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School of Environment and Natural Resources


SENR Researchers Collaborate and Develop Tool to Assess Sustainability Knowledge

Sep. 4, 2013
Ohio State, Maryland collaborate on Sustainability Knowledge Assessment
Posted by Adam Zwickle and Mark Stewart on August 30th, 2013 on the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences On Sustainability blog.  
Researchers at The Ohio State University's School of Environment and the University of Maryland (UMD) have developed an assessment to measure sustainability knowledge across its three domains: environmental, economic, and social. The Assessment of Sustainability Knowledge is already helping other colleges and universities discover what their students know, or don’t know, about sustainability.
Higher education institutions are scrambling to develop new sustainability academic programs to prepare students to tackle some of the greatest challenges facing humankind. From 2007 to 2012, the number of sustainability-focused academic programs grew from 27 to 588, according to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). During the same period, 673 institutions signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and pledged to educate all students about sustainability.
Despite this growth, little is known about what students know about sustainability when they enter college and what they learn while there. AASHE encourages all 254 institutions participating in the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment, and Rating System (STARS) to test their students’ sustainability knowledge; however, few institutions have the time or resources to develop valid and reliable assessments.
Research teams at Ohio State and UMD each started developing their own sustainability knowledge assessments in 2009, then joined forces in 2012 to merge the best of each of their questions into one assessment. In spring 2013, more than 3,000 Ohio State and UMD undergraduate students completed the combined assessment. Researchers then analyzed how each question performed using Item Response Theory to create a valid question set for testing sustainability knowledge. They recently published that question set in the Assessment of Sustainability Knowledge (ASK).
The Ohio State and UMD researchers invite colleges and universities to use some or all of the questions in the ASK to assess the level of sustainability knowledge among students at their own institutions. To date, Colorado State University, the University of Mississippi, Clark University (Massachusetts), Clarkson University (New York), and the University of Idaho Sustainability Center either have used or intend to use the ASK on their campuses.
Each research team also published articles explaining their processes of developing questions and conducting assessments to help others who are struggling to measure student knowledge on their own campuses. These papers are available, or will soon be available, online:
Zwickle, A., T. Koontz, K. Slagle, and J. Bruskotter. (Forthcoming ). Assessing Sustainability Knowledge of a Student Population: Developing a Tool to Measure Knowledge in the Environmental, Economic, and Social Domains. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education.
Horvath N., Stewart M., and Shea M. (2013). Toward Instruments of Assessing Sustainability Knowledge: Assessment development, process, and results from a pilot survey at the University of Maryland. Journal of Sustainability Education.
For more information, contact Adam Zwickle, doctoral candidate, School of Environment and Natural Resources, The Ohio State University,; or Mark Stewart, senior project manager, Office of Sustainability, University of Maryland,