Sustainability is an issue of national and educational importance. Educating for sustainability at the university level often focuses on sustainability science and programmatic approaches, but the knowledge required to address sustainability problems is complex and interdisciplinary, a broad understanding of the nested social, economic, and ecological impacts, in addition to disciplinary training. Competency-based learning approaches develop student knowledge across disciplines and emphasize the interrelationships within systems. This project will research competency-based sustainability, aligned with liberal learning objectives, across a series of experiential venues: an on-campus for-credit course with an experiential component; an on-campus non-credit experiential program; an on-campus non-credit staff professional development program; a domestic off-campus study away for-credit course; and an international study away for-credit course.
The key research question asks: How do experiential competency-based approaches to sustainability enable institutions to better educate for complex global problems, engage learners’ curiosity and responsibility on behalf of their communities, and prepare an engaged citizenry capable of meaningful participation in sustainability issues? The project seeks to: 1) document, track and analyze learner achievement of sustainability competencies across existing curriculum at five Michigan State University learning sites; 2) develop or refine educational experiences and assessment tools to better achieve sustainability competencies while aligning with contexts of sites; 3) document, track, and analyze learner achievement of sustainability competencies across revised curriculum at five sites; and 4) disseminate best practices for utilizing sustainability competencies to peer institutions. Hallmarks of the project include development, use, and assessment of competencies, rubrics, engagement project templates, and modules for use, refinement, and adoption across any institution.
All five site leaders identified critical thinking as a key competency so our initial analysis focuses on identifying the level of critical thinking at each site. Critical thinking comprises an emphasized competency in both liberal learning and sustainability learning. Experiential learning provides a frequently suggested pedagogy to foster sustainability learning. However, many curricular, classroom, and pedagogical efforts lack assessment of a) learner’s attainment of critical thinking regarding sustainability and b) the role of experiential learning in fostering either critical thinking or sustainability learning. We utilize the critical thinking rubric identified by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) as the basis for our analysis and merge it with the critical thinking competencies developed in the MSU sustainability specialization. Those AACU criteria require consideration of the extent to which submitted work includes: Evidence, Explanation, Position, Conclusion, and Context.
While the length, intensity and form of the experience, as well as the kinds of learners and settings varied, a lack of deep critical thinking prevailed. Learners most frequently demonstrated a) their Positionality on sustainability issues and to a lesser extent b) Explanation of the sustainability issue. Learners rarely demonstrated effective use of Evidence, Context, or developed well-stated Conclusions. This suggests that greater attention to experiential learning theory and practice, emphasizing the role of guided reflection might provide an opportunity to foster greater critical thinking. It also suggests that fostering critical thinking requires greater attention to developing and aligning learning outcomes, competencies, learning activities, learner performances and assessments. Greater attention should focus on professional development for instructional design and implementation.
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