going beyond just what the instructor is presenting. Collaborative learning requires the students to work together, helps the students be accountable to each other, improves their social skills, and puts the emphasis on the process as well as the product. If students are invited from various disciplines to be a part of this learning experience, it will be an even more enriching experience.


To help students become better environmental professionals, they should be exposed to the complexity of the field of environmental studies and policy, they should exposed to collaborative learning, and the course should have assessments based on skills they will need to use in the real world.


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Mintz, K., & Tal, T. (2018). The place of content and pedagogy in shaping sustainability learning outcomes in higher education. Environmental Education Research24(2), 207-229.

Perkins, K.M., Munguia, N., Moure-Eraso, R., Delakowitz, B., Giannetti, B.F., Liu, G., Nurunnabi, M., Will, M. and Velazquez, L., 2018. International perspectives on the pedagogy of climate change. Journal of Cleaner Production200, pp.1043-1052.

Seatter, C. S., & Ceulemans, K. (2017). Teaching Sustainability in Higher Education: Pedagogical Styles That Make a Difference. Canadian Journal of Higher Education47(2), 47-70.

Matthew Mahavongtrakul edited this post on March 6th, 2020.