Sustainability, Assessment, and Student Learning Geoffrey W. Chase San Diego State University

Sustainability, Assessment, and Student Learning
Geoffrey W. Chase
San Diego State University
As we revise curricula designed to help students understand sustainability, to acquire the background they
need to comprehend the challenges we face, and to develop the skills that will enable them to address those
challenges effectively, we need to ask, “What do students need to learn?”
Asking what students need to learn to address sustainability issues means focusing on what students need to
know and, just as importantly, on what they can do. Thinking about student learning in relation to
sustainability is more than covering content. It is about being sure that students have the knowledge, skills,
and abilities they will need to build a more sustainable world.
Because sustainability is broad, involving, for example, ecology, economics, environment, social justice,
history, politics, culture, and art, faculty need to develop outcomes that are programmatic, cutting across
disciplines and departments. Developing learning outcomes for individual courses is important, but changes
also must address outcomes that extend beyond courses to broader areas of study.
Some of the most productive and important discussions faculty from different disciplines can have are those
in which they identify learning outcomes that apply to all students, or to all students in a particular program
(for example, honors students).
While identifying outcomes related to sustainability is an important first step, it is equally important to
identify mechanisms to determine if students are in fact achieving the outcomes that have been noted.
Faculty need to ask, “How do we know what students can do? What is the evidence we will examine to see if
students have developed the knowledge, skills and abilities we think they need?”
Finally, faculty need to determine how they will use what they learn through their examination of the
evidence. Are there mechanisms to get that information into the hands of other faculty teaching courses in
the program, so that they can make appropriate changes? Do learning outcomes need to be changed?
Ultimately, the effectiveness of curricular change to address issues of sustainability cannot be measured in
what we teach; it must be measured by looking at what students learn.
Faculty exercise on learning outcomes
Small groups of faculty (3-5 per group) from different disciplines meet for 45 minutes to do the following:
1. Identify 3-5 learning outcomes related to sustainability that all students should achieve by
graduation. Write each of the outcomes on a flip chart. Use action verbs to define the outcomes. For
example: “Students will describe the 3 main systems examined in sustainability and how they
interrelate” is an outcome that can be measured. “Students will appreciate systems thinking in
sustainability” cannot be so easily measured. However, broader goals and specific outcomes are
linked, and using outcomes is a way of understanding whether those goals have been achieved.
2. Identify the mechanism(s) through which evidence that the students have achieved these outcomes
will be collected. Write on flip chart.
3. Identify how the evidence will be used or disseminated. Write on flip chart.
4. Now, working individually for 10 minutes, each faculty member identifies 1-2 outcomes in the course
they are revising, that they believe will help students achieve the broader outcomes determined by
the group.
5. Everyone comes back together to the large group, and each small group presents briefly what they
have agreed upon.
6. Discussion is opened for individual faculty members to share the outcomes they have developed for
their own courses.