Teaching Psychology and Environmental Sustainability—Implications for Environmental Attitudes

Grant program: Teaching and Learning Development Grant (TLDG)

Grant recipient: Michael Schmitt, Department of Psychology

Project team: Caroline MacKay, research assistant

Timeframe: July 2014 to March 2016
Funding: $5,000

Course addressed: PSYC 391 – Psychology and Environmental Sustainability

Final report: View Michael Schmitt's final project report (PDF)

Description: Psychology and Environmental Sustainability (PSYC 391) is currently the only course offered in the Psychology Department that is entirely based around environmental issues and the application of psychology to those issues. Most students in the course are Psychology majors, and for most, this course is the first or only course that requires them to think seriously about environmental issues. Students report that they gained a deeper appreciation for the seriousness of environmental issues, and a motivation to act to mitigate environmental harm.  The purpose of this project is to collect systematic evidence regarding whether and how attitudes toward the environment change over the course:
 1) The effect of completing the course (and the required assignments and activities) on attitudes toward the environment. More specifically, do students judge environmental problems as more serious after taking the course? Are their attitudes toward environmental protection more positive?  Are students more motivated to act in ways that are pro-environmental?
 2) Whether initial levels of environmental attitudes, and changes in environmental attitudes, predict performance (grades) in the course. Do environmental attitudes affect learning? It is my hypothesis that students learn better in this course the more that they hold environmental attitudes and thus identify with one of the central learning outcomes: to apply psychological theory to addressing environmental problems.
 The basic research design is a comparison of various indicators of environmental attitudes at the start and end of the term through online surveys. Students will also complete three short surveys during the semester to study the trajectory of change across time and assess particular activities and assignments. An attempt will be made to compare data on key variables from students in a different 300-level PSYC course. Approximately two months after the end of each term, students will be asked to complete an additional survey to test for enduring effects.

Questions addressed:

  • Does participation in the course encourage change in pro-environmental attitudes? 
  • Do environmental attitudes of students in the course change more than those of students in the “control” course?   
  • Do changes in environmental attitudes persist after the class is over?
  • Do initial levels of environmental attitudes and changes in environmental attitudes predict academic outcomes?

Knowledge sharing: A talk at one of the regular Social Psychology Area Seminars and a presentation to colleagues in related fields.

Mackay, C. M. L., & Schmitt, M. T. (2015, June). Learning how to reconnect with nature? Positive outcomes in students’ attitudes towards the environment and well-being. Poster session presented at the 76th National Convention of the Canadian Psychological Association (CPA), Ottawa, ON.