To read the full version of this content please select one of the options below:

Pushing the boundaries: experience-based learning in early phases of graduate sustainability curricula

Jodie Birdman (Department of Sustainability, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany)
Aaron Redman (Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation (GCSC), Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany and School of Sustainability, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona, USA)
Daniel J. Lang (Department of Sustainability, Leuphana Universität Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany and Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural Transformation, Leuphana Universität of Lüneburg, Lüneburg, Germany)

International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education

ISSN: 1467-6370

Article publication date: 12 December 2020

Issue publication date: 22 January 2021

Downloads
221

Abstract

Purpose

This paper aims to investigate student experiences and the potential impact of experience-based learning (EBL) in the early phase of graduate sustainability programs through the lens of key competencies. The goal is to provide evidence for the improvement of existing and the thorough design of new EBL formats in sustainability programs.

Design/methodology/approach

This comparative case study focuses on the first semester of three graduate sustainability programs at Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany and Arizona State University, USA, for two of which EBL was a core feature. The study compares the curricula, the teaching and learning environments and the reported experiences of one student cohort from each of three programs and synthesizes the resulting insights. Student interviews were combined with student self-assessments and supported by in-vivo observations, curriculum designer input, instructor interviews and course materials. MAXQDA was used for data analysis following a grounded theory approach.

Findings

EBL influences students’ reflective capacity, which impacts the development of key competencies in sustainability. Qualitative analysis found four key themes in relation to the students’ learning in EBL settings, namely, discomfort, time-attention relationship, student expectations of instructors and exchange. The intersection of these themes with curricular structure, student dispositions and differing instructor approaches shows how curriculum can either support or interrupt the reflective cycle and thus, holistic learning.

Research limitations/implications

With the focus on the first semester only, the students’ competence development over the course of the entire program cannot be demonstrated. Learning processes within EBL settings are complex and include aspects outside the control of instructors and curriculum designers. This study addresses only a select number of factors influencing students’ learning in EBL settings.

Practical implications

Early engagement with EBL activities can push students to leave their comfort zones and question previous assumptions. Designing curricula to include EBL while encouraging strong intra-cohort connections and creating space for reflection seems to be an effective approach to enable the development of key competencies in sustainability.

Originality/value

This paper investigates the experiences of students in EBL through a key competence lens. The study combines student self-perceptions, instructor reflections and in-vivo observations. Data collection and analysis were conducted by a researcher not affiliated with the programs. These factors make for a unique study design and with data-driven insights on the seldom researched competence-pedagogy-curriculum connection.

Keywords

Acknowledgements

The authors gratefully acknowledge funding from the Lower Saxony Ministry of Science and Culture and Volkswagen Foundation for the grant “Educating Future Change Agents – Higher Education as a Motor of the Sustainability Transformation” (A115235) through the program “Science for Sustainable Development.” The authors would also like to thank their colleagues Matthias Barth, Jan-Ole Brandt, Jantje Halberstadt, Theres Konrad, Jana Timm, Arnim Wiek and Marie Weiss from the Leuphana University of Lüneburg, Germany for support on the research design presented in this article, as well as for comments on the manuscript. Special thanks also to Guido Caniglia of the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research for support and feedback and to all the participating instructors, university staff and students, without whom there would have been nothing to learn.

Citation

Birdman, J., Redman, A. and Lang, D.J. (2021), "Pushing the boundaries: experience-based learning in early phases of graduate sustainability curricula", International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, Vol. 22 No. 2, pp. 237-253. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJSHE-08-2019-0242

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2020, Emerald Publishing Limited