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Advancing ESD: a call for strategic approaches and robust impact evaluation

26 Sep 2023 | Dr Kay Hack (PFHEA) As part of our review and redesign of the Student Success Framework, we’ve published a literature review on Education for Sustainable Development by authors at King's College London. Dr Kay Hack introduces the review.

Education for Sustainable Development: a review of the literature 2015-2022 is part of the Advance HE Member Benefit project to review and redesign the Student Success Framework Series. This systematic literature review reveals emerging excellent practices that support transformational and experiential learning approaches. However, it also highlights potential gaps in practice.

The review, encompassing literature from 2015 to 2023, expands the bibliography outlined in the Education for Sustainable Development Guidance (ESDG) published by Advance HE and the Quality Assurance Agency in 2021. Additionally, it builds upon the pioneering Green Academy organisational change program (Higher Education Academy, 2011-2014).

The final report from the Green Academy program revealed that a trial-and-error approach to ESD prevailed - an approach that is still evident today. The ESD literature, though expanding, remains predominantly descriptive and case-based, noticeably lacking robust evaluation. ESD is primarily driven from the 'bottom-up' by passionate individuals for sustainability, rather than through adopting strategic approaches to integrate ESD into curricula.

While many institutions are now aligning their curricula with the UN Sustainable Development Goals, there's a conspicuous lack of strong, generalisable evidence from evaluations. We must start to pose robust questions that examine the impact of these activities on students' abilities to tackle sustainability challenges.

What is the purpose of ESD?

To generate robust impact and evaluation data, we must first clarify our objectives. In the ESD Guidance, learning outcomes and teaching and assessment practices were structured around UNESCO key competencies for sustainability. This approach involves identifying what students should know, do, and embody to contribute to leaving the world in a better state than they found it.

Many of these competencies are critical attributes for graduate success and employability. They encompass collaborative problem-solving across disciplines, critical thinking, systems thinking and ethical values. We need to explore how to guide students in reflecting on their values and cultivating the self-awareness necessary to understand and assess how their beliefs and experiences shape their actions.

Guiding students towards recognising their role and influence in shaping a sustainable future demands the cultivation of the self-awareness and negotiation skills; skills that will enable them to navigate conflicts of interest and uncertainty. It is acknowledged that competencies, especially those rooted in values, can be challenging to quantify, often resulting in their omission from assessment instruments.

Education for sustainable development is about empowering students to take informed decisions and responsible actions, critically questioning the impact of economic development on the environment and all of society asking,
'who may be impacted by my decisions, now and in the future?'"


Beyond learner outcomes and competencies, ESD can contribute to broader strategic priorities that impact on graduate success. These priorities include internationalisation and developing global perspectives; promoting employability and enterprise, community engagement, mental health and wellbeing and progressing equality, diversity and inclusion both within and beyond our institutions. This wide reach of ESD can assist in alignment with strategic priorities, but it may also present challenges in formulating clear and well-defined evaluation measures.

In response, the literature review sought to explore the evidence base around the following three questions.

  1. How has ESD been framed within curricula and how have ESD principles been operationalised as learning outcomes?

The literature review describes a typology of approaches for integrating ESD into the curricula from providing an extra-curricula course that is open to all through to new cross-disciplinary curricula incorporated into all degree programmes. The first is relatively easy to set-up, indeed there are many open courses available from credible institutions such as UNESCO that provide these type of resources. The fully integrated cross-disciplinary approach requires major resource to establish and coordinate across the institution, as well as internal expertise in sustainability and inter-disciplinary and trans-disciplinary learning. To be truly authentic it requires partnership with external agencies including employers and community groups. 

Outcome-based education has become the dominant model of western higher education; however, much of what is distinctive and transformative about ESD  evades fixed learning outcomes and assessment approaches. The review revealed that learning outcomes could be classified by knowledge, competencies and values. When integrated, these three enable a fourth, more tacit learning outcome - readiness to act. 

Knowledge and competencies – are more readily formalised as learning outcomes, whilst values and readiness to act are more likely to be implicit because they are emergent, personal and very hard to assess. Formalised learning outcomes lend shape and scope to what students should focus on at their current level of learning, educators need to consider how to bring the more aspirational learning outcomes – values and readiness to act – into the ethos, culture and practices of the curriculum.

  1. What ESD pedagogies, assessments and teaching approaches are used, and why?

Effective pedagogical approaches fostering transformative ESD outcomes often centre around problem or project-based learning. These approaches frequently involve multidisciplinary or interdisciplinary teams, initiated by real-world, local, or global challenges. Sustainability challenges, often referred to as 'wicked problems,' present students with opportunities to collaborate both within and beyond their discipline. This collaboration aids in developing competency in integrated problem-solving and enhances their self-awareness, helping them understand what they know and what they can learn from others.

However, implementing multi or interdisciplinary practices often requires strategic input to overcome institutional barriers, such as time-tabling, physical spaces and quality assurance processes related to credit and assessment. While there is evidence suggesting that students generally find this type of learning enjoyable, institutions aiming to embed this approach will require more evidence regarding the impact of these practices on student outcomes.

  1. What student outcomes and perceptions are associated with these ESD practices, and what barriers are encountered?

Whilst 82% of students want to live as sustainable citizens, this does not always translate into an interest in learning about sustainability. The complexity of the subject matter, diverse pedagogical methods and the necessity for interdisciplinary collaboration and aspirational learning outcomes collectively present significant challenges for both learners and educators. Moreover, a considerable number of students grapple with eco-anxiety. ESD is designed to empower students to take action. Howeve, it demands a thoughtful approach to prevent students from feeling overwhelmed and becoming disengaged.

Next steps for ESD

In addition to students showing interest in the sustainability agenda, there is an increasing demand from employers for professionals who understand sustainable development principles. However, despite these drivers from stakeholders, institutions aiming to embed ESD will require additional evidence regarding its impact on student outcomes and the barriers encountered in implementation. Implementing such strategic change requires an evidence base comprising effective teaching and assessment practices and professional development. It also requires an institutional approach to community and employer engagement, as well as  organisational and distributed leadership to ensure that addressing ESD and the Sustainable Development Goals is not merely a task for the enthusiasts or a tick-box exercise, but a genuine call to action.

We feel it is important for voices to be heard to stimulate debate and share good practice. Blogs on our website are the views of the author and don’t necessarily represent those of Advance HE.

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